By Maryana Metelska
What the Russians are good at is creating and spreading disinformation. They don’t change their methods for decades but adapt them to modern realities. The rapid development of the Internet only contributes to the spread of this disinformation virus. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, the Russians became more active on the information front, directing their efforts to rock the boat both in Ukraine and in the West in general. Their goal is obvious; they want to weaken Ukraine from the inside and disrupt its relations with partners and, in general, with the whole world. Then it would be easier to destroy.
Russian disinformation is very diverse. If we were to describe each case in detail, we would need to write a whole book about it. However, for personal protection against disinformation, it is enough to know its general workings. “Volyn Online” briefly explains how propaganda and disinformation work, why these are two separate notions, and why you should not take their word for it from everyone who says they are against Putin’s war. It also analyzes dangerous narratives for Ukraine.
The information front of the Russian Federation – how the Russians create disinformation and what methods of information weapons you need to know about
Most people associate Russian propaganda with people like Skabeieva or Solovyov, who spout nonsense about Nazis in Ukraine, US Biolabs, and killer geese. However, hostile propaganda and disinformation go way beyond concocting primitive fakes.
First, it is worth distinguishing the terms “propaganda” and “disinformation”, which are elements of informational and psychological warfare.
Disinformation is false or manipulative information that is purposefully created to cause harm. Truth can even be a part of disinformation if it meets the set goal – that is, only that part of accurate information is presented that is needed to create the desired “picture”. A characteristic feature of disinformation is regularity; it occurs over a long time and is implemented by a group of people. One of the main tactics of disinformation is to fill the information space with numerous mutually exclusive messages to disorient the information consumer and subject them to manipulation.
Propaganda can be positive (e.g. propaganda about a healthy lifestyle). The primary purpose of propaganda is to convince the target audience of something, shape its perceptions and guide its behaviour in the right direction.
Also, you have probably heard about such a concept as a “narrative”. It means an interpretation, a description of events from a certain point of view. The hostile narrative will always target emotions and aim for vulnerabilities. E.g., “Refugees hate Western Ukraine because there are no hostilities there”; “Residents of Western Ukraine are against refugees because they will take all the jobs”, etc. The narrative always contains both true and false information at the same time. This is done to preserve some truthful information that can “hook” a reader and increase the distribution of the narrative on social networks. (why would you doubt the information that has a fact mentioned?). Narratives often contradict each other aiming to polarize society, destabilize the situation, etc. Thus, they will spread the narrative that the West is hostile to refugees in the East. And in the West – that all the residents of Donbas are waiting for the arrival of the Russians, etc.
In 2018, the New York Times created a series of documentaries called “Operation Infection”, which talked about the methods of making and spreading disinformation that Russia has been using since the Cold War and until now. It is worth briefly mentioning some of these methods since the Russians currently use the same techniques on the information front. According to the film’s authors, they had reconstructed the seven commandments of Russian disinformation. They describe a time-tested step-by-step recipe for creating the perfect piece of fake news:
Rule 1. Polarize. Find any social differences (economic, ethnic, linguistic, etc.) and inflate these differences so much that people stop believing each other.
Rule 2. Create an audacious lie so big that no one would believe that anyone would even invent such a thing. And broadcast it everywhere.
Here we can recall an example from the time of the Cold War. In the 1980s, the KGB organized a disinformation campaign called “Operation INFECTION”: they spread information that HIV/AIDS was allegedly created in the USA as a biological weapon. Articles in the press replicated this disinformation so much that eventually, it made its way onto American television. The campaign aimed to worsen US relations with countries where American bases were located.
What do we see now? Russia is taking up the old ways again, inventing news about bio laboratories on the territory of Ukraine. As reported by “Volyn Online”, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation presented a “map” with such laboratories on the territory of Ukraine, and one of them is supposedly located in Lutsk. However, times have changed, so few people fell for this fake news except for the ruscists themselves and those intoxicated by their propaganda.
Rule 3. Wrap this lie around an authentic core. The most successful disinformation operations contain elements of truth that make the rest of the fake information palatable.
Rule 4. Hide your hands: Make it look like the message originated elsewhere.
Rule 5. Find yourself a useful idiot. They define useful idiots as those who mindlessly accept the Kremlin’s messages and promote them among the target audience – the foreign population they want to affect.
Rule 6. Deny everything. If someone is trying to disprove a fake, this is what this rule is for. You have to deny everything, to insist on your point of view aggressively.
Rule 7. Play the long game. Russia wants to play the long game and invests enormous resources in things that may not bear fruit for years. The accumulation of these operations over a long time will eventually produce a powerful political impact.
These seven simple rules were a powerful weapon of the KGB, and now Russia is using them again on the information front. And now, the age of the Internet is helping the Kremlin.
Disinformation is a type of active measure. A former KGB agent Yuriy Bezmenov, who fled to the West in the 1970s, described KGB activities in detail. These activities can also be called “ideological subversion” or “psychological warfare.” According to him, KGB agents spent 85% of their time on these active measures. This is a slow, grand process of “brainwashing”, which aims at changing the perception of reality to such an extent that, despite a large amount of information, no one can draw reasonable conclusions to protect themselves, society, and the country. This process consists of four main stages.
The first stage is demoralization. It takes 15-20 years to demoralize an entire country, that is, to educate at least one generation of students in an enemy country. Marxist-Leninist ideology had been rammed into the brains of at least three generations. A demoralized person can no longer determine the truth, even when given all the facts. It takes another 15-20 years to eliminate such “programming” by raising a new generation.
The second stage is destabilization. It takes from two to five years. Destabilization of the economy, foreign relations, and the defence system are essential at this stage.
The third stage is a crisis. It can take up to six weeks.
The fourth stage is normalization. It can last as long as you like. It comes after a crisis with a drastic change in the power structure and the economy.
The most common methods during the current information war are
- the big lie method (the bigger the lie, the more people believe it)
- repeated repetition (the lie is repeated until it is perceived as the truth)
- half-truth (the lie is mixed with the truth, and the more accurate it is, the more dangerous it becomes; some facts are easy to verify or everyone knows about them, and lies are imperceptibly thrown in between the points)
- a horror story (people are confronted with two evils: a terrible and a lesser evil; people choose the lesser evil; the method is used to justify bad deeds)
- “40 on 60” (60% of information is favourable towards the opponent to maintain the trust of the audience and the rest, 40%, is disinformation)
- “information avalanche” (judgments that contradict each other are spread at the same time to disorient the reader),
- “information laundering” (information is secretly given up to a particular expert in a specific mass media to hide its origin, and then, referring to a respectable source, it is replicated as much as possible)
- the method of anticipatory version (consists of the desire to inform the mass audience about the fact, the event, and its interpretation, first, without particularly worrying about the veracity of the message or its correspondence to reality; even if refuted, only a part of the mass audience will change the opinion they already formed).
Let’s look at some narratives to see how Russia is trying to defeat us on the information front.
“The West allocates billions of dollars, and we are still raising funds for drones and bulletproof vests”. The money was stolen: how ruscist propaganda manipulates us.
When the partners began to help Ukraine, sending weapons and allocating funds actively, betrayal came rushing from all possible directions. “Aid is being stolen” is the leading narrative propagandists never tire of. Remember, if there is even a drop of truth in the fake narrative, lies quickly go along. Given the many corruption facts in Ukraine, the public consumed this narrative rather organically.
For example, Yury Shvets promoted such messages actively. He is a former KGB agent who calls himself a fellow student of Putin (but in fact, he is not because he studied in the same university as Putin but for different years). Enough evidence is that Shvets is promoted by the infamous Dmytro Gordon, known in Ukrainian journalistic circles for never following the standards of journalism and for giving a platform to various pro-Russian politicians, bloggers, singers, etc. He actively promoted Shvets back in 2017.
It is worth emphasizing that Shvets’ YouTube channel appeared in June 2021, when Russia’s plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine became more pronounced. At first, Shvets recorded several videos a month, but when the war broke out, he began releasing videos every other day.
For some reason, his supporters do not ask themselves simple questions: why did such a shoddy journalist promote him, why did a person suddenly decide to become an analyst in retirement, and why did he do it a few months before the war, how he promoted his channel so much money that in just a year it grew to millions of views and subscriptions. Usually, independent media achieve this in years, not in a matter of months.
How can he have time to analyze all possible news and do analytics every day if, for this, you need either to have a large team or to produce analytic pieces not so often? Of course, if it is an analytics and not ready-made scripts that you read on camera.
Shvets’ channel was created and promoted all these months, building trust in the audience, knowing that the moment would come when it would be possible to use it.
Now, this moment has come; it is an opportunity to disrupt the supply of weapons to Ukraine and, in general, to present his audience with a distorted picture of the world and brainwash them. Why would he manipulate the facts he is presenting if it’s not true? Let’s look at the following examples:
For example, in a video dated July 9, Shvets says that American taxpayers’ money is allegedly being transferred in cash for state structures to purchase weapons. According to him, various offices buy weapons, and the participants of these deals pocket 10% and higher commissions.
“The sums shaved off there are colossal, well, take a billion dollars worth of purchases. Officials pocket at least 100 million in Kyiv. For some, war is hell. For others, it’s a time to prosper, so we are talking about putting this money so that it all goes to help the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and not as a commission to a Ukrainian official,” says Yurii Shvets.
Here he mentions the US congresswoman, Ukrainian by origin, Victoria Spartz, who is said to have investigated this embezzlement. In the video, he talked about Victoria Spartz for several days in a row, calling her a person with a “high level of access”; therefore, she cannot use rumours. Victoria Spartz is not that influential in the USA. The American press wrote about her “toxicity” as she humiliated her subordinates and was even called the worst employer in 2021.
On July 8, Viktoria Spartz wrote a letter to President Biden about the need to check whether the head of the Office of President Andriy Yermak had Russian connections and expressed concern about the possible smuggling of supplied weapons out of Ukraine. In particular, the congresswoman stated that she could not be sure whether the guns would not be smuggled into Mexico, Islamic terrorist states, or even Russia.
Not to say that there are no such problems in Ukraine. Still, manipulative statements about the potential smuggling of weapons to Mexico or Syria can seriously harm Ukraine’s image and disrupt critical arms supplies. This is what the Russian Federation is trying to achieve.
On July 12, the Financial Times published an article quoting the US Deputy Secretary of State for Arms Control, Bonnie Denise Jenkins, that “the possibility that American weapons sent to Ukraine could fall into the wrong hands is being considered.”
Having gathered all these facts, Shvets speculates that the US Government is seriously looking into this issue, while the Ukrainian authorities pretend there is nothing to it. But at the same time, Shvets takes quotes out of context and does not say that, for example, the same Bonnie Denise Jenkins said: “We are confident in the obligation of the Ukrainian government to protect and report on US weapons properly.”
By a strange coincidence, all these statements intensified when the flow of aid from the US increased, mainly when HIMARS were supplied and successfully used at the front.
It is also worth emphasizing that the Co-Chair of the Ukrainian Caucus in the US Congress, Marcy Kaptur, stated that Spartz repeats Russian narratives:
“Those who spread wild narratives against Ukrainian officials during the war are recklessly aiding Putin and his propagandists. As allies, we will continue working alongside President Zelenskyi and his office to ensure this war ends.”
NATO stated that they are confident in the obligations of the government of Ukraine to properly store and keep records of the weapons provided by the allies. EU Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ylva Johansson also said that the EU is confident in Ukraine’s proper use of firearms.
The Pentagon also said they did not find any evidence of smuggling the provided weapons.
Shvets also talks about arms smuggling, apparently referring to “CNN” and “FT”, and emphasizes that everything is allegedly so severe that the EU commission decided to create a special centre in Moldova to fight arms smuggling from Ukraine.
“The EU Commission believes that this issue is so urgent that it is creating a centre to deal with it in a neighbouring country,” he says.
You will Google it and say, “That’s true. Such a centre is being opened.” Thus, the EU is creating a centre in Moldova to fight organized crime, particularly arms smuggling. It will become a universal one-stop shop allowing Europol to share information and the EU border agency Frontex to support border management and detect illegal firearms trafficking. The centre will also be aimed at combating human trafficking.
However, there is no evidence that this centre is being opened because smuggling in Ukraine has already reached high levels. In particular, Swedish Migration Minister Anders Igeman said that most of the weapons supplied to Ukraine remain in the hands of the Ukrainian military, and “only a limited number of those weapons used in the war can be used by organized crime later.” He emphasized that “there should be measures to control the flow of weapons after the war in Ukraine.”
And such manipulations are in every video by Shvets. To check this, it is enough to Google what he says, not only in Ukrainian but also in English, and see what respectable news outlets report on the subject.
Shvets manipulates information using the half-truth method here. Let’s go back to rule #3 from the KGB – wrap this lie around an authentic core. Shvets’ video is a vivid example of this.
It is logical that Shvets’ audience immediately feels angry that money is being stolen, and they want to give it publicity, so such videos and narratives from them become viral. And since disinformation is successfully mixed with the truth (there is corruption in Ukraine, there aren’t enough weapons at the front, etc.), the viewer perceives this “picture” as a whole.
And what happens to the money, for example, that the USA allocates for Ukraine? Experts point out that the financial assistance provided by the USA, to a large extent, remains in the USA.
“Most Western aid is not monetary. It comes as weapons, ammunition, medical equipment, and humanitarian assistance. The USA is the largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine. We should note right away that the lend-lease program, so highly promoted by our mass media, will only start working in October when the new fiscal year begins in the USA.
US aid is coming as part of a much-publicized $40 billion aid package passed by the US Congress in May. However, not all of that money goes towards military aid to Ukraine. Only six billion will be spent directly on weapons, and ammunition, training Ukrainian service members and providing Ukraine with intelligence. Another eleven billion have been transferred to the personal control of President Biden, and he may use some of that money as military aid. Still, we cannot be sure about that. Another eight billion dollars is designated for financial and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. The rest of the funds will go to NATO members in Europe, as well as to replenish weapons for the American army and even to overcome hunger in African countries. It is still not clear how much of this money will reach Ukraine. In June, only one billion dollars of financial assistance arrived at the National bank of Ukraine with this program to replenish its foreign exchange reserves. The program is only valid until the end of September; if some allocated funds are not used by that time, then Ukraine will not receive them.
Even though the US has allocated considerable funds for military aid to Ukraine, American weapons and ammunition are expensive. For instance, one HIMARS salvo costs a million dollars. Moreover, the US estimates the price of military personnel preparation at a high level, and the same is true of transferred intelligence, etc. Six billion in military aid doesn’t mean an ample arms supply. Ukraine needs significantly more weapons and ammunition. The same is true of the assistance Ukraine is getting from other countries.
And when it comes to Viktoria Spartz and some other politicians who state that arms supplied to Ukraine could be resold to Russia or Syria, most likely, such statements are issued for the politicians’ self-promotion. There was no evidence of Ukraine transferring weapons to any other countries. However, statements like these may slow the rate at which foreign help is arriving to Ukraine or even put a stop to it”, says the expert.
Financial and economic columnist Bohdan Slutskyi explains that Ukraine receives both military (machinery, equipment, spare parts, etc.) and non-military aid (monetary aid to cover the deficit in the state budget).
“It’s essential to note that international financial organizations and partner states do not provide funds for military purposes. Instead, they assist with humanitarian needs such as covering salaries, pensions, social benefits, including the needs of internally displaced persons”, highlights Mr Slutskyi.
Since February 24, international partners have issued almost 13 billion dollars in grants and soft loans to Ukraine as of July 14 (approx. 390 billion UAH at the official exchange rate).
“This number looks astronomical, but it’s a false impression. War is a costly undertaking. Basic financing expenses (mainly the army and social benefits) come to 320-250 mill UAH. Only 50-70 bill UAH is collected as tax revenues. The other monthly 180-200 billion UAH need to be covered from other sources,” emphasizes the expert.
An expert from the civil movement, “Vsi razom!” Yevhen Savisko explains that the US government allocates money to Ukraine is used to finance the production of weapons in the US, both to replace the ones already given to Ukraine and to fulfil new military orders for the Armed Forces. The same funds are used to cover the expenses of intelligence work, including aerospace intelligence. So the money that comes to Ukraine is distributed according to targeted programs (to support the State Budget of Ukraine, to ensure the activities of law enforcement agencies and the State Emergency Service, to finance the particular needs of the war with the Russian Federation). Also, part of this money is used to support the refugees that left Ukraine for the US.
There isn’t separate financing allocated for Ukraine to purchase weapons. The relevant US government structures buy and supply all necessary arms. One of the reasons is systemic corruption in our domestic government structures. Another one is the peculiarities of the US budgetary policies.
Other countries are covering Ukraine’s financial needs in similar ways. They finance specifically targeted programs, like refugee support, aid to victims of ruscists, or allocation of weapons or protective gear.
The president of the “First international development foundation for Ukraine”, Mykola Volkivsky, thinks along the same lines:
“Stealing allocated funds is next to impossible for two reasons. The announced amount is an estimate of the worth of property or equipment that will be provided to Ukraine. So it will come in kind and not as actual money. In most cases, it’s the best scenario because all the necessary munition and gear cannot be purchased at your local store. The weapons don’t just come with manuals. People must be taught to use them (except for unified models), etc. And often, the amount you hear is an estimate, not a given weapon’s net worth. The other reason is increased control over the use of finances. Sometimes the money would be provided for certain purposes: it cannot be withdrawn, the result will be verified, and sometimes there wasn’t a particular Ukrainian interest in it”.
“Our guys were left without provisions, their commanders fled, summonses are issued on the street, newly recruited are shipped to the front line”: how Russians are trying to disrupt mobilization in Ukraine
Another direction where Russians are working tirelessly is the attempt to disrupt the mobilization in Ukraine. Most Ukrainians have certainly heard messages like “Our guys are left without provisions on purpose”, “The commanders fled and left our boys in the grind, “Only people from Western U Ukraine are being mobilized to fight on the front lines”, and so on.
These messages are mainly spread on social networks, where it is straightforward to claim “betrayal”. Let’s look at the case of the so-called volunteer Oleksii Osker.
Under the guise of being a volunteer, Osker constantly discredits state and local government members, sometimes even appealing to dismantle them altogether. The same goes for famous charitable foundations, like “Come back alive”, Serhii Prytula foundation and even Soros. Baselessly accuses them of embezzling volunteer contributions while chastising the government and the military for abandoning soldiers.
In his live broadcasts on Facebook, Osker has repeatedly called on Ukrainian service members to leave the battlefield and attack Kyiv instead. These false claims quickly spread on social networks. Many pages that reposted his messages belonged to bots.
Osker has also distributed videos of the appeals of servicemen allegedly “abandoned” by their commanders. He added an emotional component by including the request of the supposed wife of the soldier. Thousands of people shared these videos to create an impression that the Armed Forces of Ukraine left some fighters to die and that no one but their wives and mothers cared for them. At the same time, there were many losses in the military in May, so his message fit the then-current narrative. Deserters recorded these videos, and there were just a few. They were members of territorial defence units, not the Army of Ukraine, according to the investigation carried out by “Hromadske”. Service members from the Ukrainian Armed Forces even recorded videos, apologized to the Ukrainians for such deserters, and declared that they no longer wanted people like that to serve alongside them.
Osker also tells his subscribers that the aid from Western partners has been stolen. Bots and useful idiots readily spread this information on social networks.
It is worth noting that this “volunteer” was once trying to sell the post of the head of the Mykolaiv regional state administration for 600 thousand dollars.
Osker’s leading social media profile has been blocked, but he just created a new one.
To demoralize our military, Russians also spread fake claims that Ukrainians are surrendering en masse because their commanders abandon them. This is not the case; there are no more than 8,000 MIA, so some may be in captivity, but this number is not nearly significant enough to be ground for such claims.
Ruscists also use the fact that summonses are issued on the streets in Ukraine. As repeatedly explained in the centres of recruitment and social support, receiving a subpoena on the road does not mean they will immediately send a person to the front.
First, the person’s data needs to be verified. Only then are they sent to undergo a medical examination to determine if they are fit for service. If the person has little combat experience, they will be sent to further training before joining active combat.
A lucrative narrative for Europe: “Putin is to blame for everything, and “good” Russians are against the war.”
This is a particularly dangerous narrative actively promoted among Europeans. It states that the “good” Russians are not guilty of anything, they are against the war, and Putin is the only one responsible for the deaths of children and other civilians in the middle of Europe.
This narrative is designed to remove sanctions from Russia and then lift the responsibility for the crimes committed by the Russians in Ukraine (since only Putin is to blame).
If only Putin is to blame, then who is shooting at civilians? Putin himself? And then, who is more than 70% of Russians who, according to recent polls, support the war against Ukraine? And who are these people who wrote malicious comments under the photo of the four-year-old girl Lisa from Vinnytsia, who was killed by a Russian rocket?
Same story with Maryna Ovsyannikova, who is believed to protest the war. If she were really against the war and not an element of Russian propaganda, they would have detained her and prevented her from leaving the country to work in Europe. Moreover, for some reason, the Western media overlooks that Maryna Ovsyannikova had been engaged in propaganda activities for years. That is, she is not just a “good Russian woman”; she is another person directly responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If we look back at WWII, every German was responsible for the crimes of the Nazis, not just Hitler. Nobody then bothered with arguments like, “We are not to blame. It was out of our hands.” The entire German nation was re-educated, and reparations were collected from the state. And no one even thought of shifting the blame only to Hitler and his entourage. So why shouldn’t Russia bear collective responsibility now if it does nothing to stop this war?
Russia promotes the narrative that a peace agreement can only end the war, and Ukraine is delaying this process
Russia sees that support for Ukraine is vital in the European community, the USA, and many other world countries. They understand that their active measures should first be directed at those countries that support Ukraine. They believe that stripping Ukraine of foreign support or shifting the blame for prolonged hostilities onto Ukraine may help them get their way.
According to the Center for Countering Disinformation at the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, pro-Russian “experts” have already begun to promote the corresponding narrative in foreign media. They postulate that Russia is ready to end this war and will attempt to do so within a month, delivering a devastating blow to Ukraine. For example, a former colonel of the US Army, Douglas McGregor, known for his pro-Russian position, gave interviews with such talking points to foreign media.
The pro-Russian prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, also stated that Ukraine would not win the war and that a peace agreement must be concluded. According to him, European governments are “falling like dominoes”, energy prices have risen sharply, and now they should devise a new strategy.
At the same time, prices in Europe are rising, and the Russians are using this as a basis for their poisonous propaganda, trying to convince the average consumer that Ukraine is to blame for their problems and not Russia, which launched an unprovoked attack against Ukraine. In particular, the media”Controinformazione” used a manipulative headline “Europe has lost four governments due to anti-Russian sanctions… and the EU is starting to ease them up.” The text cites Orbán extensively. The media does not frame Orbán’s words as his opinion, but as a recount of the state of affairs.
Russia also reminds Europeans that a cold winter is coming in an attempt to convince Ukraine to make concessions as soon as possible.
What do we do with all this: advice instead of conclusions
You can protect yourself from hostile disinformation and propaganda. And you can start small; first, learn to verify what you hear.
A simple Google search will help you with this. You need to pay attention to the source of information: if the source is anonymous, if they appeal to your emotions instead of facts, something is fishy. At the same time, even time-honoured media sometimes make mistakes, ill-intended or not. Therefore, pay attention to the context: when was that particular statement released, who benefits from sharing this information, how established are the journalists covering the topic, and who are the experts who comment on the subject? If a person, for example, used to spread pro-Russian statements and now has changed colours drastically, this is reason enough to question their authority.
If you are unsure, you have enough skills to verify information, avoid anonymous Telegram channels, hostile media or bloggers who appeal to your emotions instead of facts, or those who manipulate the facts to serve their means (again, use Google search to check the facts). Read established media that has been around for a while. Don’t be swayed by emotional calls to action such as “Share this right now!” and by divisive narratives.
Professional propagandist Yuriy Bezmenov, who used to do the brainwashing professionally, advised fighting disinformation at the state level, in particular, to educate people in the spirit of true patriotism. He also recommended explaining the real threat of a socialist, communist, “welfare state”, Big Brother-style governance to people.
“We need to stop supporting communism because there is no more urgent and pressing problem than stopping the Soviet military-industrial complex from destroying what is left of the free world. It is straightforward: there should be no loans, no technology and money exchange, and no political or diplomatic recognition of the USSR. And, of course, no trade in grain,” he said in the 1980s.
Decades have passed, but these tips are as relevant as ever. The world did not understand then, but perhaps it is not too late to realize it now and destroy the Kremlin’s most terrible weapon – disinformation, a virus that programs us for destruction.
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