Patrick Lancaster seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
In February, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lancaster seemed to be first on the scene to report that three Russian civilians had been killed when Ukrainian forces set off an improvised explosive device (IED) along the country's eastern border with Russia.
A month later, as the war raged, Lancaster reportedly found himself trailing a Russian soldier through the burnt-out remains of a Mariupol school that had allegedly been used as a base for Ukraine’s military. In the basement, Lancaster’s footage showed the body of a local woman who the Russian soldiers claimed had been raped by members of the Ukrainian military and had a swastika painted in blood on her chest.
“It was a base of the National Guard and presumably the fighters of the Azov Battalion,” a Russian soldier told Lancaster on his YouTube channel.
But the explosion on the Russian border turned out to be a fake, concocted by the Kremlin as a way to justify its imminent invasion. And evidence suggests that the soldiers who painted the swastika on the woman’s body were from Russia.
As Russia’s invasion began, the EU and tech platforms moved swiftly to stem the flow of disinformation coming from the Kremlin about the conflict. But those measures have mostly failed, and for Lancaster, the war has been a huge boon, helping him boost his YouTube subscribers from just over 50,000 when the war began to over 500,000 followers today.
It was no surprise that Lancaster, a former Navy intelligence officer from St. Louis, was the one sharing these stories. Over the last eight years, he has embedded himself with pro-Russian separatist forces in Donbas, spread pro-Kremlin disinformation about the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, worked with numerous Kremlin-backed Tv stations, and most recently appeared on Alex Jones’ Infowars spreading pro-Kremlin narratives about the war.
Lancaster is just one of a dozen Western influencers from eight countries who’ve seen their follower counts skyrocket as they evade the restrictions put in place by the EU and tech companies to help spread Russian propaganda, according to new research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue that was shared with VICE News.
Lancaster did not respond to VICE News’ efforts to contact him for comment on the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s report.
Rather than their audiences shrinking as a result of the limitations imposed in recent months, these disinformation influencers have seen their following on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram explode since the war began.
Last month, the 12 influencers had a cumulative total of 1.57 million subscribers on YouTube, and videos on their channels have been viewed 187.6 million times. Along with Lancaster, the list includes Canadian activist Eva Bartlett, who in the past has pushed conspiracy theories about the activities of the White Helmets in Syria. Alina Lipp, a German content creator who has over 160,000 followers on Telegram, is also on the list; she’s claimed that supporting Ukraine is akin to supporting Nazism.
The video Lancaster posted claiming to show a woman who’d been raped by Ukrainian soldiers has over 660,000 views on YouTube, and though the platform has placed a label on the video warning “it may be inappropriate,” it is still available to view.
“The increase in followership for the 12 influencers demonstrates that there is a growing audience receptive to this kind of content,” Sasha Morinière, an Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News, adding that the disinformation is having an impact.
“In France for instance, more than half of French people believe at least one of the Kremlin theories on the origins of the war in Ukraine,” Morinière said. “This is concerning and these influencers can play a part in this.”
Key to Russia’s effort to justify its brutal war on Ukraine is the narrative that the invasion is designed to rid Ukraine of Nazis.
This baseless conspiracy has taken hold inside Russia, thanks to the Kremlin’s strict control of the media inside its own borders, but elsewhere in the world, Russia has struggled to get its message across.
That’s partly because the EU ordered tech platforms to scrub all references to Russian state media outlets like RT and Sputnik from search results, and ban social media accounts linked to those entities.
That’s where Lancaster and his fellow influencers come in, covertly spreading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative after the Kremlin grants them access to Russian military personnel and specially picked locations on the battlefield – where they will find “evidence” that appears to back up the Kremlin's claims.
While there’s no traditional path to becoming a Kremlin influencer, Lancaster’s background didn’t suggest he would end up being a pawn in Putin’s disinformation campaign. In June 2001 he joined the Navy, where he worked as a technician maintaining the equipment on board ships such as the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. He worked as a cryptologic technician and likely held a top-secret clearance, according to Navy documents reported by Grid. During his service, he took part in the U.S. government’s War on Terror in response to the 9/11 attacks, stationed in the Persian Gulf.
After leaving the Navy, Lancaster worked as a real estate agent in St. Louis, according to his LinkedIn profile, but in 2011 his career took a completely different path when he decided to become an independent journalist based in Europe.
In 2014, while he was in Greece, he saw the Maidan revolution taking place in Ukraine and immediately moved to the country to cover the story, according to an interview Lancaster gave to a newspaper based in Donetsk in March 2022. By April 2014 he had settled in Donbas, and later that year he met the woman who would become his wife.
Since taking up residence in the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, Lancaster has worked for a range of Kremlin-backed media outlets, working as a freelance reporter or simply selling his footage about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine to those outlets.
Lancaster also relies heavily on crowdfunded donations to facilitate his work. As well as accepting donations to his Russian bank account, he also uses sites like Buy Me a Coffee and Patreon.
Analysis of recent donations to his Buy Me A Coffee account, conducted by Ukrainian open source intelligence group Molfar and shared with VICE News, shows that Lancaster has approximately 50 followers paying him $1,250 a month. Overall, the account has collected donations totaling $77,000.
On Patreon, Lancaster has over 1,000 paying subscribers with tiers ranging from $3 to $200 per month. Subscribers are promised early access to his latest reports and private live streams, and even one-on-one video calls to discuss possible further areas of coverage.
Social media posts reviewed by Molfar show that Lancaster’s wife initially refused to leave Donetsk at the outbreak of the war, but on March 14 moved to Russia with their two sons. Lancaster visited her there in April, according to a photo posted on his wife’s social media accounts.
Lancaster was back in the U.S. as recently as 2021, leaving a Google Maps review for a local storage service. “By far the best storage place in St. Louis, hands down,” he wrote under a five-star review.
Another member of the dozen Western influencers tracked by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue is Graham Phillips, a British man who has worked closely with Lancaster since 2014, when both of them moved to the Donbas region.
Like Lancaster, Phillips has seen his social media following grow significantly since the war began, with his YouTube subscriber base more than doubling to over 315,000 in the last six months.
Despite Phillips being accused of spreading Kremlin propaganda by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and of carrying out a possible war crime by another British lawmaker, his YouTube account remains active.
However, it appears that his relationship with Lancaster may be at an end. In a Facebook post last month, Phillips criticized Lancaster as a journalist and said they no longer communicate directly. Lancaster, according to Phillips, is nothing more than a “harmless clown who runs around in a panic, like a rabbit in headlights spouting phrases in broken English.”
In a follow-up comment, Phillips calls Lancaster an “illiterate, grifting charlatan, with a journalistic acumen and ability lower than a potted plant.”
Lancaster’s latest YouTube video, entitled “Headed To Frontline With The Russian Army” was posted on Thursday morning, and within hours had clocked up tens of thousands of views.
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