As of March 7, the Russian government encouraged Russians to download Western entertainment illegally from “unfriendly countries” by decriminalizing intellectual property theft and lifting copyright laws, in a bid to counterattack the economic sanctions.
Turning this into a loophole and an opportunity to bypass censorship, we launched Torrents of Truth: a cyberaction that enabled journalists to upload reports about the war situation in Ukraine, camouflaged as pirated torrents of popular movies, series, softwares, music and books in Russia.
The journalistic reports were uploaded across P2P platforms popular in Russia and reached Russian citizens that were attempting to pirate content such as The Batman, Doctor Strange or Adobe Photoshop 2022. Those who downloaded the pirated torrents were greeted with a message, as soon as they opened them, saying (in Russian) “This isn’t what you expected to see. But this is something that you should see. The truth.” Users of the torrents were also then invited to open the ReadMe.txt file attached to the torrent package, including sources of information about the Russian attacks, an extensive list of verified links, resources and tools people can use to seek the truth.
In one of the most hard-hitting reports of the initiative, Ukrainian journalist Volodymyr Biriukov talks about what he witnessed during the war in Irpin and Bucha, “I saw with my own eyes how exactly people were killed. But all this can be stopped if you speak the truth, if you don't remain silent, if you send this video and other videos related to the war to other people.”
When Russia lifted copyright laws at the beginning of March and essentially encouraged its citizens to download films, series, softwares, games and books from “unfriendly countries”, we immediately asked ourselves: what if this could be an opportunity? What if this could be a chance for freedom of speech to strike back? What if this could be an actual loophole, a way for Russians to access the very thing their government had forbidden and silenced? The truth. The truth about this unfair war. From that moment on, the question was never IF we should do it, but HOW to do it—no matter how difficult it would get.
There were quite a few arduous challenges to tackle in order to pull it off, especially on the technical side. Indexing the torrents on popular Russian trackers without getting banned or noticed was a delicate operation: we created multiple fake user accounts to upload the content but also to endorse it with comments and likes. We even create fake torrent trackers like http://trutracker.xyz/ or http://torrus.co/. And we also set up a dozen of “seedboxes”: high-bandwidth remote servers located in Poland, the Netherlands, France and Germany to broadcast the torrents of truth at very high speed.
It took a while to create all the disguised content as we wanted to ensure Russians would watch it. That’s why, for instance, with all films and series, we made sure to keep a bit of the original content upfront so it would give viewers the time to get comfortable and drop their guard before the truth hits. We also carefully looked into Russian trends and what content from western countries was popular in Russia at the time of the launch; what films, series, software and music were the most downloaded (or awaited). This way we created 21 torrents that we knew would be extremely in-demand and get a maximum of downloads.
Yet another key side to the campaign was actually... the rest of the world. Indeed, in order to make the torrents popular on Russian trackers, we needed high numbers of seeders (uploaders) so we thought: let’s make it public. Indeed, anyone, anywhere could help spread the truth in Russia by sparing a bit of bandwidth and seeding the Torrents of Truth from their own computer.
While punishments range from fines of $45,000 to prison terms of up to 15 years for anyone going against the Kremlin disinformation narrative, our cyberaction has enabled 4 journalists to speak up about the truth of the war in Ukraine—providing them with an undercover channel to keep spreading unbiased, trustworthy news, in a country where TV and newspapers aren’t allowing it anymore.
In total, 21 torrents files have been uploaded and seeded on RuTracker, Demonoid, The Pirate Bay or 1337x and other torrent trackers popular in Russia. Each torrent embeds a report from a journalist on the Russian invasion in Ukraine camouflaged as a pirated film, series, software, music or book.
43 percent of Russians reportedly obtain movies and TV shows illegally, which means that about 62 million persons in the Federation of Russia were potentially exposed and targeted by our cyberaction.
And while it is impossible to know precisely how many times in total the torrents have been downloaded in Russia, we can tell how many times they’ve been downloaded from our own servers. On the day of the launch, it was around 400 downloads. As we speak this total is so far over 13.500 downloads and counting. Now imagine out of these 13.500 downloads, if only one works. If only one Russian starts doubting, if only one Russian breaks free from the Kremlin disinformation narrative.