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Russia used fake AI Tom Cruise in Olympic disinformation campaign

Microsoft threat researchers report a surge in Russian disinformation campaigns targeting the 2024 Summer Olympics, including AI-enhanced propaganda

With their athletes excluded from the international sporting community after a succession of doping scandals and the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia-backed and -aligned threat actors are ramping up malicious disinformation campaigns against the upcoming Summer Olympics, blending decades-old tactics with a new focus on artificial intelligence (AI).

This is according to the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center (MTAC), which has been tracking disinformation campaigns targeting not just the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but the host country of France and leading politicians, including president Emmanuel Macron.

According to Clint Watts, MTAC general manager, the current scope of Russian operations has two main aims – to denigrate the reputation of the IOC and to create the expectation of violence breaking out in Paris during the games themselves.

Watts said several Russian influence actors – tracked in its taxonomy as Storm-1679 and Storm-1099 – have been observed targeting the Olympic Games, and have been doing so for the past 12 months.

Among the tactics deployed by Storm-1679 was the release of a feature-length film called Olympics Has Fallen – likely a play on the 2013 thriller Olympus Has Fallen – disparaging the IOC, which used an AI-generated audio sample impersonating actor Tom Cruise to imply his involvement.

“Slick, computer-generated special effects and a broad marketing campaign including faked endorsements from Western media outlets and celebrities indicates a significant increase in skill and effort compared to most influence operations,” said Watts.

Storm-1679 has also been observed spreading fear of crime or violence erupting in Paris during the Olympics, including through fake videos exploiting the branding of genuine media outlets. In these reports, which supposedly originated from EuroNews and France24, Storm-1679 claimed Parisians were taking out enhanced insurance policies in anticipation of terrorist attacks, and that nearly a quarter of tickets had been returned by people cancelling their trips to France.

Storm-1679 also produced fake video press releases exploiting the CIA and France’s General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) warning people to stay away from Paris, and since November, it has also been leaning into the war in Gaza, producing images that seem to show graffiti in Paris threatening the safety of Israeli attendees. MTAC said the graffiti was almost certainly digitally generated. A similar series of images and videos circulated reference the terrorist attacks on the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which 11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer were murdered, although its provenance cannot be linked to a specific threat actor.

Fake news

Meanwhile, Storm-1099 – also known as Doppelganger – has been observed using an array of French language “news” sites, including one known as Reliable News Network (RNN), to make claims of IOC corruption and warn of violent incidents at the Olympics. This messaging also includes forged content exploiting legitimate French outlets, including Le Parisien and Le Point, to back these claims and castigate Macron’s “showmanship” and indifference to wider problems in French society.

MTAC is now warning that these campaigns are likely to intensify in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, which begin on Friday 26 July.

“Predominantly French-language activities will likely expand to English, German and other languages to maximise visibility and traction online, and the use of generative AI will also likely increase,” said Watts.

“While video has traditionally been a powerful tool for Russian IO campaigns and will remain so, we are likely to see a tactical shift towards online bots and automated social media accounts. These can offer the illusion of widespread support by quickly flooding social media channels and give the Russians a level of plausible deniability.

He continued: “On the ground, Russian actors may look to exploit the focus on stringent security by creating the illusions of protests or real-world provocations, thus undermining confidence in the IOC and French security forces. In-person staging of events – whether real or orchestrated – near or around Olympic venues could be used to manipulate public perceptions and generate a sense of fear and uncertainty.

“Microsoft remains committed to protecting the conduct and integrity of the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. MTAC will monitor and report on any campaigns stemming from Kremlin-backed actors in the lead-up to and opening of the Paris games,” said Watts.

Read more about disinformation

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  • UNESCO outlines seven proposals for civil society, governments, regulators and tech platforms to adopt to combat the source of disinformation.

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