A Bugatti, a first lady and the fake stories aimed at Americans

A network of fake news websites, masquerading as local American newspapers, is operating out of Russia and targeting the US election. The network, revealed in a BBC investigation, is reportedly headed by John Mark Dougan, a former Florida police officer now residing in Moscow. The operation utilizes artificial intelligence to generate and distribute fake stories, which are often shared by social media influencers, despite being easily debunked.

The false stories aim to influence US voters, sow distrust, and target political figures, with themes ranging from Ukrainian corruption, US aid spending, and the inner workings of French high society. One of the more recent and widely spread fake stories alleged that Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, had purchased a Bugatti sports car with funds from American military aid money. The story was debunked by experts who found irregularities in the posted invoice and videos, with the automaker, Bugatti, issuing a sharp denial and threatening legal action.

Another false story aimed at American politics involved the allegation that the FBI illegally wiretapped Donald Trump’s Florida resort. The story was published on a site called The Houston Post, which is part of a larger network of websites with American-sounding names but is, in reality, run from Moscow.

Researchers believe that the operation is part of a broader ongoing effort led from Moscow to spread disinformation during the US election campaign, despite no hard evidence that these specific fake news websites are directly linked to the Russian state. The BBC attempted to contact Mr. Hinkle for comment, but received no response.

The fakes are spread through the use of artificial intelligence, the generation of thousands of news articles posted across dozens of websites with American-sounding names, and the creation of YouTube videos, often featuring actors or AI-generated voices. Hundreds of fake journalists with made-up names and profile pictures from the internet are also used to make the network’s reporters seem real.

While John Mark Dougan is identified as one of the key figures in the operation, he denies any involvement. His name has been connected to the network through digital evidence and the fact that he has been living in Russia for some time. The operation is suspected of having other financiers, and experts believe Dougan may just be a bit player in the broader campaign.

The network’s influence has shifted from stories about the war in Ukraine to stories about American and British politics. As the US election approaches, experts caution that the volume of content being posted and the increasing sophistication of Russia-based efforts could potentially pose a significant problem, with false narratives taking hold in the “information ocean” of a major election campaign.

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