Digital security provider Qurium on Monday (March 4, 2024) uncovered a “Russian-controlled” infrastructure behind a crude deep fake of journalist Maria Ressa.

While the poorly made deep fake was used to promote a cryptocurrency scam, it was also an attempt to discredit Ressa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression” and for standing up to repressive regimes. 

“Russian controlled infrastructure was used to set up the clone articles that featured the deepfake of Maria Ressa promoting Bitcoins,” Qurium said in a report.

Ressa won the Nobel award with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, whose Novaya Gazeta has been targeted by the Kremlin and forced to suspend publication. Muratov has been designated by Russia as a “foreign agent.”

Qurium also noted that the deep fake, which was promoted as an ad on the Microsoft Network, had planted the “seed,” although untrue or unthinkable, that Ressa had benefited from bitcoin.

Video metadata indicated the work of Russian editors, Qurium said. It also found ties to a defunct Russian company and a Russian-linked “network of malicious advertisers” allegedly involved in online fraud.

“Although the deepfake video followed the rule book of a regular scam where a celebrity was used to promote Bitcoins, it was made by Russians, and disseminated to a Philippine audience to maligning Maria Ressa,” Qurium said.

The ads carried statements such as “The end for her?” and “Maria Ressa could be sued for her remarks on TV.”

Qurium’s findings point to a potential overlap between online fraudsters and foreign-backed operations to influence the public by discrediting the work and reputation of journalists. Felipe F. Salvosa II

This report was made possible by an Internews project to build the capacity of news organizations in understanding disinformation and influence operations in the Philippines.