Remakea synthetic media app backed by a16z and developed in Ukraine, has added push notifications informing its global userbase of around 200 million of Russia’s invasion of the country – urging people to #StandWithUkraine, including by watermarking videos created with face swap with the app.
All videos created in the app are now watermarked with the Ukrainian flag and #StandWithUkraine hashtag.
When the app is first opened after this update, it also displays an image of civilians sheltering in Kyiv, with a caption describing the image as “evidence” of Russia’s attack on Israel. Ukraine.
The message also calls for Russia to be excluded from the SWIFT international banking payment system – in order to “stop the war”.
Reface said another incoming app update will urge all users to “make a statement against the war in Ukraine.”
It also directs users to resources where they can help Ukraine.
The startup launched the anti-war campaign over the weekend and so far it says 9 million messages have been sent, including 2 million to users in Russia.
It’s a surreal spin for an app that typically turns reality into fantasy by mapping users’ selfies to video clips of famous people, allowing consumers to experience seconds of imaginary pleasure.
However, with Reface employees directly confronting Russian aggression, the team decided they had to do something to raise awareness of the situation and encourage people to protest.
Sending a message to TechCrunch from Ukraine, co-founder Dima Shvets said: “Reface has launched a massive information campaign and sent push notifications to all Russian users, showing the evidence of Russian attacks in our cities , asking people to stand with Ukraine and go for protests. Additionally, we have added in-app messages to users around the world to support our country, and now every video made with our app has a watermark with #standwithukraine and the Ukrainian flag.
“We understand how risky this campaign is and we are taking them all. We already have a lot of reviews and 1 star reports from those who weren’t ready to see the truth,” he added.
Reface targets specific messages to its 5.5 million users in Russia who all receive push notifications urging them to protest, along with a link to a video showing a slideshow of war footage from inside Ukraine – including several images of burnt and bomb-damaged buildings, as well as photos of civilians trying to take shelter.
The captions accompanying the slideshow in Russia read: “Washing the shame off Russia’s face”; “We can stop the war together”; “Flood the streets”; and “Show the world we’re against it”.
“The initial goal is to get the real information out to Russians and encourage them to protest, as they don’t have access to independent media or trustworthy sources,” a Reface spokeswoman told us.
“We understand the risks and take them all, but it’s such a small price to pay for our freedom. And we hope the App Store and Google Play will support us.
The Kremlin’s grip on mainstream media in Russia means that Russian citizens are regularly exposed to state propaganda, such as Putin’s claim that the invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation”, not an act of war and unprovoked aggression.
This means that many ordinary Russians may not have seen the footage from inside Ukraine since Putin’s armed forces began bombarding the neighboring country from land, air and sea.
The Kremlin has also taken steps to prevent its propaganda outlets from being restricted by mainstream foreign social media platforms.
On Friday, the Russian government said it was partially restricting access to Facebook – apparently in retaliation for the social media platform applying fact-checking labels to Kremlin-linked media.
By taking a stand and denouncing Russia’s war in Ukraine, Reface could risk a similar action from Roskomnadzor. The Russian internet regulator could, for example, rely on Apple and Google to eject its applications from their mobile stores.
In September, the two tech giants bowed to pressure from the Russian state to remove from their stores a tactical voting app created by the organization of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Roskomnadzor had threatened them with fines if they did not remove the Smart Voting app.
The internet regulator has also targeted VPN apps to try to make it harder for Russian citizens to bypass local blocks.
However, the information-shaping Russian cyberOps extend well beyond the hard blocks. And it’s at least possible that the sudden influx of 1-star reviews for Reface since adding anti-war messages is a coordinated action by Kremlin-backed disinformation operatives trying to discredit the app and to discourage its use as part of broader anti-Ukrainian propaganda. efforts.
It should also be noted that, announcing a new sanctions package in recent days, the EU has added a notorious Russian troll factory (aka Internet Research Agency) and its oligarch financier (Evgeny Prigozhin) to its expanded list of sanctioned entities and individuals.
However, Reface said it’s unclear whether the negative reviews of his app since going public with an anti-war message is a coordinated action or not. (It’s – of course – entirely possible and probably very likely that its decision to push anti-war messaging into what is otherwise purely an entertainment app simply annoyed some of its users.)
Given the negative responses, Reface urges people to support its ability to “continue to inform the world about the current situation in Ukraine”, as it puts it, helping it “keep our App Store prices high. and the Google Play Store”.
So even app rankings can be appropriated as a cyberwar propaganda battleground, it seems.
Asked about the situation on the ground facing the Reface team, many of whom are now working from a war zone, the startup told us that most of its staff are still in Ukraine. Although he said some had been able to go abroad or had been working remotely abroad since December
Male employees generally cannot leave the country since the invasion due to government restrictions.
For those staff who stayed, the Reface spokeswoman said many moved to western Ukraine to try to find a safer place, while others stayed in Kyiv “helping informationally and technologically from bomb shelters”.
Some have voluntarily joined the homeland defense forces, she also said.
“Despite the fact that the team was forced to part ways, we have never been so united,” she told us, adding, “We are brave and strong enough and won’t let the Russian invaders get us. destroy. However, we will not stop this war without the full support of the world.
Reface urges world leaders to impose tougher sanctions on Russia and provide more support (like weapons) to Ukraine.
Over SWIFT, EU leaders had appeared to be hesitant about a ban – but on Friday the bloc agreed to sanctions that shut out 70% of Russia’s banking market, among a number of other measures (via Reuters).
Later this weekend – in a new stage which she described as “unprecedented” – the president of the European Union announcement new measures against Russian state media spokespersons, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik (and their affiliates).
In the declarationUrsula von der Leyen said that the The Kremlin’s “media machine”… will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and divide our Union” – adding that the EU is “developing tools to ban their toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe”.
It’s unclear exactly what the EU intends to do, or how a ban would work in practice — whether it would apply not just to the TV channels themselves but to the online platforms that host their content ( like YouTube) — or, indeed, whether it’s even meaningful to talk about blocking the Russian propaganda machine in the era of porous (dis)information — but the fact that the bloc says it wants to try is remarkable.
In digital policy-making, EU lawmakers are often very reluctant to come up with measures where they could be accused of speech policing. But it seems Putin pushed them over that line.