The fake explosion quickly went viral online
A fake image that appeared to show an explosion next to the Pentagon caused a temporary crash in the stock market after Russia reportedly took advantage of Elon Musk’s Twitter’s lax rules for verification.
The image, which showed a large cloud of black smoke next to the US headquarters of the Department of Defence, appears to have been created with AI technology.
It is understood to have been originally posted by an account with a blue checkmark – which was once a confirmation of the validity of a Twitter account, but since Elon Musk’s takeover of the site, can now be purchased for $8.
The image was quickly recirculated by verified, but fake, news accounts, and even prompted Russia state-backed news channel RT to claim there had been “reports of an explosion near the Pentagon”.
And the S&P 500 appeared to be impacted by the image, briefly dropping by 0.25 per cent.
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Speaking on podcast Battleground: Ukraine, Dmytro Plieshakov, who runs a startup fighting disinformation called Osavul, said the creator of the image had “Created a Twitter account, bought Twitter blue for eight bucks, and they mimicked to be like a Bloomberg, or big, well-known media and posited a deepfake image of an explosion next to the Pentagon.
“It was one image, and it was pretty easy to debunk that nothing happened there. After a couple of hours, everyone understood there was no real explosion.
“But the public markets, the stock markets, reacted instantly with a huge dip, which was regained, but the loss was there. Some people were able to gain money on that, some people lost money.”
He added this was a clear example of the “impact of one small image which is disinformative”.
Elon Musk’s Twitter enables anyone to purchase a blue verification checkmark
Mr Plieshakov added: “Imagine if it’s something more long-term, something more planned, and something which is designed to attack you in a broader meaning.”
Fact-checkers and officials quickly disputed the image. Department of Defence spokesperson Phillip Ventura told the Reuters news agency that the reports of an explosion were “false”.
The local fire department, Arlington Fire, tweeted: “There is NO explosion or incident taking place at or near the Pentagon reservation, and there is no immediate danger or hazards to the public.”
While it hasn’t been confirmed whether the image was made using AI tools, it does feature some of the hallmarks of AI-generated images. For instance, the columns on the supposed building in the hoax photo vary in size, and the fence appears to blend into the sidewalk in some places.
Multiple experts previously told Express.co.uk that it is very likely Russian disinformation hackers will have already been working “for months” to sow disruption around hot-button issues, ranging from the invasion of Ukraine to domestic issues.
Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Information Labs Ltd. and a specialist in cybersecurity, internet law and governance told Express.co.uk: “The Russian disinformation has been based on themes: one, COVID origin stories, two, anti-vax, and three, the Ukraine invasion.”
She also hypothesised that issues such as low-traffic neighbourhoods and trans rights which are subjects of fierce online discussion, are likely having fuel added to the flames by Russian disinformation.
She said of low-traffic neighbourhoods: “The communities are absolutely divided about their reactions to it. For me, this is fertile territory for external interference.”
Explaining why Russia does this, Ms Taylor said: “It weakens the enemy. A divided Europe, which they’ve got, a divided NATO, and also down to the micro level.”
“Russia punches well above its rate weight, because of Vladimir Putin’s background as a KGB agent and through the Cold War. Disinformation is incredibly powerful.”
Cybersecurity experts previously told Express.co.uk how deepfakes could be used to target “anyone”, and how they may undermine the legal system if it does not adapt.
Ms Taylor said Putin’s background enabled Russia to ‘punch above its weight’
Mr Plieshakov said it isn’t clear who precisely organises Russia’s disinformation campaigns, but said: “On a broader level, yes there are organisations there that are focused on this. Yes, unfortunately, even young and creative people in Russia also participate in this. It’s not like these are old-fashioned generals planning these things.”
He said this was bad news for many in the West who view the invasion solely as “Putin’s war” and believed the “young, creative and educated people are against it. That’s not necessarily the case.”
The cybersecurity expert added the shady private military company Wagner even organises “hackathons” in Russia.
When asked by Express.co.uk to comment on the dangerous consequences of disinformation being freely shared by blue checkmark accounts, Twitter responded with a poo emoji, which has been their standard response to press enquiries for several months.
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