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Cameo is being used for political propaganda — by tricking the stars involved

Lindsay Lohan and other celebrities were tricked into calling for the ouster of Moldova's president through videos requested on the Cameo app that were edited and posted on TikTok.
TikTok/Screenshot by NPR
Lindsay Lohan and other celebrities were tricked into calling for the ouster of Moldova's president through videos requested on the Cameo app that were edited and posted on TikTok.

Updated February 27, 2024 at 1:11 PM ET

The video first appeared on TikTok last fall, with a Russian title card reading, "an urgent appeal from Hollywood stars to Maia Sandu."

Sandu is the pro-European president of Moldova, a small country tucked between Romania and Ukraine that's long been in the shadow of Russian influence. She's repeatedly criticized Russia's invasion of Ukraine and is a frequent target of pro-Russian political attacks.

The video is bizarre. It opens with a series of celebrities cheerfully greeting Sandu, as Moldova's national anthem plays in the background. It cuts quickly from action star Dolph Lundgren to Lindsay Lohan of Mean Girls to Brian Baumgartner from the sitcom The Office to rapper Xzibit and others, all addressing the camera selfie-style.

Then things get weirder. The celebrities, likely reading from a phonetically transliterated script, start repeating the same phrase in halting Russian: "Davaite Skinem Sandu." That translates to, "Let's get rid of Sandu."

"We, Hollywood stars, support the people of Moldova in their desire to overthrow you, Sandu," the text on screen reads.

Why the sudden celebrity interest in a former Soviet state that's home to just 2.5 million people?

It turns out, the stars were paid to make these videos through the app Cameo — but they had no idea they would be used like this.

Cameo allows anyone to pay a celebrity to record a personalized video, from birthday well wishes to congratulations on retirement to pranks on friends. Sometimes they're used to troll the Cameo performers themselves.

Lately, Cameo stars have been unwittingly recruited for political ends. Last year, pro-Russian propagandists used Cameo videos to falsely depict celebrities including Elijah Wood, Mike Tyson, and Priscilla Presley urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to seek help for addiction.

The video targeting Sandu used similar trickery. Actor and martial artist Mark Dacascos, who greets Sandu in the video with a friendly "Aloha," received a Cameo request from a user who went by the name of Mandy, Dacascos's representative told NPR. He was told the video was meant for a person named Sandu who was becoming a stuntwoman.

Instead, the videos were scrubbed of their Cameo watermarks and edited together into a supercut claiming Hollywood had turned on Sandu. It spread widely on TikTok, Facebook, and in pro-Russian Telegram channels, getting hundreds of thousands of views, and was picked up by Russian media, according to researcher Victoria Olari at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Olari, who's based in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, first spotted the video in her "For You" feed on TikTok. She thought it seemed odd from the start, from the warm smiles to the fact they addressed Sandu by her last name. That's characteristic of Russian, not English, usage, Olari said.

"The meaning of the messages they are delivering is different, you know, it doesn't match the vibe of the video," she said. "And also the fact that these people who are appearing in this video speak Russian in their bad accent. It was really hard even for me to understand what they are saying."

The video carries the logo of an independent Moldovan TV channel, but DFRLab was unable to find any evidence that the station posted the video or had any connection to it.

Olari did not attribute the TikTok video to a particular person or group. But she said attacks on Sandu are ramping up ahead of Moldova's presidential election this fall, and this video fits that strategy.

"It's actually a discrediting campaign, part of a larger manipulation campaign that they are doing right now in Moldova," she said.

While the video might be received by some Moldovans as showing real opposition to Sandu from Hollywood stars, Olari said it's also about mocking Western celebrities as being willing to do anything for money.

"It was just for fun for them," she said of whoever was behind the video. "They openly said that it was a trick."

Cameo says tricking performers in this way goes against its rules. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment on whether it was investigating the incident, but said when it finds violations, it removes the problematic content and bans the account that purchased it.

Most of the performers who appeared in the TikTok video targeting Sandu didn't respond to NPR's questions.

Actor Eric Roberts (the brother of Julia Roberts and father of Emma Roberts) was among the celebrities who received a Cameo request for a Sandu video. In a statement, he said Cameo has largely been "a friendly thing, giving a little bit of happiness to so many people." But he called the incident "a terrifying scam."

"We would never participate in something like what was created out of context in a criminally misleading and manipulative, insanely dishonest way," Roberts said.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.