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Russia’s sprawling wartime fake news machine Meet the organization behind the Kremlin’s disinformation about Ukraine

Source: Meduza

In 2019, the Moscow authorities created a nonprofit organization called Dialog, which they billed as a means of facilitating better communication between citizens and the government. The project was so successful that it was soon extended to other regions of Russia. The following year, Dialog and its regional subsidiary became a crucial element in the Russian authorities’ campaign to amend the Constitution and “reset” Putin’s term clock. Two years later, when the Kremlin found its full-scale invasion of Ukraine lasting longer than expected, Dialog once again proved itself as a critical part of the government’s toolkit: the organization now uses a vast network of popular Telegram channels and more than 100,000 social media pages to spread fictitious stories aimed at discrediting Ukraine. In a new investigation, journalists from Meduza, iStories, and The Bell dig into Dialog’s background and the team of ‘pseudo-hipsters’ behind its wartime disinformation campaign.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can read the full investigation in Russian here.

On February 24, 2022, journalist Yulia Eidel went out onto the balcony of her fifth-story apartment in Dnipro and heard explosions in the distance: the Russian army was shelling a nearby airport. Inside, Eidel’s three children — aged five, seven, and 17 — were asleep.

At first, Eidel remembers, she had no idea what to do. Eventually, she decided to take her kids to stay with some family friends in the countryside, figuring things would be calmer there. Back then, she says, many Ukrainians still believed that “this whole shitshow” could be stopped if “a critical mass of sane people in Russia” simply applied enough effort. Eidel decided to look for people who might fit the bill in the Telegram chat group for her classmates from Moscow State University’s journalism department, which she graduated from in 2008.

After arriving in a quiet village, two days after the start of the war, she wrote in the chat: “Guys, you probably know, though you may have forgotten, that I’m originally from Ukraine. All of this is happening to me right now.” She added links to news stories from the Ukrainian media to her message. What she meant to do was simply to say: “This is me. You know me well. This is what’s happening. Let’s try to come up with a solution together. What the fuck are you so silent for?”

Russia’s Telegram fake news industry

‘Our newsroom turned into a cult’ How a ‘liberal’ Telegram channel began peddling Kremlin disinformation to 1.6 million people

Russia’s Telegram fake news industry

‘Our newsroom turned into a cult’ How a ‘liberal’ Telegram channel began peddling Kremlin disinformation to 1.6 million people

Some of Eidel’s classmates responded with messages of sympathy, but four people wrote that “the situation isn’t that simple,” and one woman asked her not to “turn the chat into a war-centric group.”

Later, another one of Eidel’s classmates, a man named Vladimir Tabak, came online and wrote just two words: “Good evening.” Someone else responded: “Well, here we go.” Eidel got the feeling that “the wolf had shown up in the fairy tale.”

She sent a private message to one of her classmates, asking her why others were responding that way to Tabak. “Oh, but he’s one of the people who monitor social media groups and pages and report who should be shut down and who should receive support,” the woman replied.

Vladimir Tabak
Kazan Federal University

The barnacle

Vladimir Tabak, a registered journalist in Russia and the head of the pro-Kremlin “autonomous nonprofit organization” (ANO) Dialog, first gained public attention in 2010, with the release of a calendar featuring photographs of former and current female Moscow State University (MSU) journalism students in lingerie. The novelty item was created in honor of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s 58th birthday.

The calendar’s release was announced on the blog of propagandist Kristina Potupchik, then serving as the press secretary of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the calendar “this lady’s initiative,” referring to Potupchik, but it soon became clear that it had been the brainchild of her close friend Vladimir Tabak, a recent graduate of MSU’s journalism program who was also leading a “creative group aimed at creating Internet projects under the presidential administration.” (What activities this group ultimately engaged in and how long it existed is unclear.)

Several of Tabak’s former classmates who spoke to the authors of this story referred to him as a “rich kid” and a “slacker.” One of them, journalist and feminist activist Nastya Krasilnikova, described him as a “slippery character”:

For the entire five years that Tabak and I studied together in the journalism department, he was very noticeable. He had a striking appearance, always wearing flashy clothing, but he didn’t participate in many department activities.

To this day, I still remember the disgust I felt when the calendar with the female students came out. It struck me as very strange that so many women agreed to be a part of it, but the fact that Tabak was behind it didn’t surprise me at all.

As a student, Tabak spent a lot of time at nightclubs, his classmates said. “The students he photographed for the calendar were the girls who surrounded him. He was always into that stuff: cars, cocktails, parties at Pacha that lasted all night, all of that,” said one person who remembers him from the university.

The calendar featuring photos of MSU journalism students posing in lingerie for Putin’s birthday

Tabak bragged that he had been the one to sell the idea of an erotic calendar to Vladimir Surkov, who served as the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration at the time. Surkov, who was also the mind behind “Nashi,” had been introduced to Tabak by Kristina Potupchik.

“Vladimir had no reservations about his calendar for the [Putin] administration. He didn’t give two shits about the journalism department — he understood that there wouldn’t be any consequences from them. Then the calendar came out, and [MSU Journalism Dean Elena] Vartanova was horrified, but she couldn’t do anything about it — her hands were tied,” one of Tabak’s former classmates said.

In Tabak’s view, the key to a successful career was to find a “big fish” and “cling to them,” barnacle-style. A source who worked with him in the past said that the first “big fish” he clung to was Vladimir Surkov. Next came Sergey Kiriyenko, who currently serves as the first deputy chief of staff of the Putin administration. As “one of Surkov’s people,” the source explained, Tabak was “inherited by Kiriyenko, and made his career under him.”

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Something for everyone

Vladimir Tabak’s career under Kiriyenko began in 2019, when he became the deputy director of Dialog, a nonprofit led at the time by Alexey Goreslavsky, the former deputy director of the presidential administration’s public projects team. Put simply, Goreslavsky served as the Kremlin’s Internet curator. Two years after Tabak’s appointment, Goreslavsky left Dialog to head up the Internet Development Institute, and Tabak took his place.

When Dialog was first created, it was billed as a way for the Moscow authorities to use the Internet to communicate more effectively with citizens. Before long, the organization began opening analogous agencies throughout the country, each of which was referred to as a “regional governance center” (RGC). In reality, according to sources who spoke to the investigative outlet Proekt, Dialog’s initial purpose was to spread propaganda in favor of Russia’s constitutional amendments in the summer of 2020.

Just a few months after Dialog was established, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, and the Russian authorities found a new use for the organization. Before long, the project found itself responsible for keeping citizens informed about the public health situation, and the site StopCoronavirus.rf, launched by Dialog (though the organization itself denies this), became the public’s primary source of COVID-19 infection data. In addition to public health information, Dialog also published original content, including comics, memes, and TikTok videos.

At the height of the pandemic, the authorities decided to go through with the referendum on amendments to the Constitution. Dialog immediately began spreading the message that people shouldn’t fear the coronavirus and that they had a duty to vote. “The Constitution campaign involved several different narratives. One was that voting would be safe: there would be seven days to cast your ballot so that there wouldn’t be crowds. They also pushed the idea that this was real patriotism and that the aim was to consolidate society,” said a former Dialog employee.

Mum’s the word

Let’s. Not. Go. There. The Kremlin tells propagandists not to try refuting putative fake news about the rumored new round of mobilization. The best policy, it stresses, is to ignore them.

Mum’s the word

Let’s. Not. Go. There. The Kremlin tells propagandists not to try refuting putative fake news about the rumored new round of mobilization. The best policy, it stresses, is to ignore them.

One source who works for a major anonymous news account on Telegram recounted how, before the start of the election, he was approached by Dialog employee Pavel Popereshnichenko, who offered him cash in exchange for publishing a series of video clips advertising the amendments as a “necessary measure” for defeating COVID-19. The source declined the offer, but he soon began seeing similar clips on other Telegram channels, as well as on YouTube and regional social media pages (the outlet Mediazona has previously reported on these clips).

According to internal Dialog documents obtained by the authors of this report, the organization also used targeted ads to spread messages in favor of the proposed amendments. For users who were “concerned about the elections’ legitimacy,” for example, there were posts about how the voting would be overseen by election monitors. Pet owners and animal advocates were served ads highlighting the fact that you could bring dogs to the polls. And for religious voters, there was an ad proclaiming that “With divine help, God will return to the Constitution!” The post noted that the nuns of the Alekseyev-Akatov Convent in Voronezh had already voted.

The vote was held on July 1. According to official figures, more than 78 percent of voters (with a 65 percent turnout rate) voted in favor of the amendments — and, by extension, for a “reset” of Putin’s presidential term clock. To celebrate the end of the successful media campaign, Sergey Kiriyenko himself paid a visit to the Dialog office.

A beautiful system

In the summer of 2020, Dialog split into two entities. The “main” organization remained under the supervision of the Moscow city government’s IT department, while a separate subsidiary was established to work with Russia’s regions. As of 2022, more than 2,500 people worked for Dialog Regions, which received more 6.5 billion rubles (more than $67 million) from the Ministry of Digital Development. (For comparison, the parent organization received just 1.8 billion rubles, or around $18.7 million, in 2022). By 2024, the Russian authorities plan to allocate around 24 billion rubles ($249 million) to Dialog Regions.

Officially, Dialog Regions has two purposes. The first is to oversee the official social media pages of Russian governors, city governments, regional ministries, schools, and other public entities and government structures. Employees of the organization teach regional civil servants and politicians how to create social media accounts, gain followers, and respond to comments, in addition to telling them what kind of content to publish. As of the end of 2022, according to the Digital Development Ministry, Russia had 130,000 “state social media pages.” Tabak has said that 50 percent of Russian Internet users read these pages.

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The authors of this story studied Dialog’s recommendations for running official school social media pages. They advise administrators to ensure that “content is based on regular news updates about school operations that are significant and relevant to the target audience” while also cautioning “not to forget about the federal agenda.” At the same time, according to the guide, the school pages should post news about decisions made by the president and the government, the work of the region’s governor, Russia’s achievements in science and sporting events, and “patriotic events.”

A page from Dialog’s guide on running school social media pages. The title reads: “Don’t forget about the federal agenda.”

The pseudo-hipsters

Describing the second area of Dialog’s operations, the deputy governor in one of Russia’s regions said that its task is to “monitor all social networks for cases of public outrage,”

when a fence isn’t painted, a tree is covering someone’s window, roads aren’t getting repaired, someone’s having problems getting medicine, and so on. They look into whether the issue can be addressed or not, send requests to the relevant ministries, and work with the authorities to set deadlines for solving the problem.

The politician, who spoke to the authors of this report on condition of anonymity, praised Dialog’s work: “In my view,” he said, “it’s a godsend, it’s extremely effective.”

Kudos to them for creating this system. These things increase the public’s trust in the authorities by at least 30 percent. When a person is living in squalor, nothing’s happening around him, and nobody around him gives a damn about him, he feels a certain annoyance towards the authorities. If the government starts responding to his requests, taking action and solving his problems, the person will start thinking more highly of the authorities.

An employee of a large Russian company that has worked with Dialog agreed that “regional governance centers” have a positive role:

At some point, the presidential administration realized they needed to start working properly in the regions, and that everything would go down the drain otherwise. And they did a pretty important thing: now, if somebody craps in your apartment stairwell, you can send a complaint to the governor through an RGC. And the RGC will give the governor a thrashing if he doesn’t make the shit go away.

This goes a long way to keep people satisfied in the regions and to keep the authorities’ approval ratings up. I mean, look at [Moscow Mayor Sergey] Sobyanin: you might hate him, but you can’t deny that things in Moscow have improved. And this concept, that if you clean up the shit and make things nice for residents, then they won’t ask for things like freedom and democracy — it works. Kiriyenko is well aware of this.

According to a source who knows multiple Dialog employees, Kiriyenko has praised the organization in closed meetings, observing that while complaints to the RGCs used to take two hours to address, “now it’s just 17 minutes.” (According to Dialog’s official data, it actually takes RGCs up to three hours on average to process complaints.)

The system does have its shortcomings, however. Among other things, it’s likely not reaching older citizens, many of whom don’t use social media. “They wanted to launch a print publication for the 50+ audience so that they could send their complaints directly to the newspaper,” said a source close to one of the RGCs. “But nothing came of that, because the atmosphere at Dialog is more ‘creative’; in other words, everyone there is pretty laid-back. Eventually the idea was abandoned.”

Fake news vs. ‘fake news’

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A source close to the St. Petersburg government painted a similar picture of Dialog’s employees: “They’re pseudo-hipsters — and so is Tabak. The typical RGC employee looks like this: a beard, a vape, and white sneakers. Deadbeats.”

Nonetheless, a source from the Putin administration said that the “bearded hipsters in the white sneakers” remain useful to the authorities, adding that they can “amplify any conflict on their social media pages.” In August, for example, a Dialog-run Telegram channel called Signal pilloried Khakassia Governor Valentin Konovalov, a member of the Communist Party, after he angered the Kremlin by beating a candidate from the ruling United Russia party.

As of the end of 2022, Dialog had RGCs in 93 regions and federal districts. The records reviewed by the authors of this report did not mention Ukraine’s occupied territories, but a Dialog employee said that Dialog representatives have visited them multiple times, including trips to Donetsk and to the occupied part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region.

A government resolution regarding the rules of providing subsidies to the RGCs says that the offices should monitor complaints and appeals in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” the Zaporizhzhia region, and the Kherson region. Additionally, Dialog itself has reported training civil servants in the occupation administration in Mariupol to run government social media accounts.

Kiriyenko’s favorite toy

One of the main jobs of Dialog’s RGCs, according to a source close to the Putin administration, is to promote information favorable to the government in the traditional media, on social networks, and on Telegram. This entails creating new Telegram channels as well as buying existing ones, a former Dialog employee said.

One of the propaganda “news” items on a Telegram channel controlled by Dialog
Signal Telegram channel

Dialog also shares pro-government posts on Odnoklassniki, or “Classmates,” the social media service most popular among older Russians. The authors of this story managed to find posts from Dialog, for example, in a Krasnodar group called “Advice for you.” The group has approximately 50,000 members and consists primarily of housekeeping tips such as how to combine paint colors in one’s home or how to save money at bargain stores. In addition, the group often sees posts about Sergey Kiriyenko and his various useful activities: how, for example, Putin’s First Deputy Chief of Staff personally checks food prices in Ukraine’s occupied territories or how he helps make children’s New Year’s wishes come true.

The page also appeared on a list of accounts that helped spread “news” about Ukraine allegedly using banned weapons against the Russian army. The list contains nearly 400 groups on VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, and Telegram.

Dialog also serves as a polling agency. “Why? To show that not only can we put together media campaigns, but we can also track their results,” an employee explained.

Right now, the agency is conducting an Internet survey of “businessmen from the Donetsk People’s Republic.” The results of these surveys are distorted: responses can be submitted by anyone through links that are posted on government websites and social media pages.

Despite this, the polls are in high demand, not only among the various government ministries that work with Dialog, but also from the Kremlin. “This is Kinder’s favorite toy — alternative data for the president,” said a high-ranking regional official, referring to Kiriyenko by his nickname “Kinder” (short for “Kinder Surprise”), which has stuck to him ever since he became prime minister at the age of 36.

According to the speaker, Dialog conducts surveys on a wide variety of topics, including faith and religion, NATO, Russia’s government institutions, and relations between Russia and Ukraine.

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Propaganda changes over time

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After Moscow launched its invasion, Dialog started compiling briefs on the state of the “information realm around the topic of the special military operation,” analyzing how Russian Internet users were responding to war-related news. One of the updates reviewed by the authors of this story reported an increase in users’ confidence in General Sergey Surovikin, noting the “importance of the image of Surovikin as a speaker on the topic of the special military operation.”

The organization also went beyond informational reports, providing recommendations (though specifically to whom is unclear). One, for example read: “A rapid and firm response from the Defense Ministry’s command is needed for high-profile shortages of ammunition and provisions for draftees in the special military operation zone (with accountability for those responsibile for the situation).”

No basis in fact

In the summer of 2022, pro-Russian “war correspondent” Alexander Kots wrote on Telegram: “Received from subscribers in Kharkiv: these are announcements, in various parts of the city, from local public utilities offices. They’re asking residents to leave their apartments unlocked, so that territorial defense fighters can set up firing positions inside if necessary.” Similar messages were posted in multiple other pro-war Telegram channels.

Disinformation about “announcements” in Kharkiv
Kotsnews Telegram channel

A month later, these posts were included on one of Dialogue’s regular reports to the Putin administration on effectively distributed disinformation. (The authors of this story reviewed several such reports.) The story about the announcements was marked as a “successful operation”: the Kharkiv authorities had made a public statement refuting it, which meant it had spread among Ukrainian users. “In reality, the doors [shown in the picture] were in a Moscow apartment building,” said a source who worked with Dialog.

Another fake news story spread by the organization purported that Muslims in Germany were putting up flyers demanding that Ukrainian refugees leave the country. A picture of the flyers, which were actually put up by Dialog employees on the windows of a business center near the organization’s office in Moscow, was sent to more than 300,000 followers by a Telegram channel called The only source mentioned alongside that information was “We’re told.”

Dialog’s newest area of focus — generating disinformation about Ukraine and Ukrainians — took shape several months after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. “We were instructed to start finding ways to respond to news stories. And everyone started pitching ideas, proposing stories, brainstorming… And somehow this idea came up: creating fake news stories,” said a source who attended the brainstorming sessions.

According to Dialog’s records obtained by the authors of this report, the organization was responsible for creating fake news stories about

  • Ukrainian servicemen selling their military awards on eBay;
  • high-ranking Ukrainian officials acquiring elite real estate in Switzerland;
  • Ukrainian refugees being offered demeaning jobs like “animal masturbator” in Poland;
  • the Ukrainian government drafting women;
  • Ukrainian soldiers taking pills that increase aggression.

At least 60 people were involved in creating fake news stories at Dialog. “The thinking was: the Ukrainian side is capable of fighting an information war, so why shouldn’t we? I don’t know if that’s a justification or not,” said one employee.

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In the war’s initial months, the procedure for creating disinformation worked as follows. Every evening, the employees would compile a list of news items that, in their view, needed a response. Vladimir Tabak would personally approve the selection. The list would then be forwarded to Dialog’s various departments as well as to numerous Telegram channels working with the organization. The next morning, Dialog employees and Telegram admins would brainstorm and pitch ideas, finally choosing the one that would go public that day.

Telegram was central to Dialogue’s campaigns since 2020, when its youthful staff convinced their boss Alexey Goreslavsky that this would be the most effective platform for engaging the audience, as recalled by the administrator of a large anonymous news channel. Dialog has been using Telegram to put out disinformation ever since.

Attendees at Dialog’s meetings have included, for example, representatives of the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Readovka, which took an ardent pro-war stance shortly after it began, according to one Dialog employee. Another employee said that representatives of Mash, one of the largest “tabloid” Telegram channels, were also known to take part in the meetings. (Neither Readovka editor-in-chief Alexey Kostylev nor Mash editor-in-chief Maxim Iksanov responded to questions from the authors of this investigation.)

The blogger Katrusya, who runs the Telegram channel Signal, has also attended meetings at Dialog, representing a “network” of channels owned by propagandist Kristina Potupchik, a friend of Vladimir Tabak.

“No matter when you go to Potupchik’s office, there’s Potupchik, Potupchik’s dog, and Vladimir Tabak,” said one of Potupchik’s former employees. “Potupchik would hand out envelopes of money to [employees], right in front of Tabak. As far as I understand, they even had a shared accountant. At the very least, I overheard them discussing accounting details. Potupchik had 40 or so writers who would write posts for the network — including posts on the topics that Tabak assigned.”

Kristina Potupchik did not respond to questions related to this story. Nonetheless, the authors of this investigation determined that in 2022, Dialog Regions sent more than 50 million rubles (more than $500,000) to a company called Rokk Media that belongs to Yelena Berdova, the mother of Potupchik’s ex-husband Anton Berdov. The Telegram channel Baza previously discovered that Berdov and Potupchik own a house in Spain that’s worth about 500,000 euros.

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Dialog also found ways to spread disinformation without having to pay. According to one employee, the organization would often send “tips” to large Telegram news channels, posing as eyewitnesses to fictitious events. Often, the channels would publish these stories without verifying them.

By the end of the year, however, many major Telegram channels seemed to have wised up to Dialog’s strategy and stopped sharing fake news uncritically.

“The strategy stopped working,” one Dialog employee explained. “And the channels increasingly stopped accepting our fake stories. Because they noticed that there was a large wave of them, and it was unclear what was going on and who was behind it.”

This crisis is well-illustrated by an internal presentation from Dialog that the authors of this story managed to obtain. According to the document, the “international media space is seeing a large number of creative initiatives launched in support of Ukraine” that “increase the world’s positive perception of Ukraine.” In response, the organization decided to “adapt” these initiatives for the Russian media space to “strengthen patriotic sentiments” and “develop positive perceptions of the special military operation.”

Fighting ‘fakes’ with fakes

Over the course of the war, Dialog has increasingly devoted itself to providing media support to the Russian Defense Ministry. This is no coincidence: in the future, Vladimir Tabak hopes to get involved in “more than just media” and to take a high-ranking position in the presidential administration, according to two sources close to the Putin administration.

“Vladimir Tabak has complained that in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Defense Ministry put out information in an incompetent and untimely manner,” an acquaintance of the Dialog head said. “And perhaps after several weeks, they managed to agree that the presidential administration would work on the Defense Ministry’s communications. But now, ‘everything is under control,’ of course.”

At the start of the war, Dialog created a website and a parallel Telegram channel, both called Tribunal, which it presented as a Russian version of Myrotvorets, an online Ukrainian database that contains information about people accused of colluding with Russia or participating in separatist movements. Tribunal compiles dossiers on Ukrainian “war criminals” and publishes articles on the “crimes of the Azov Nazis.” “When Azovstal was captured and the Azov fighters were awaiting their so-called trial, Tribunal was the platform that explained [to the public] why they had to be prosecuted,” a former Dialog employee said.

Later, Tabak’s organizations became responsible for distributing critical posts about Yevgeny Prigozhin.

According to one former employee, Dialog’s partnership with the Defense Ministry was managed by Tikhon Makarov, one of Tabak’s deputies.

“We laughed at him, because it was clear to everyone that the Defense Ministry was talking nonsense. But he was sincerely on the Defense Ministry’s side,” the source said.

Makarov is also in charge of the popular Telegram channel War on Fakes, according to a source who has partnered with Dialog. The channel was created at the very start of the war and currently has more than 600,000 followers.

The website of War on Fakes claims that the channel is run by anonymous “owners and administrators of several apolitical Telegram channels” who “provide objective information about events in Ukraine and the Donbas territories.” It bills itself as a platform that “exposes fake news” while itself spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda narratives.

The Russian Defense Ministry is the “main beneficiary of this channel,” the source who has worked with Dialog emphasized. In one of the last posts about Russia’s missile strike on a pizzeria in Kramatorsk, which killed 12 civilians, including children, War on Fakes referred to the attack as a strike on a “foreign mercenary deployment site.” A post about a missile strike on a residential building that killed 46 people in Dnipro last winter said the incident was a gas explosion caused by Ukrainian air defenses.

The authors of this story have obtained an instruction manual from Dialog about how to “debunk fake news” in situations where there’s no factual basis for doing so. The document suggests discrediting the source of the information, pointing out when there’s no photo or video confirming a report or when it relies on anonymous reports. Another recommendation is to mention who might be benefited by the news, saying things like “Ukraine wants to demoralize Russian citizens.”

Investigation by Maria Zholobova (iStories), Svetlana Reiter (Meduza), Irina Pankratova (The Bell), and Andrey Pertsev (Meduza)

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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