War in Ukraine

Russian Disinformation Network Responsible for Fake Story of Zelenska's Bugatti Purchase


According to a report from the BBC on July 3, a network of websites based in Russia masking as US newspapers has launched an AI-enhanced campaign to spread fake news stories ahead of the upcoming American presidential election, involving a fabricated story alleging that Ukraine's First Lady, Olena Zelenska, used $4.8 million in US taxpayer funds to purchase a Bugatti luxury car.

The story, riddled with inaccuracies, included an AI-generated video featuring a supposed Bugatti salesman confirming the purchase.

This misinformation originated from a fake news site affiliated with a Russian disinformation operation first exposed by BBC Verify last year, initially targeting Ukraine's government.

Despite being swiftly debunked and refuted by Bugatti, which threatened legal action against its spreaders, the story reached an audience of at least 12 million on X.

Experts describe this operation as part of a broader, Kremlin-led disinformation campaign during the U.S. election season, akin in scale to previous efforts targeting the West.

According to BBC, a central figure in this effort is John Mark Dougan, a former US Marine turned police officer in Florida and Maine during the 2000s. Dougan, now residing in Moscow, has been involved in publishing genuine information such as police officers' home addresses alongside fake stories and rumors. His activities drew the attention of the FBI, prompting him to flee to Russia in 2016.

Since relocating, Dougan has authored books, reported from occupied parts of Ukraine, and participated in Russian military events and media, including outlets owned by Russia’s Ministry of Defence. He has indicated that his actions are motivated by a desire for retribution against American authorities.

John Mark Dougan, an ex US police officer running AI-powered network of fake news outlets in Moscow. Source: X
John Mark Dougan, an ex US police officer running AI-powered network of fake news outlets in Moscow. Source: X

Substantial digital evidence links Dougan to the Russia-based websites involved in the disinformation campaign.

This is not the first time Russia has employed similar tactics to discredit the family of the Ukrainian president - similar allegation once again came against Mrs. Zelenska, claiming the First Lady had spent 1.1 million at Cartier in September 2023. The story displayed traits similar to those of the fake Bugatti video as was also debunked.

Experts informed the BBC that although many of these stories receive only a few views, some can exert a disproportionate influence and perpetuate false narratives as elections approach.

See all