Russian Bots Use Fake Tom Cruise for Olympic Disinformation

The accounts aim to play on fears of terrorism in France.

Bloomberg News

June 3, 2024

3 Min Read
flags for the olympics games 2024 France Paris

(Bloomberg) -- A pro-Russian propaganda effort is using artificial intelligence as part of a vast operation to suggest that violence is likely to occur at the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris, according to Microsoft Corp. findings released Sunday.

One disinformation group used fake AI-generated audio to make it appear as if actor Tom Cruise had narrated a video titled Olympics Has Fallen, modeled after the 2013 action movie Olympus Has Fallen, researchers found. The video, which spread in the fall of 2023, presented itself as a Netflix Inc. documentary, including with the use of Netflix’s signature introduction that the company uses on all of its streaming videos. 

The video also included falsified endorsements from well-known media outlets including the New York Times and the BBC.

In fact, the influence campaign was the work of a pro-Russian propaganda group that Microsoft calls Storm-1679, the company said. The video represented one example of a rapidly growing pool of suspected Russian operators who are working now to denigrate the image of the Olympics and France, the Games’ host country, after the International Olympic Committee prohibited Russian athletes from competing under the country’s flag.

In addition to disinformation, hackers probably began first probing IT systems linked to the Games for weaknesses about a year ago and then began ramping up actual attacks 4 months before the Games to try and disrupt them, he says.

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The aim of the Russian-affiliated groups appears to be to deter people from attending the games, according to the report. Microsoft’s researchers said they expect the activity will intensify ahead of the July kickoff, with the Russian groups adding additional languages and harnessing generative artificial intelligence to expand their reach. 

“We think this is the number one security threat to the Games,” said Dale Buckner, a 24-year US Army veteran and chief executive officer of Global Guardian. The potential impact of disinformation and hacking at the Olympics could lead to disruptions and unrest at the event, said Bruckner, whose company provides security to Fortune 1000 executives and will do so in Paris.

“With AI now you’re going to have a level of disinformation we haven’t seen before.”

The IOC and Paris 2024 organizers didn’t immediately return a request for comment. A representative for the Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Researchers determined that pro-Russian groups also impersonated France24, a French media outlet, in a video which falsely claimed that 24% of Olympic ticket-buyers had sought refunds amid fears of terrorism in Paris. Terrorism has haunted Paris in recent years, including a murder in 2023 and the 2015 Islamic State attacks in which 130 people died and hundreds more were injured. 

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Safety concerns have arisen amid the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said in May, adding that the IOC has “full confidence” in France’s ability to keep the Games secure. Authorities are instituting special anti-terrorism measures, enforcing increased background checks and cutting the number of spectators allowed to watch the opening ceremony along the Seine River.

The promotion of such misinformation comes amid growing scrutiny of Russian propaganda in Europe, where European Union officials have taken issue with the way that propaganda groups use the messaging app Telegram to broadcast their messaging. 

Such posts typically fail to generate much attention on social media. The extent to which such misinformation operations impact public perceptions remains an open question. Instead, national security officials and internet researchers have pointed to propaganda efforts as indicators of a country’s geopolitical interests.

Falsified local news outlets currently are a major focus of digital operatives. One disinformation campaign, known as Doppelganger,  recently has portrayed itself as German media outlets to inflame anti-immigration sentiment in that country, and sought to undercut support for Ukraine via English-language posts, according to the cyber firm Recorded Future Inc. Doppelganger also posed as an outlet called Reliable News Network to warn of potential violence at the Olympics, Microsoft found. 

Russian-based hackers have been implicated in an attack on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and a 2016 hack on the World Anti-Doping Agency that released the private medical information of several athletes. 

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