MOSCOW — Russia’s pro-war influencers are generating big advertising revenues from their social media coverage of the conflict, the BBC has found.
Alongside a daily ration of gruesome videos of drone strikes and false claims about Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, they share ads for anything from cryptocurrency to fashion.
Known in Russia as “Z-Bloggers” because of their support for a war often symbolized by the letter Z, they are often embedded with the Russian army and post footage from the front line where they call on young Russians to enlist.
Since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, pro-war influencers have gained millions of followers on Telegram, the social media platform many Russians turned to after President Vladimir Putin banned Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
That explosion in users has led to a surge in Telegram’s advertising market. War influencers have taken advantage of this. They sell ad spaces for companies looking to reach their young audiences.
To find out how much they charge, members of the BBC’s Global Disinformation Team posed as hotel owners interested in posting ads on their channels. We reached out to some of the most prominent players.
One of them was Alexander Kots, a veteran correspondent for a pro-government newspaper who became a war influencer, with more than 600,000 followers on his personal Telegram channel.
Semyon Pegov, known as WarGonzo, was another. Perhaps the most well-known Z blogger, he has more than 1.3 million followers.
Alexander Kots said it would cost 48,000-70,000 rubles (£440-£680) per post on his channel, depending on how long the ad was kept at the top of his Telegram feed. WarGonzo quoted us the equivalent of £1,550 per post.
Top war influencers post at least one ad per day, so their potential income dwarfs Russia’s average monthly wage of 66,000 rubles (£550).
An advertising agent working with Wagner-linked channels quoted us the equivalent of £260 per ad in Grey Zone, a Telegram channel with exclusive access to Wagner and over 600,000 followers.
To advertise on the channel of Alexander Simonov, a correspondent for the Ria Fan website founded by late mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, the agent quoted £180 per post.
Another Ria Fan reporter, Alexander Yaremchuk, has fewer followers so his rates are lower, at £86 per post.
While some of the Z-bloggers have significant experience of war reporting for state-run media, others like Maryana Naumova have no professional training.
A former powerlifter, she took a reporting course on a Wagner mercenary base and now presents her own show on national TV.
The BBC tried to interview prominent war-bloggers, but Alexander Kots was the only one of them who agreed to talk.
Speaking from the occupied Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, he described himself as a reporter in an information war. Nevertheless he understood Russia’s propaganda depended, in part, on people like him.
“The Ministry of Defense often listens to us, and we have a direct channel to privately communicate information to them. It’s all behind the scenes, and I do that,” he said.
The growing market for the Z-bloggers’ material is sustained by a steady stream of exclusive videos. The footage brings them a diverse following, from domestic pro-war audiences to Western and Ukrainian analysts trying to understand what is really going on in the Russian trenches.
However, some of the videos posted by the pro-war bloggers are fake. Last March, prominent influencers including Alexander Kots posted a dashcam video that purported to show two Ukrainian soldiers stopping a car with a woman and a small child.
The gunmen in the video call the woman “a pig” for speaking Russian and threaten her. Z-bloggers said the video was a perfect example of how Ukraine treated civilians.
But we have geolocated this video to Makiivka, a town near Donetsk. This area of Ukraine has been occupied by pro-Russian proxy forces since 2014. It is impossible that a uniformed Ukrainian soldier could have operated in this occupied territory.
Added to that, the use of dashcams is illegal in Ukraine. The ban was imposed after the full-scale Russian invasion to keep troop movements secret.
And the cross on the vehicle is different from the one used by Ukraine’s armed forces. All these elements suggest the video was staged.
It is one of many fakes spread by Z-bloggers to encourage young Russians to support the war, and there is evidence they are succeeding.
In one video a mobilized Russian man says he went to a recruitment center after watching a number of videos from Vladlen Tatarsky, one of the most vocal bloggers. Tatarsky was killed in April 2023 at a meeting with his fans.
Another Russian man who volunteered to fight in Ukraine told a blogger he did so after watching a lot of WarGonzo reports. “I follow all the military news and analysis on Telegram,” he said, referring to the Z-bloggers.
Asked to respond to the rise of pro-Putin war bloggers on the platform, Telegram said it was the “last platform through which Russians can access independent media outlets like Meduza, uncensored international news like the BBC or [President] Zelensky’s speeches”.
A spokesman said while all parties were “treated equally”, Telegram respected international sanctions and blocked Russian state media “where laws forbid it”.
Over the course of the war, President Putin has shown his appreciation of the Z-bloggers’ efforts.
He appointed Alexander Kots to the presidential human rights council and made Semyon Pegov and several other bloggers members of a working group on mobilization.
In June, he invited pro-war influencers and state media reporters to the Kremlin for a two-hour long conversation. “The fight in the information space is a battlefield. A crucial battlefield,” he told them. “And I really count on your help.” — BBC