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Russia’s Online Campaign To Destroy Yulia Navalnaya

Over the next couple of days after news of Navalny’s death, Solovyov shared more content designed to suggest Navalnaya was having an affair, including a doctored image that appeared to show Navalnaya embracing Russian entrepreneur Evgeny Chichvarkin, who in the past has financed Navalny’s work.

The original image, taken in 2013, shows Navalnaya embracing her husband after he was released from jail. The doctored image has been in circulation for several years, with Reset’s researchers finding examples of it being shared online in 2021. The fake image has been widely debunked by fact-checkers.

In the wake of Navalny’s death, however, the image has taken on a new life and has been shared widely on X, where it has been viewed well over a million times, and on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, as well as on Russian social media platform Vkontakte. It has also been used on many Russian blogs and websites that amplify pro-Kremlin disinformation in multiple European languages.

A non-fake image, showing Navalnaya standing alongside Chichvarkin on a beach, is also being shared to support the false claim that the pair are having an affair.

Navalnaya, who has also said she was happy to be a politician’s wife rather than a politician, was thrust onto the world stage in the wake of her husband’s death, and within hours of his death being announced, she spoke at the highly influential Munich Security Conference. Last week, she spoke with EU leaders before jetting to San Francisco where she met with US president Joe Biden.

Global recognition came with some issues. Her X account, which she created last week, was suspended when the platform’s automated systems triggered an alert after Navalnaya amassed 100,000 followers in the space of just three days. As she struggled to recover her account, others on the platforms were seeking to undermine her campaign to get justice for her husband by sharing a video that claimed Navalnaya was faking her grief over her husband’s death..

The fake video was branded with the logo of the American Psychological Association (APA) and featured footage of US psychologist Paul Ekman, who wrote the bestselling book How to Tell if Someone Is Lying. The video, which looks like it was taken from the Instagram stories of the official APA account, attributes a statement to Ekman that Navalnaya’s grief for her husband’s death is simulated. However, no such video exists on the organization’s social media profiles or its website. A spokesperson for Ekman subsequently told an independent Russian news outlet that his work “does not include consultation on personal, legal, or political matters.”

Also on X, accounts linked to the Matryoshka influence campaign, which targets journalists and fact-checking organizations and was exposed earlier this year by the Antibot4Navalny researchers. Accounts that have been linked to this group have been posting videos claiming that Navalnaya had an abortion last month.

One account reviewed by WIRED that is part of this campaign responded to dozens of posts on X by news organizations in Europe and America by embedding the same fake video and making the same comment: “Yulia Navalnaya had an abortion in January 2024 at a private German clinic.” None of which is true.