The truth behind Olena Zelenska’s $1.1m Cartier haul

Cartier jewellery, Louis Vuitton bags, Gucci tracksuits, private jets—Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, has a taste for the good life and is using foreign aid money to fund it. Or so Ukraine’s enemies would have you believe. As soon as Western governments started sending weapons and money to Ukraine, following Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Russophiles and isolationists began pushing phoney claims about the extent of corruption in the country. Often Ms Zelenska and her husband, President Volodymyr Zelensky, are the focus of these lies. In 2023, for example, the Kremlin spread the fiction that Ukraine’s first couple had bought a German villa formerly owned by Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist for the Nazis. That conveniently served the Kremlin’s false narrative that Mr Zelensky is a Nazi sympathiser (never mind that he is Jewish).

The claim was salacious enough to catch people’s attention while also speaking to legitimate worries about Ukraine’s history of corruption and squandered aid money. News outlets and big accounts on X and TikTok amplified the story, lending it credibility. You may not have seen the story, but millions of people did.

To understand how this disinformation spread, Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, traced its origins. A successful online disinformation campaign involves three stages. First is “placement”, or the initial posting of the lie. Then comes “layering”, where the lie spreads among online accounts and dodgy news websites, obscuring its origin. The final stage is “integration”: when credible sources, such as real news websites and social-media accounts pick it up. Here’s how all that happened in the Olena Zelenska story.

In September, a woman claiming to be an intern at Cartier in New York shared her experience of serving Ms Zelenska—and subsequently getting fired—on her Instagram account.

She even had a receipt from Cartier to substantiate her claim. But it was doctored. An investigation by the BBC and Open Online, an Italian news site, later identified the woman using facial-recognition software. Far from being a Cartier employee in New York, she was probably a beautician in St Petersburg. In any case, Ms Zelenska was in Canada on the date listed on the receipt.

By the time the story was gaining traction, the woman’s Instagram account had switched from public to private. But an anonymous YouTube account had already uploaded her story. This video was its only post.

At first glance, DC Weekly looks like any other news homepage, covering American politics and world affairs. Its stories lean anti-Western and peddle claims of corruption in Ukraine. As with the Cartier scandal, their evidence comes from videos planted on YouTube.

But a closer look reveals its true nature. The researchers identified that the website stole and republished thousands of articles and headlines from mainstream Western outlets. Then it pivoted to using generative artificial-intelligence (AI) models to produce stories. DC Weekly appears to be owned by John Mark Dougan, a former American police officer who defected to Russia in 2016 and now works as a pro-Russia journalist.

The website is one of many fake, AI-generated news sites pumping out stories like this. It offers a case study in the ways in which new technology is being used to help bad actors construct and build up false narratives faster than ever before, and across multiple platforms.

Hourly mentions of Zelenska-Cartier

story on X (formerly Twitter)

Story appears in Russian media.

Re-posted by the Russian Embassy UK

“Cartier Intern” video

posted on Youtube

Story appears

in DC Weekly

Story appears on

NetAfrique.ne

Source: Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, X

Hourly mentions of Zelenska-Cartier

story on X (formerly Twitter)

1 “Cartier Intern” video posted on Youtube

2 Story appears on NetAfrique.ne

3 Story appears in DC Weekly

4 Story appears in Russian media. Re-posted

by the Russian Embassy UK

Source: Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, X

Hourly mentions of Zelenska-Cartier

story on X (formerly Twitter)

Story appears in Russian media.

Re-posted by the Russian Embassy UK

“Cartier Intern” video

posted on Youtube

Story appears

in DC Weekly

Story appears on

NetAfrique.ne

Source: Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, X

Once layering is complete, the final step is disseminating the disinformation widely. The researchers estimate that the lie about Ms Zelenska’s shopping spree was shared in English at least 20,000 times on X. None of this happened by accident. First “seeder” social-media accounts strategically posted the lie, then “spreader” accounts disseminated it across different social networks.

One seeder was an account calling itself “Woke Martin”, which used an image of Ryan Gosling as Ken from the film “Barbie” as a profile picture. Woke Martin shows several tell-tale signs of being a plant. The account only started posting in the week of October 3rd, 2023, and all of its roughly 300 followers were empty, shell accounts with no pictures or account details.

Woke Martin and other accounts, such as the unimaginatively named “Russian Trol” (who has since been blocked on X), began sharing links to the story in the Nation in replies to posts by politicians and right-leaning influencers.

Eventually, the Zelenska-Cartier rumour became old news. Some of those who saw the story may also have seen the various articles debunking it, but most probably did not. AI is making it easier both to create disinformation in the form of images, videos and text (see our story on the science of disinformation), and to spread it through fake websites, like DC Weekly, and social-media accounts. Campaigns like this are probably going to become more sophisticated and increasingly common.

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