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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fake news reports and videos seek to undermine the Paris Olympics

Stands under construction for a Summer Olympics venue at Place de la Concorde in Paris, April 4, 2024. (Dmitry Kostyukov/the New York Times)

By Julian E. Barnes and Steven Lee Myers

With its athletes barred from competing in the Summer Olympics under the country’s flag, Russia has turned its fury on the Games and this year’s host, Paris.

Russian propagandists have created an hourlong documentary, spoofed news reports and even mimicked French and U.S. intelligence agencies to issue fake warnings urging people to avoid the Games, according to a report released Sunday by Microsoft.

The report details the disinformation campaign created by a group the company calls Storm-1679. The campaign appears to have accelerated since March, flooding social media with short videos raising alarms about possible terrorist attacks and stoking fears about safety.

The operation, while aimed at the Games, is using various techniques to spread disinformation that could also be employed in European and U.S. elections.

U.S. and French officials have tracked the campaign. One U.S. official said that Russian disinformation, spread by the Kremlin via social media, continued to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.

The group has also tried to goad fact-checkers into examining its claims, hoping to use the attention to spread the disinformation to new audiences as it is called out.

For months, French officials have focused on the ways Russia could seek to undermine the Games. Hackers affiliated with Russian intelligence disrupted the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, and French officials are preparing for more cyberattacks this year.

France raised its terrorism warning level after an Islamic State group attack in Moscow in March and threats against high-profile soccer matches in Paris. France also has increased security for the Olympics. Neither French nor U.S. officials are warning people to stay away from the Games, but the Russian disinformation campaign is designed to scare people into doing just that.

Researchers at Microsoft and U.S. government officials have identified a number of groups affiliated with the Kremlin that are spreading disinformation aimed at Europe and the United States.

Some are directed by aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others are affiliated with Russian intelligence. Some hide behind fake nonprofit groups. Others are veterans of the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg troll farm that spread election propaganda in 2016. The agency was run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of a mercenary group who led a rebellion against the Kremlin and then was killed in a plane crash last year.

Storm-1679 appears separate from those efforts, according to Microsoft. The group’s disinformation is aligned with Kremlin propaganda, but few specifics about it are known.

Bellingcat, a research group that uses publicly available data to conduct open source investigations, has been targeted by disinformation videos and has watched the campaign unfold. Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, says his group has not established whether Storm-1679 is backed by the Russian government or is independent.

“It could be Prigozhin 2.0 doing work for the Kremlin, or an overimaginative pro-Russian blogger doing it for kicks; we just don’t know at this point,” Higgins said.

The work began in earnest last summer with the release of a fake documentary about the International Olympic Committee, expropriating Netflix’s logo and using an artificial-intelligence-powered voice impersonating Tom Cruise. The committee succeeded in having the video — a spoof of the 2013 film “Olympus Has Fallen” — removed from YouTube. The attacks have continued, though, with persistent efforts to discredit its leadership, the committee said in March, citing a campaign that used fake recordings of what purported to be telephone calls by officials of the African Union on behalf of Russia.

The group known as Storm-1679 now appears to be making shorter videos that are easier to create. It used to focus on disparaging Ukrainian refugees in the West, but after French President Emmanuel Macron began to publicly consider sending French troops to Ukraine, it shifted to the Olympics.

Microsoft estimates that Storm-1679 produces three to eight faked videos a week, in English and French, with many impersonating the BBC, Al Jazeera and other broadcasters. The group appears to respond quickly to news events, such as protests in New Caledonia, a French territory in the Pacific. Others focus on the prospect of a terrorist attack in Paris.

Most of the videos pretending to be from the CIA and French intelligence are relatively simple. They are unlike anything the CIA has actually produced, but to unsuspecting readers online, they could appear legitimate, using the agency’s logo and stark white-on-black typography.

“They are trying to cultivate an anticipation of violence,” Clint Watts, head of Microsoft’s Digital Threat Analysis Center, said of the group behind the fake posts. “They want people to be fearful of going to the Olympics.”

A CIA spokesperson said a video that circulated online in February purporting to be a warning from the agency warning of terrorist attacks during the Games was a fabrication.

In February, Viginum, the government agency in France that combats disinformation online, identified the fake CIA video as part of a campaign it called Matryoshka, after the nesting dolls that are popular in Russia.

The campaign was also responsible for fake videos about the domestic French intelligence agency, the French government. A person briefed on the French investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments, said that Viginum and the French Foreign Ministry were quickly identifying the Russian disinformation from the group aimed at undermining the Olympics.

French officials and Microsoft say one of the group’s tactics appears to be trying to get the attention of fact-checking organizations.

“Normally, when Storm-1679 posts content on Telegram, it circulates there for a day or two and then goes away,” Watts said. “The content doesn’t normally travel from one platform to another, but when their false content is fact-checked by accounts with a large following, the content gets far more views and in front of new and different audiences.”

Higgins said if baiting fact-checkers was part of the group’s strategy, it did not appear to be an effective one. Bellingcat, he said, is aware that reporting on disinformation can draw attention to the propaganda, and that is factored in when his organization fact-checks videos.

“It doesn’t appear that their messages are getting amplified,” Higgins said. “Even among the usual circles who lap up Russian disinformation, we don’t see them being shared at all.”

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