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Russian AI Disinformation Campaign Propels Fake News to Google’s Top Search Results

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A Piece of Russian Misinformation on Zelensky's Wife Buying a Bugatti with US Aid Spreads Rapidly Online

Within a day, false information claiming that the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky purchased a Bugatti using funds from American aid spread like wildfire online. Initially posted on an obscure French website, it soon gained traction on X and became the leading search result on Google.

On Monday, July 1, an article appeared on a site known as Vérité Cachée, bearing the headline: “Olena Zelenska Secures the First Ever Bugatti Tourbillon.” According to the story, the first lady made an acquisition of a groundbreaking $4.8 million Bugatti supercar following an exclusive showing during a trip to Paris with her spouse in June. Additionally, the article featured a video with a man asserting his employment at the car dealership.

However, the footage, much like the website it was hosted on, was entirely fabricated.

Hidden Truth is part of a constellation of online platforms suspected of having connections to the Russian government, which disseminate Russian propaganda and misinformation to people in both Europe and the United States. This dissemination is amplified through the use of artificial intelligence, say experts from Recorded Future, a cybersecurity firm monitoring the group's operations. The team discovered that other sites within this network, bearing titles such as Great British Geopolitics or The Boston Times, employ generative AI to produce, gather, and alter content, releasing countless articles under the names of fictitious reporters.

Numerous Russian news platforms, a significant number under Kremlin ownership or influence, reported on the Bugatti incident, referencing Vérité Cachée as their information source. The bulk of these reports surfaced on July 2, proliferating across various pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, each boasting followers in the hundreds of thousands to millions. Additionally, the Doppelganger bot network on X amplified the story, as identified by the team at @Antibot4Navalny.

By then, Bugatti had already released a statement refuting the report. However, the false information rapidly spread on X, shared initially by several pro-Kremlin profiles, and then amplified by Jackson Hinkle, a supporter of Russia and Trump known for trolling, who has a following of 2.6 million. Hinkle propagated the narrative, claiming that it was “American taxpayer dollars” that financed the car.

Websites in English soon started covering the story, referencing posts on social media from individuals such as Hinkle and the article by Vérité Cachée. Consequently, anyone who looked up “Zelensky Bugatti” on Google the previous week would have found a link to MSN, the news aggregation platform owned by Microsoft, which had reposted an article from Al Bawaba, a news aggregator focused on the Middle East, mentioning “various users on social media” and “speculations.”

In a short span of hours, a fabricated story quickly transitioned from an obscure website to a widely discussed subject on the internet, even reaching the top spot in Google's search results. This scenario underscores the simplicity with which malicious individuals can erode public confidence in the authenticity of online information. Neither Google nor Microsoft provided an immediate reaction when asked for a comment.

"McKenzie Sadeghi, who serves as the AI and foreign influence editor at NewsGuard, points out that the deployment of artificial intelligence in spreading disinformation undermines the credibility of media and institutions. It enables nefarious individuals to leverage weaknesses in the information landscape, facilitating the distribution of misleading stories more rapidly and economically than was previously possible."

Hidden Truth operates within a network overseen by John Mark Dougan, an ex-US Marine with a past in law enforcement in Florida and Maine during the 2000s, as revealed by studies conducted by specialists at Recorded Future, Clemson University, NewsGuard, and the BBC. Dougan has since relocated to Moscow, engaging with Russian think tanks and making appearances on Russian national television channels.

"In 2016, executing a misinformation campaign of this nature would have probably necessitated a large group of online manipulators," Sadeghi observed. "Currently, with the advent of generative AI, it appears that much of this work can be attributed to a sole person, John Mark Dougan."

NewsGuard has been monitoring Dougan's operations for a period and has identified 170 websites that it suspects are involved in his campaign of spreading false information.

In the tale involving Bugatti, there wasn't any visible AI prompt, but a review of other stories on Vérité Cachée by WIRED revealed that in various instances, the AI prompt could clearly be seen at the beginning of the narratives. For example, in a story discussing the event where Russian forces shot down Ukrainian drones, the introductory sentence stated: "To provide some context, consider that the Republicans, Trump, Desantis, and Russia are portrayed positively, whereas the Democrats, Biden, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, major corporations, and the pharmaceutical sector are depicted negatively. Feel free to supplement with more information on this topic as deemed necessary."

Platforms are progressively stepping back from their role in regulating falsehoods and misinformation about elections, while those spreading such disinformation are becoming adept at using AI technologies for their purposes. Consequently, misleading individuals on the internet has become more straightforward than ever.

Sadeghi notes that Dougan's operation extensively utilizes content created by artificial intelligence, such as text articles, deepfake audio and video clips, and completely fabricated identities, all in an effort to conceal its true source. “The use of such sophisticated AI techniques has enhanced the believability of the misinformation, thereby complicating the task for ordinary individuals to distinguish between what is real and what is not,” he explains.

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