US officials uncover alleged Russian ‘bot farm’

Image source, Getty Images

  • Author, Mike Wendling
  • Role, BBC News

US officials say they have taken action against an AI-powered information operation run from Russia, including nearly 1,000 accounts pretending to be Americans.

The accounts on X were designed to spread pro-Russia stories but were automated “bots” – not real people.

In court documents made public Tuesday the US justice department said the operation was devised by a deputy editor at Kremlin-owned RT, formerly Russia Today.

RT runs TV channels in English and several other languages, but appears much more popular on social media than on conventional airwaves.

The justice department seized two websites that were used to issue emails associated with the bot accounts, and ordered X to turn over information relating to 968 accounts that investigators say were bots.

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

“Today’s actions represent a first in disrupting a Russian-sponsored generative AI-enhanced social media bot farm,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“Russia intended to use this bot farm to disseminate AI-generated foreign disinformation, scaling their work with the assistance of AI to undermine our partners in Ukraine and influence geopolitical narratives favorable to the Russian government,” Mr Wray said in a statement.

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

Image source, X/Department of Justice

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

The court documents detailed how the so-called “bot farm” was the brainchild of an RT deputy editor-in-chief who was looking for new ways to distribute stories. RT America was shut down when several major US cable TV providers dropped it shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Another RT employee developed the network, the court documents said, and later a Russian intelligence officer joined the effort, which the justice department described as an attempt “to sow discord in the United States by spreading misinformation”.

Anna Belkina, RT’s deputy editor-in-chief, told the BBC via email: “I’m more than happy to tend to my farm (dacha) – made up mostly of tomatoes and strawberries, but sadly 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 that its investigation is ongoing.

Nina Jankowicz, head of the American Sunlight Project, a non-profit organisation attempting to combat the spread of disinformation, said it was not surprising that a Russia-linked operation was relying on AI to create fake accounts.

“This used to be one of the more time consuming parts of their work; now it has been made much smoother by the technologies that abetted this operation,” she said, noting that the operation appears to have been thwarted before it gained traction.

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

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

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