Fashion influencer Cinthia of CinthiaSpoon was busy during New York Fashion Week this February when she first saw an email with a mysterious subject line appear in her inbox: “Fwd: Mira Duma: facts on money laundering.”
The missive read like an introduction to a spy novel. Miroslava Duma, Cinthia knew, was an internationally famous fashion celebrity who was also the recent subject of an ugly international controversy over her use of the N-word during the Paris couture shows two weeks before. Cinthia opened the email.
“We have found unexpected facts about a real background of Miroslava Duma, a Russian entrepreneur and Instagram star, known for her multi-investments in US fashion and tech companies,” read the typo-ridden message from a so-called anonymous group calling itself the “Kiev Fashion Resistance.” “Please help us to share this information. This is even more important for the public than rasist and homophobe scandal. It is about world security and threats. You have power and you are not bribed by Russians.”
Attached was a PDF titled “Mira Duma Report: A Rasist / A Homophobe / A Lurking Landromat.” Underneath was a smiling photo of Duma next to Ivanka Trump. It was fake news packaged to appear superficially credible, and circulated electronically in an apparent effort at character assassination.
But in bed the next morning, Cinthia was agog, and pored over each unverified allegation. “I read everything — every single link. I googled every name,” Cinthia told Refinery29. As she read, she remembered the time she saw Duma speak at a conference in Dubai in 2015. She remembered being suspicious about how the Russian fashion influencer could have made so much money as a founder of fashion website Buro 24/7. “There was no information — I always kept that in my mind,” Cinthia said about Duma’s businesses. Cinthia had been working as a New York-based writer and photographer, and was a burgeoning influencer as well. She knew what a struggle it was to make a living and a name for herself, and had been wondering why it seemed like some found fame so easily.
It talked about war and money laundering. They said someone from the report would come after me. Who knows? I freaked out.
Though the report contained an abundance of misspellings and salacious claims, and looked like a cross between a fashion industry press release and a piece of junk mail peddling off-brand pharmaceuticals, it seemed to promise some clues, if not complete answers. Cinthia did her best to confirm some of the claims, and she even emailed the source, Mikhailo U. to find out more: “Finally I understand where this girl comes from in the industry. I have been curious since 2015,” Cinthia responded.
The sender never replied. But the fake report did its job — and not just with Cinthia, either. Her email was listed among a dozen other influencers, agents, stylists, and writers who received the report during fall '18 New York Fashion Week (in an amateur-hour BCC slip-up), some of whom forwarded the email to Refinery29. How many others received the report in subsequent blind-copied batches is unknown.
By combining Fashion Week parties, a wealthy international socialite, the weapons trade, money laundering, and Donald Trump, the report seemed constructed to generate gossip. This was amplified by the fact that Duma was already in the fashion news cycle in a political climate becoming more anti-Russian by the day.
Cinthia was the only one to post a screenshot of the report on her Insta Stories. She wanted more context, and others to confirm her suspicions. But moments later, concerned friends contacted Cinthia, begging her to take it down. “They said that it could destroy my career, and ruin my life,” she said. “It talked about war and money laundering. They said someone from the report would come after me. Who knows? I freaked out.” She quickly deleted the story.
In the months that followed, Cinthia was surprised to see that no one else online mentioned the report. Mikhailo never emailed her back. Others who received the email told Refinery29 that they, too, have been waiting patiently for more information to break.
“I have kept thinking about it,” Cinthia said. “I think about it all the time.”
Considering the number of adversaries that Miroslava Duma accrued after her Paris couture controversy, and those who may have business and personal grievances with her and her family, it seemed unlikely that the source of this anonymous report was an organized group with an ideological mission (and definitely not an altruistic organization seeking justice). “I think it’s someone with a chip on their shoulder,” said investigative reporter Alexey Kovalev, whose website “The Noodle Remover” exposes Russian disinformation campaigns. “She obviously has a lot of enemies and people who envy her.” Capitalizing on the ill-will surrounding Duma, the email Cinthia received was likely to be the work of an individual actor with a personal vendetta.
But then, the other reports came.
One month later on March 4, another fake news report put together by “Kiev Fashion Resistance” started circulating, this time about model Natalia Vodianova. On April 10, yet another was sent about businesswoman and art collector Dasha Zhukova. Both reports similarly claimed that these Russian women’s Western-facing entrepreneurial activities relied on illegal activities, and insisted that this information should be “newsworthy” to their intended audiences. “We strongly believe that it is a matter of national security of United States of America, and European security as well. We call upon European and American societies to pay attention to the case,” the Zhukova report pleads. “Vodianova’s activities jeopardize the basic values of democracy in the US and Europe,” the other report dramatically insists.
But it seemed that whoever was behind the “Kiev Fashion Resistance” was capitalizing off America’s newfound anti-Russia frenzy. Between Trump, Putin and the widely held belief that Russia used Americans' love of Facebook, viral videos, and memes to pull off one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in American history, the fear around Russian influence is at once real and also mysterious. Add to that the fact that the real news seems ripped from a Hollywood script: Russia’s alleged assassination attempt against a man and his daughter in broad daylight; Harvey Weinstein’s covert ops against Hollywood’s darlings; the raiding of the President’s lawyer’s office. These days, the line between fact and fiction seems blurrier than ever, which has led to a climate particularly ripe for spreading conspiracy theories.
Before the reports were disseminated, there had already been some bad publicity about these women. Some of the dirty laundry from Natalia Vodianova’s divorce from billionaire Englishman Justin Portman has been aired in tabloids. Dasha Zhukova was once photographed in Duma’s publication Buro 24/7 sitting on an objet d’art chair sculpted in the form of a Black woman (she later apologized). And Miroslava Duma has lately become a meme unto herself with her Paris snafu, and there has been gossip about the companies she founded including Buro 24/7 and Future Tech Lab (Duma is no longer involved with Buro 24/7, having removed herself from its operations in March of this year). Some Russian fashion insiders cite the discrepancy between the huge publicity around the launches of these businesses and the lack of substantial activity afterwards as a sign that her companies are merely vanity projects supported by her oligarch husband and family.
While the initial report about Duma raised the question about why someone was looking to smear her specifically, the subsequent reports made it appear that there was a larger plot at work; that the targets weren’t just a single, controversial woman but Russian women who have become famous within Western fashion circles in general.
These women are also vulnerable to a particular kind of homegrown criticism of being “too Western” or “not Russian enough.” Neither Duma, Vodianova, nor Zhukova live in Russia anymore, a fact which, sources in Russia say, leads to judgment in some circles. And at least once, in 2014, as previously reported by Refinery29, the government took Russian socialites to task. An editorial in a state-controlled paper labeled Duma — along with fellow socialites Vika Gazinskaya, Ulyana Sergeenko, and Elena Perminova — as unpatriotic and unsupportive of Russian fashion. The head of the state-supported MBFW Russia Alexander Shumsky told Refinery29 at the time that “the Russian government supports Russian fashion. It doesn’t support daughters and wives of oligarchs and state officials.”
If that sounds confusing — aren’t oligarchs and state officials precisely the people who run the Russian government? — it’s all part of the strange duality of modern-day Russia. Anyone with money and power has access to the West, but many find it expedient to pretend they don’t. Russian women like Duma, Zhukova, and Sergeenko are very much part of that establishment within Russia. In fact, all of these women are mostly popular at home, and only have few “haters,” said Julia Vydolob, editor of Russian fashion publication The Blueprint: “Dasha and Natalia really did a lot for Russia in different ways, and therefore people en masse love them. Natalia is like a saint here for her huge work in charity. And Dasha is loved for the Garage art center [she founded].”
Up until recently, any attempt to slander their names in international media would have felt random. However, in January of this year, Duma became the subject of critical Western news coverage after she posted an Instagram Stories image of a card she received from Ulyana Sergeenko welcoming her to the spring couture shows. “To my n***as in Paris,” the card read, referring to the lyrics in a Kanye West song that Sergeenko later said is her favorite.
Western fashion media was outraged and accused both women of racism. This led to an excavation of Duma’s history of insensitive, tone-deaf remarks, including a 2012 video in which she argues how inappropriate she felt it was for fashion media to embrace influencer Bryanboy and model Andreja Pejic, who both reject traditional gender roles. Although Russian fashion outlets condemned both instances, and Duma herself apologized, some Russian observers say that this scandal illustrated how Russian fashion socialites were already feeling ostracized in every social circle they participated in, at home and abroad. The fallout from the note just reinforced their perceived otherness.
“Let’s actually stop for a second and try to figure out why that’s Ulyana Sergeenko’s favorite song,” said writer and film producer Michael Idov, the former editor in chief of Russian GQ and author of Dressed Up For A Riot. “In her eyes, it matches up with her own Paris experience as a stranger with lots of money but no status.”
Fashion writer Alexander Amato worked at Duma’s Buro 24/7 for one year in 2014. He was the one who translated the transphobic smoking-gun video into English immediately after the n-word controversy, months after it had already made the rounds on Russian social media platform Telegram in November of 2017. Having grown up in London and establishing a career in Moscow, Amato understood the specific cultural circumstances that led to the note, even though he did not agree with them: “For [Duma and Sergeenko], it’s a sort of weird badge of honor that they’re outsiders in a European society. Of course, it’s absolutely freaking ridiculous that they call each other the n-word because they’re whiter than white, but rich Russians feel that their whiteness is not a privilege [in the West].“ Despite being extravagantly rich, wealthy Russians think of themselves as outsiders marginalized by their European peers.
The translated video Amato posted on Twitter got picked up by dozens of international influencers, publications, and a few Russian outlets; some took umbrage at what they perceived as a vindictive move by a disgruntled ex-employee. He changed his Twitter name to @SashaRubchinsky (Jawn Didion) to avoid further attention, which most publications misreported to be his real name. No publications contacted him for a quote or confirmation about his name and relationship to Duma.
The speed at which Amato’s tweet spread through the Internet without any real fact-checking about his name nor origins hints at how easy it is to commit character assassination – against Duma especially, but Russian fashion influencers in general.
This controversy presented the global fashion industry with a clear moral villain. Thanks to growing anti-Russian sentiment, Duma became an inexcusable Big Bad, and the first Russian public figure to come under scrutiny in the current political climate. Those who sent the report must have known that it’d be easy to fan the flames.
Fashion media of course, does not only consist of traditional fashion journalists. It also includes a diffuse network of those who comment on and share news. Unlike political pundits on TV or critics in newspapers, fashion influencers are as often the subject of news as they are the ones disseminating it (though, with politics’ reality show-ification, this line is getting blurrier in Washington, too). Oftentimes, this meta newsmaking happens on Instagram Stories not only because news is aesthetically too “ugly” to post on curated feeds, but also because content disappears after 24 hours, which minimizes the ethical responsibilities of re-posting provocative and risky news without fact-checking.
Because of their follower count, such influencers are seen as industry authorities, even though few among them would consider themselves as news outlets. Beyond just commenting on straightforward fashion news — seasonal trends, designer switch-ups, new collections — influencers have also become crucial drivers of call-out culture, pointing out instances in which creatives have been insensitive or lazy with their designs and marketing. “Fashion influencers are primed for righteous indignation,” said vice president of journalism school The Poynter Institute Kelly McBride. “They get a lot of social reward for taking on causes and calling out bad guys.”
Relying on the outrage factor to determine newsworthiness is a bad habit which makes it difficult for readers to identifying fake news. Reading the various “Kiev Fashion Resistance” reports is an exercise in emoting, ranging from shock to suspicion to jealousy and finally to a shrug: When it comes to fake news, the details don’t matter if it feels like it could be true.
A handful of fashion influencers forwarded me the Duma report, and asked for anonymity, citing unwanted racist and transphobic attacks they’ve endured after criticizing Duma in the past. I reached out to others who were on the original Duma listserv. Those who responded did not find issue with the content of the report, but did not want to be quoted. “Would rather not get involved — all seems very scary,” one wrote in an email. “NO ONE wants press if the Russians are involved,” another texted. “They’re gonna kill us.”
Some reports are shitty but true. But most are shitty and false.”
Refinery29 attempted to fact check the numerous claims within the reports, which is shoddily assembled, and full of inaccuracies as small as the spelling of public relations firm Karla Otto. There are obvious, deliberate omissions, the inclusion of which would derail key allegations. While much of the reports are based on publicly available information like her tax declarations, personal investments, and online databases, the conclusions drawn require huge leaps in logic. We were unable to verify any of the claims. Emails sent to the various “Kiev Fashion Resistance” email addresses bounced back. Online searches for the organization and associated email addresses turned up empty, as did Refinery29 queries among fashion influencers in Kiev. Miroslava Duma and Natalia Vodianova declined to comment. Zhukova was unavailable for comment.
“The one clear thing is that this report is shitty,” said Roman Anin, an investigative reporter who writes about corruption within Russia. “It’s clear that the author of the report had no access to internal or secret records. Anybody could have done it,” Anin said, explaining that the financial reports and fortune declarations were based on public records and free-access databases. When asked about whether he was inclined to believe its underlying allegations, Anin was quick to dismiss it: “Some reports are shitty but true. But most are shitty and false.”
The question, then, is not if we should believe the report, but who wants us to? And why do they want us to?
The reports seem to be created by those who have an interest in stirring up anti-Russian sentiment in the West. The Ukrainian provenance of the group could be fake, but the current anti-Russian politics in Western Ukraine make that a plausible goal for a Ukrainian actor. “Kiev Fashion Resistance” could also be the Russian government itself, given the previous attempts to smear Duma as “too Western.” According to Katerina Tsetsura, a professor of public relations at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma and author of Transparency, Public Relations, and the Mass Media, the motive could even be as general as to stoke anti-Western sentiments within Russia itself, by tricking American and European outlets to publish false information. “If I work for a Russian media outlet, I can take it and say, ‘Look, this is obviously not true. There’s no fact-checking going on. The media in the West are not to be trusted. It could just be published to discredit our country.’ Such an approach can contribute to diminishing the West’s standing in the eyes of Russians.”
People familiar with Russian media would have instinctively identified these reports as “Black PR,” a tool long used in many countries to influence public opinion, explained Tsetsura. Whereas traditional, professional public relations, by her definition, establishes a mutually beneficial and open relationship between an organization and the public, “Black PR” is propaganda: inherently opaque, one-sided, and manipulative. Both types of PR typically have an agenda (to sell a product, to raise awareness of an issue), but “Black PR” will not reveal what that agenda is.
Someone is clearly exploiting the faults in the clickbait economy.
“There’s always been this skepticism in Russia and countries in the former Soviet Union [about what you read],” said Tsetsura. The media there, she said, “is heavily controlled and self-censored,” and people know it. Reading these reports with a heightened level of skepticism would bring up a natural string of speculations: That the allegations are paid for by an enemy of the individual or her family’s, that any Trump connections are mentioned as a deliberate strategy to get media coverage in America, and so on.
“Black PR”-literate Russians would have also been able to point out the false morality within the reports. By citing articles from foreign media that have called Duma racist and transphobic, the report attempts to connect the main allegation — that Duma is engaging in illegal business activities — with her past behavior, even though the two are entirely unrelated. “Someone is clearly exploiting the faults in the clickbait economy,” said investigative reporter Kovalev. “This was clearly designed to grab the attention of people who will not dig into the details. They’ll just grab the clickbait headline they’re fed.”
Much of the report relies on rhetorical devices that create a false sense of urgency and authority. By manipulating information and fact-stacking — or overwhelming a reader with both true and untrue statistics and information, including irrelevant or misleading ones — those running disinformation campaigns have found that they can twist perceptions, even while remaining anonymous. That anonymity is one of the key differentiators of “Black PR” and traditional public relations. Without knowing the background, biases, and intentions of “Kiev Fashion Resistance,” it is simply untrustworthy.
That was one thing that rankled Cinthia. While she believed the allegations in the report despite the broken links and broken English (“I still think it makes sense,” she maintained), Cinthia was bothered that her response emails went unanswered. “When you get an email from an unknown person, you want their identity and how they got their information. I wanted to see if they had something that supported what they were saying,” Cinthia explained. But there were enough facts that could be confirmed through Google searches that Cinthia was inclined to believe the whole thing. Besides, the report was complicated, dense, and talked about issues she had been hearing about in the news.
It was really interesting to see that people can mix fashion and weapon trading.
For Cinthia, it felt no different than watching CNN or reading the paper — something Cinthia had stopped doing as regularly, because she felt as that all news was manipulative. But in a news environment where there always seem like there are clear villains and heroes, Cinthia had decided that Miroslava Duma was the former. “It would have to be a really good justification for me to believe otherwise,” maintained Cinthia.
Had Cinthia not taken down her Instagram Story, had the email with the first PDF landed in more people’s inboxes instead of spam folders, had this story gone as viral as Duma’s previous scandals, there would have been a different story to write. The clickbait economy has trained readers to recognize shock and surprise as gauges of newsworthiness, and our increasingly surreal political universe has made conspiracy theories seem more plausible. We are in a news climate where citizens don’t trust conventional judgment to determine who is good and who is bad. It is ironic that while true crime shows assert that innocent people are often deemed guilty and #MeToo headlines prove that guilty people have long feigned innocence, the suspicion we’ve been trained to feel has made us more easily duped, not more skeptical.
“Someone wants to capitalize on the general hysteria in the United States,” noticed Kovalev, who has come across many disinformation campaigns involving governments, business, and militaries, but none that attempted to connect it all with fashion. “Government military contracts are corrupt anywhere in the world. Not just in Russia. But [they presented] biographies as exciting and dangerous to a not-so-scrupulous audience.” Anin, too, noted that Duma’s was the first known “Black PR” report to have attempted to infiltrate the fashion space. “It was really interesting to see that people can mix fashion and weapon trading.”
For Cinthia, who has witnessed how petty, cruel, and inequitable it can be for individuals who want to make a meaningful impression within fashion — and earn a living at the same time — the one bright side the report provided was some form of relief. “Some people really work hard to get what they get,” Cinthia mused. “For others, it comes so easy. It’s not right. It’s too hard for others to get to a certain point. If you ever get there.”
The Duma report provided a simple explanation, a peek through the looking glass. The suspicion that Cinthia had that the fashion industry was not the meritocracy that she had hoped was echoed within the PDF. In many ways, fashion internet has helped to foster uncomfortable conversations about integrity, fairness, and kindness, and provided the language and examples for many people to understand how systems of power and consumerism affect our creativity and humanity.
But Western fashion media has shown itself to be vulnerable, or at least considered vulnerable, to propaganda for insidious ends. In our eagerness to find and condemn the Big Bads — the culturally insensitive, the willfully ignorant, the famous and wealthy and corrupt — we are sometimes blinded to the deeper manipulation: that our information-systems themselves are making us less likely to distinguish the truth from lies, the complicated nuances from the convenient conspiracies. It’s a less fashionable problem, but one that’s far more dangerous for this industry and beyond.