Justice Department says it disrupted Russian ‘bot farm’ used to spread propaganda in US

The US Justice Department said Tuesday that it seized two internet domains and searched nearly 1,000 social media accounts that Russian operatives allegedly used to pose as US residents to spread disinformation in the US and abroad.

The so-called bot farm used artificial intelligence to create fake social media profiles purporting to be people in the US and used those phony accounts to post support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to the Justice Department.

The elaborate scheme was organized by an employee of RT, the Russian state-owned media outlet, financed by the Kremlin, and aided an officer of Russia’s FSB intelligence, the Justice Department alleged.

The news comes as US intelligence officials are on heightened alert for efforts by Russia or other foreign powers to meddle in the 2024 election. US officials are watching closely to see whether the United States’ support for Ukraine will lead the Russian government to take more risks in potentially interfering in the 2024 presidential election, FBI officials previously said.

European countries have also been on high alert for a flood of Russian influence operations as the Kremlin tries to splinter support for Ukraine’s defense. Russian propagandists have ramped up efforts to denigrate the Paris Olympics this month, including through a fake documentary that uses AI to impersonate the actor Tom Cruise, according to Microsoft.

CNN has requested comment on the Justice Department announcement from the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, the Kremlin, the FSB and RT.

X voluntarily suspended the bot accounts identified in court documents, the Justice Department said. CNN has requested comment from X.

It wasn’t just the FBI that helped expose the alleged bot farm. US Cyber Command, the military’s offensive and defensive cyber unit, was involved, as were Dutch and Canadian security agencies. The bot farm also targeted Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Ukraine and Israel, according to an advisory released Tuesday by US, Dutch and Canadian authorities.

Long a mouthpiece for the Russian government, RT has seen some of its influence in the US wane in recent years as social media platforms have taken steps to block access to its output. But the outlet has looked for new ways to reach audiences, including, the Justice Department alleges, through an army of fake X accounts.

According to an affidavit from an FBI agent, RT leadership signed off on a proposal from an employee to use software to create a bot farm that “in theory” would “create multiple social media accounts through which RT … could distribute information on a wide-scale basis.” The scheme kicked into gear when Russian operatives bought one of two domain names in 2022 from an Arizona-based company, Namecheap, that were used to set up the bot farm, according to court documents.

The RT employee, an FSB officer and others had access to the bot farm, which included X accounts that purported to be interested in cryptocurrency, according to the Justice Department.

In one case, a fake account purporting to be based in Minneapolis posted a video of Russian President Vladimir Putin claiming that parts of Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania were a “gift” from Russian forces that freed them from Nazi control during World War II, the Justice Department said. In another case, a fake account replied to an unnamed US politician running for federal office with a video of Putin trying to justify Russia’s war in Ukraine, the department said.

The Justice Department “will not tolerate Russian government actors and their agents deploying AI to sow disinformation and fuel division among Americans,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement.

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