How Ukrainians are using pirated movies to bring war’s reality to Russian viewers
Image: Torrents of Truth/The Record
Daryna Antoniuk November 15, 2022

How Ukrainians are using pirated movies to bring war’s reality to Russian viewers

Daryna Antoniuk

November 15, 2022

How Ukrainians are using pirated movies to bring war’s reality to Russian viewers

In recent months, many Russians who have tried to watch popular shows like The Walking Dead and Stranger Things have been interrupted by an unusual advertisement. The shows cut to a man in a white hoodie, telling stories about the war in Ukraine.

“I know this is not the content you expected, but it is what you need to see. This is the illegal truth about Russia’s war in Ukraine,” the man says, before clips start playing of a house exploding from a missile strike, parents crying over the body of a murdered child, or corpses being pulled out from under the rubble.

The man in the hoodie is a Ukrainian named Volodymyr Biriukov, one of eight journalists and activists behind a digital campaign called Torrents of Truth. Its members hack pirated movies on torrent trackers to bypass Russian censorship efforts and broadcast real footage from the war in Ukraine.

Most Russians today cannot easily stream popular Hollywood movies such as The Matrix or Doctor Strange. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, major international production companies and streaming services, including Netflix, Disney, and Warner Bros, have suspended the release of their films in Russia.

As a result, many Russians resort to digital piracy — some Russian cinemas even openly screen pirated movies to stay in business. Before the war, U.S.-produced films and TV series made up nearly 70% of the Russian film market.

These digital piracy habits attracted the attention of marketing agencies 72andSunny and Nebo. Earlier in April, the two companies — which have ties to Ukraine — launched Torrents of Truth to “spread the truth about the war in Ukraine among Russians.”

It works like this: Torrents of Truth members upload videos about the war to popular torrent trackers — RuTracker, Demonoid, or The Pirate Bay — disguising them as pirated movies, music, or Netflix shows. Each bootleg copy contains war footage, which interrupts the movie like a commercial.

Torrents of Truth is one of many Ukrainian digital initiatives that aim to break through Russian propaganda. Ukrainian hacktivists are trying to achieve similar goals with coordinated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, the defacement of Russian websites, and the hijacking of Kremlin-controlled TV channels.

Although it is difficult to assess the impact of these actions, since there are still no mass anti-war or anti-regime protests in Russia, Biriukov is convinced that all сyber efforts give Ukrainians an advantage against Russia. After all, Russian propaganda still relies heavily on television, which has less influence on the younger generation.

“The internet can be the antidote to Russian propaganda,” he told The Record. “If Ukraine wasn’t so successful on the information front, perhaps the world would believe more in what Russia says.”

Bypassing Russian censorship

Since the beginning of the war, the Kremlin has tried to hide from ordinary people the full extent of its military activity in Ukraine. For example, the government ordered the Russian media to call the war a “special operation” aimed at “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” Ukraine.

To break through the Russian iron curtain, Ukrainians sent messages to the Russians on social networks or even called them using phone numbers leaked by hacktivists from Russian websites and state registers.

All these efforts were chaotic and poorly coordinated. Torrents of Truth emerged as a more reliable alternative. 

“Before launching the project, we interviewed Russian oppositionists to understand which messages would be more persuasive,” Kokoshko told The Record.

For example, it turned out that many Russians don’t know where to get reliable information about the war, so in every folder with a pirated movie Torrents of Truth adds a text file with a list of trustworthy news sources.

Another distinctive feature of the campaign is that it doesn’t specifically blame Russians for the war and the atrocities of its army, but rather calls on them to act.

In total, Torrents of Truth uploaded 21 torrent files on RuTracker, Demonoid, The Pirate Bay, 1337x, and other torrent trackers popular in Russia. Among these files are newly-released movies and series such as The Matrix, Ozark, Stranger Things, and Peaky Blinders.

The most difficult part of the process was to upload the film to the torrent platform and not get banned, according to Kokoshko. Another challenge was to make the content popular, as movies that are downloaded the most get the most visibility.

Some torrent files have more than a thousand downloads, she said, but it is impossible to say how many Russians have viewed the content.

Torrents of Truth has estimated that around 43% of Russians reportedly obtain movies and TV shows illegally. “It means that about 62 million people in Russia have the potential to be targeted by our cyber action,” the project founders said.

The risk of telling the truth

Telling the truth in Russia is dangerous. The Kremlin has labeled Russian opposition journalists and celebrities “foreign agents,” forcing them to leave the country. Independent foreign media are also banned in Russia.

Those who oppose the Kremlin’s disinformation narrative can be fined up to $45,000 or imprisoned for up to 15 years.

The developers of Torrents of Truth have not yet received threats from the Russians, because the name of the project does not appear in the video that the Russians download on torrents. 

Volodymyr Biriukov

Around the same time the project was launched, however, hackers leaked Biriukov’s personal data, including his phone number and passport data, and published it on the Telegram messaging app.

“The Russians started threatening me online and continue to do so because I tell the truth about the war,” Biriukov said. He does not know whether these threats are related to his involvement in the project or his other activities. Biriukov is a well-known person abroad – he’s often invited to speak on foreign television about the war in Ukraine and Russian propaganda.

The threats did not frighten Biriukov, he insists. He said Torrents of Truth will continue its cyber campaign until the war ends or the Russians stop stealing content.

In his opinion, if other hacktivists continue their information attacks, sooner or later they will give results. “This is also propaganda,” he said. “If you keep repeating your message, eventually people will start to think that maybe something in their country is wrong and that what we are telling them is true.”

Daryna Antoniuk is a freelance reporter for The Record based in Ukraine. She writes about cybersecurity startups, cyberattacks in Eastern Europe and the state of the cyberwar between Ukraine and Russia. She previously was a tech reporter for Forbes Ukraine. Her work has also been published at Sifted, The Kyiv Independent and The Kyiv Post.