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Russia is trying to disrupt 2024 Paris Olympics, Microsoft says


Russia is trying to disrupt 2024 Paris Olympics, Microsoft says

PARIS — Russia is trying to undermine the 2024 Paris Olympics through disinformation campaigns that blend old propaganda tactics with artificial intelligence, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft’s threat analysis center said in a report that the Kremlin’s goals are to denigrate the reputation of the International Olympic Committee and create an expectation that violence will break out at the Paris Olympic Games, which will take place from July 26 to Aug. 11 in the French capital and in locations across France and its overseas territories.

Russia “seeks to spread public fear to deter spectators from attending the Games,” wrote Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center, in an accompanying blog post. The company warned that disinformation could intensify in the lead-up to the Opening Ceremonies.

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The report appears to confirm allegations made by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said in April that Russia had been targeting the games by pushing the narrative that France wouldn’t be ready to host. At the time, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the allegations “completely unfounded.”

Cyberattacks and information operations are the largest threats facing the Paris Olympics, according to Dale Buckner, chief executive of the private security firm Global Guardian and a retired U.S. Army colonel. Those attacks have probably already begun, he said, and are likely to multiply, with French authorities going “on the offensive” as the Games approach to crack down on groups planning attacks.

In a report about the Paris Games published last month, Global Guardian said that while some attacks on the Olympics have been tied directly to Russian intelligence services, “most of them were attributable to private criminal organizations” that have ties to Russian intelligence but “are motivated principally by profit.”

Russia “wants to make the Games look bad, make the French system look bad, make the country of France look bad and its politicians look bad,” Buckner said. “It almost doesn’t matter what the tactics are.”

Among the disinformation campaigns documented by Microsoft is a film called “Olympics Has Fallen,” featuring an AI-generated voice impersonating actor Tom Cruise, and following a “strange, meandering script” disparaging the Olympic committee’s leadership. The film began circulating on social media last summer, Microsoft reported, and has more recently been accompanied by other propaganda.

Russia has also spread false news clips claiming that a quarter of Olympics tickets purchased had been returned due to fear of terrorism. Another clip included a false security warning from the CIA. Among the most worrying methods of disinformation, Microsoft said, are social media accounts that appear to impersonate militant organizations and fabricate threats to the Games.

Microsoft said the propaganda campaigns fit into a long-held pattern of trying to undermine the Olympics.

Russia was banned from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics following a wide-ranging IOC investigation into state-sponsored doping campaigns. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the IOC suspended the Russian Olympic Committee and banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing under their national flags. Last year, the IOC confirmed that Russian athletes would be allowed to compete in the Paris Games — but only under the status of “individual neutral athletes” and only if they do not actively support the war.

The ban has played into a “slow burn” of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s displeasure with the IOC, Microsoft wrote.

“If they cannot participate in or win the Games, then they seek to undercut, defame, and degrade the international competition in the minds of participants, spectators, and global audiences,” Microsoft wrote in its report.

France is grappling with the long arm of Russian influence in other arenas. When Stars of David were tagged onto buildings in northern Paris last year, prompting fear among France’s Jewish community, France condemned Russian interference. More recently, red hands — a fraught symbol that some associate with the killing of two Israeli soldiers by a crowd in the West Bank in 2000 — were tagged onto a wall built in honor of individuals who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, prompting Macron to denounce “odious antisemitism.” But French media have reported that authorities now believe Russia may have been responsible.

Buckner said Russia is poised to exploit tensions within French society, including over the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, to generate negative discourse ahead of the Games. The difference between the Paris Olympics and the previous Games in China in 2022, Japan in 2021 and South Korea in 2018 is that “we didn’t have two hot wars then,” he said. “Any kind of conflict [Russia] can stir … they’re going to do.”

Gregg reported from Washington.

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