How Russian disinformation ended up at the top of Google search results

How Russian disinformation ended up at the top of Google search results
How Russian disinformation ended up at the top of Google search results

Within 24 hours, a piece of Russian disinformation about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wife buying a Bugatti car with US aid money traveled at breakneck speed across the internet. Although it originated from an unknown French website, it quickly became a household name. trending topic in X and in the first result on Google.

On Monday, July 1, a news item was posted on a website called Hidden TruthThe article’s headline read: “Olena Zelenska becomes first female owner of new Bugatti Tourbillon.” The article claimed that during a trip to Paris with her husband in June, the first lady was able to privately view a new Bugatti supercar worth $4.8 million and immediately placed an order. It also included a video of a man who claimed to work at the dealership.

But the video, like the website itself, was completely fake.

Hidden Truth is part of a network of websites likely linked to the Russian government that spreads Russian propaganda and disinformation to audiences across Europe and the United States, and that is powered by AI, according to researchers at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, who are tracking the group’s activities. The team found that similar websites in the network with names like “Great British Geopolitics” or “The Boston Times” use generative AI to create, scrape and manipulate content, publishing thousands of articles attributed to fake journalists.

Dozens of Russian media outlets, many of them owned or controlled by the Kremlin, covered the Bugatti story and quoted Hidden Truth as a source. Most of the articles appeared on July 2, and the story was spread on multiple pro-Kremlin Telegram channels that have hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers. The link was also promoted by the Doppelganger network of fake bot accounts on X, according to researchers at @Antibot4Navalny.

Bugatti said no

At the time, Bugatti issued a statement denying the story. But the misinformation quickly took hold on X, where it was posted by several pro-Kremlin accounts before being picked up by Jackson Hinkle, a pro-Russia, pro-Trump troll with 2.6 million followers. Hinkle shared the story, adding that it was “American taxpayer dollars” that paid for the car.

English-language websites began reporting on the story, citing social media posts from figures like Hinkle, as well as the article by Hidden TruthAs a result, anyone searching for “Zelenski Bugatti” on Google last week would be presented with a link to MSN, Microsoft’s news aggregator site, which republished an article written by Al Bawaba, a Middle Eastern news aggregator, citing “multiple social media users” and “rumors.”

Top spam

In a matter of hours, the fake news went from being an unknown website to becoming trending topic on the internet and on Google’s top result, highlighting how easy it is for bad actors to undermine people’s trust in what they see and read online. Google and Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The use of AI in disinformation campaigns erodes public trust in media outlets and institutions, and enables malicious actors to exploit vulnerabilities in the information ecosystem to spread false narratives at a much cheaper and faster scale than before,” said McKenzie Sadeghi, AI and Foreign Influence Editor at NewsGuard.

Hidden Truth is part of a network run by John Mark Dougan, a former US Marine who worked as a police officer in Florida and Maine in the 2000s, according to research by researchers at Recorded Future, Clemson University, NewsGuard and the BBC. Dougan now lives in Moscow, where he works with think tanks Russians and appears on Russian state television.

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