US officials discover alleged Russian ‘bot farm’

image source, Good pictures

  • author, Mike Wendling
  • stock, BBC News

U.S. officials say they have cracked down on an AI-powered information operation operating out of Russia, including nearly 1,000 accounts impersonating Americans.

Accounts on X are designed to spread pro-Russian stories, but are automated “bots” — not real people.

In court documents made public on Tuesday, the US Justice Department said the operation was engineered by a deputy editor of Kremlin-owned RT, formerly Russia Today.

RT operates TV channels in English and several other languages, but is more popular on social media than regular channels.

The Justice Department seized two websites used to publish emails associated with the bot accounts and ordered X to turn over information related to 968 accounts.

According to court documents, artificial intelligence was used to create accounts that then spread pro-Russian story lines, particularly about the war in Ukraine.

“Today’s actions are the first to disrupt an AI-enhanced social media bot farm being developed with Russian support,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“Russia plans to use this bot farm to undermine our partners in Ukraine, influence geopolitical narratives favorable to the Russian government, scale their mission with the help of AI, and spread AI-generated foreign disinformation,” Mr Ray said in a statement.

The accounts now appear to have been deleted by X, and screenshots shared by FBI investigators indicate they have very few followers.

image source, X/Judiciary

image caption, Screenshots of two of the fake accounts shared by FBI investigators

Another RT employee created the network, and a Russian intelligence official later joined the effort, which the Justice Department described as an attempt to “sow discord in the United States by spreading disinformation.”

RT’s deputy editor-in-chief Anna Belkina told the BBC by email: “My farm (dacha) – mostly tomatoes and strawberries, but unfortunately without any help from the FSB,” the Russian security service.

No criminal charges have been made public in the case, but the Justice Department said its investigation is ongoing.

Nina Jankovic, president of the American Sunlight Project, a nonprofit that fights the spread of disinformation, said it’s no surprise that Russia-linked activity relies on AI to create fake accounts.

“It used to be the most time-consuming part of their work; now it’s made much smoother by the technologies that underpin the operation,” he said, adding that the operation appears to have been thwarted before it gained traction.

“Artificial intelligence is now part of the disinformation arsenal,” Ms Jankovic said.

The BBC contacted X and the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.

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