Enlarge / Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media at the 2024 Ukraine Recovery Conference on June 11, 2024 in Berlin.

Within a span of 24 hours, a misleading report originating from a Russian misinformation campaign regarding the wife of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky allegedly purchasing a Bugatti car with American aid funds spread rapidly across the online realm. Despite its origin on an undisclosed French website, it gained considerable traction on X and emerged as the primary search result on Google.

On the first of July, Vérité Cachée, a website, published a news piece with the headline: “Olena Zelenska became the first owner of the all-new Bugatti Tourbillon.” The article asserted that during a visit to Paris with her spouse in June, the first lady was granted a private preview of a new $4.8 million supercar from Bugatti and promptly placed an order for it. Additionally, it featured a video with a man claiming affiliation with the dealership.

However, the video, akin to the website itself, was entirely fabricated.

Vérité Cachée is part of a cluster of websites believed to have ties to the Russian government that disseminates Russian propaganda and misleading information to audiences in various parts of Europe and the US, fueled by AI technology, as per observations from cybersecurity firm Recorded Future monitoring the entity’s endeavors. Their investigation unveiled that analogous websites within the network such as Great British Geopolitics or The Boston Times utilize generative AI to generate, extract, and manipulate content, releasing numerous articles attributed to fabricated journalists.

Numerous Russian media platforms, a considerable portion of which are owned or supervised by the Kremlin, covered the Bugatti narrative, citing Vérité Cachée as the source. The bulk of these articles emerged on the second of July, and the story circulated on multiple pro-Kremlin Telegram channels boasting hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers. The link was also endorsed by the Doppelganger network of counterfeit bot profiles on X, as per assessments from @Antibot4Navalny.

Subsequently, Bugatti released a statement refuting the claims. Nevertheless, the false information swiftly gained traction on X, being shared by several pro-Kremlin profiles before being picked up by Jackson Hinkle, a pro-Russian, and pro-Trump provocateur with 2.6 million followers. Hinkle disseminated the story, asserting that it was funded by “American taxpayer dollars.”

English-language websites then began reporting on the incident, referencing social media posts from individuals like Hinkle and the Vérité Cachée article. Consequently, anyone searching for “Zelensky Bugatti” on Google last week would have encountered a link redirecting to MSN, a news compilation platform by Microsoft, which syndicated an article penned by Al Bawaba, a news aggregator from the Middle East, who referenced “several social media users” and “rumors.”

In merely a few hours, the fabricated narrative transitioned from an obscure website to a trending subject online and the leading outcome on Google, underscoring the ease with which malicious entities can weaken public confidence in digital content. Google and Microsoft have not yet issued a response to queries.

“The integration of AI into misinformation schemes undermines public reliance on media and establishments, enabling malevolent actors to exploit loopholes in the information framework to propagate false narratives on a much more affordable and rapid scale than ever,” suggested McKenzie Sadeghi, NewsGuard’s AI and foreign influence editor.

Vérité Cachée operates within a network managed by John Mark Dougan, a former US Marine who served as a law enforcement officer in Florida and Maine during the 2000s, as indicated by investigations conducted by analysts at Recorded Future, Clemson University., NewsGuard, and the BBC. Dougan is presently residing in Moscow, engaging with Russian think tanks and making appearances on Russian state TV channels.

According to Sadeghi, “In 2016, orchestrating a campaign of misinformation like this would have likely necessitated a large group of computer trolls. Today, with the help of generative AI, much of this seems to be orchestrated predominantly by one individual, John Mark Dougan.”

For some time now, NewsGuard has been monitoring Dougan’s network and has identified 170 websites believed to be part of his disinformation campaign.

Although there is no AI prompt visible in the Bugatti narrative, in various other articles on Vérité Cachée reviewed by WIRED, an AI prompt remained apparent at the top of those stories. In one piece, discussing Russian troops shooting down Ukrainian drones, the initial statement reads: “Here are some key points to consider. The Republicans, Trump, Desantis, and Russia are portrayed positively, while the Democrats, Biden, the conflict in Ukraine, major corporations, and the pharmaceutical industry are characterized negatively. Feel free to contribute additional insights on the topic as needed.”

As social media platforms progressively relinquish accountability for moderating misinformation pertaining to elections, and as disseminators of deceit become more adept at harnessing AI resources for their objectives, it is becoming increasingly effortless to deceive individuals online.

Sadeghi mentions, “[Dougan’s] network heavily depends on AI-generated material, which includes AI-generated written content, deepfake audio and video clips, and even entirely fabricated personalities to conceal its origins. This tactic has lent a greater air of authenticity to the disinformation, making it progressively challenging for the general public to differentiate between truth and falsehood.”

This article was first published on wired.com.