Creatives hack photos of Putin to send information about Ukraine to Russians

Screen shot of the PNG Protests ad

By inserting code in metadata, the creative duo at B&T is spreading truthful information to people in Russia to beat out the Kremlin’s propaganda.

Before Brian Farkas began using digital images to try to break through Russian government censorship, his main recent photography experience was taking pictures of Waffles. 

That’s the name of his dog, and he uses the photos for an annual calendar.

But Farkas has also used his skills as an art director to help address issues he cares about, such as increasing voting access and saving drive-in movie theaters. So after Russia invaded Ukraine in February and caused a humanitarian crisis, Farkas and his creative partner, Tylynne McCauley, read a plea from creatives in Ukraine and wanted to help. 

This week, they launched a campaign, called .PNG Protests, that uses metadata within digital images to inform people in Russia about what is actually happening on the ground in Ukraine — as opposed to the propaganda the Kremlin was feeding them.  

“We saw all these stories about the news websites getting banned, about social media getting banned…and we just felt like these people deserve to have access to the truth,” said Farkas, who is based in Los Angeles. “This is Putin’s war; this is not the Russian people’s war. I think truth is actually a really important weapon. If enough people know the truth, it can really turn the tide.”

Using photos of Putin — such as one of him sitting shirtless at a body of water and another of him at a rally — the creatives have transmitted secret messages to Russian people by inserting hidden code into the metadata. They’ve also created and sent a guide on how to access online resources blocked by the Russian government. 

To access the guide, which was produced by Meduza, an independent news outlet that was also blocked in Russia, recipients just needed to download the image and click “Get Info.”

As part of the project, the creatives also inserted messages to try to dispel the Kremlin narrative of the war in Ukraine. One read: “If NATOs army wanted to attack Russia and was preparing for it, as Putin says, why didn't they do this in the '90s when the USSR collapsed and our country was so weak? Instead, the US and Europe were trying to help Russia to rebuild.”

In another photo, they embedded an interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

The creatives urged people to send the photos to people in Russia and published a guide explaining how to insert similar messages into photos. “We want this to be something that people can take on and make their own and spread their own messages,” Farkas said.

Farkas and McCauley, the creative duo behind B&T, were inspired to help people affected by the war in Ukraine by a brief from ISD Group, a Ukrainian ad agency, labeled “Prevent WW3.” One of the agency’s requests was to “Hack Russian propaganda.” 

It stated: “Most Russians support the war and thousands of victims because television tells them about Nazism in Ukraine every day. The Russian media produces fakes and distorts reality to portray the West as the enemy. Find a way to convey the truth to the Russian people and to make them finally believe it.”

Public-opinion polls have shown that a majority of people in Russia support the invasion of Ukraine, an outcome that analysts attribute to the lack of a free press, misinformation and fear.

Farkas is unsure how many people have seen the campaign, but said people in Russia and Ukraine have reached out to him about it. He also posted a link to the project on Reddit, where it received 2,500 upvotes before moderators removed it for being too political.

“For us, it’s really about making these small cracks that can add up to something bigger,” he said. “We are really inspired by all the efforts of creativity that are going on around the world, and we hope that this can be something that we start…and makes a big difference in the end.”

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