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Whose deepfake personas are these and how many more are out there?

6 min read

The placing of 90 op-eds in a range of 40+ media outlets signals some real disinformation problems at work. One guess is that one of many (Saudi/UAE/Russia?) intelligence services have been doing this. This Daily Beast article shows how deep the information battle operates.

Badani is part of a network of at least 19 fake personas that has spent the past year placing more than 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications. The articles heaped praise on the United Arab Emirates and advocated for a tougher approach to Qatar, Turkey, Iran and its proxy groups in Iraq and Lebanon.


At times, the network’s operators displayed either a mischievous sense of irony or a complete lack of self-awareness. One of its earliest pieces, “How Qatar is using Disinformation Tactics to Attack its Rivals,” complained about the state-funded Al Jazeera’s broadcasts and lamented that ”The landscape highlights a fascinating case study of how fake news can affect regional political discourse.”…

Meet The Arab Eye/Persia Now network.

The network had about 17 different personas. Most on Twitter. Some not.

How do we know they're fake? After The Daily Beast presented our findings to Twitter, the company suspended them for violating platform manipulation and spam policies. But there's a whole lot more evidence than that.
First off: stolen photos. The accounts took photos of real people and passed them off as someone different—without the real people's knowledge or consent. We found about four of those. You can see side by side. They mirrored them, most likely to defeat reverse image searches.

Some of them appear to have been AI-generated using the kind of artificial intelligence software you see in ThisPersonDoesNotExist. Take “Joseph Labba” here.

Fake faces generated by AI are fairly convincing but they do glitch out on some things, like ears and teeth. They seem to have trouble with the ear creases, like Joe here.

Teeth are another sticking point. The algorithm seems to have glitched out on Joe, who wrote for pubs like The Post Millennial, when doing his teeth. Instead of two front teeth and two incisors, he has three (?) front teeth.

(In case you're wondering why I was asking for dentists to hit me up this week)

We asked a dentist to review the pic and he said it looks off too: “This mouth looks either fake or has some sad dental story behind it…The third tooth from the center does not look real to me. If you compare it with the canine on the other side it is obvious.”

Some of them, like “Lisa Moore” and “Joyce Toledano” here have the kind of eerily symmetrical faces you see in images generated by documented networks like this one busted by Graphika/DFR Lab

Overlay the faces of those two personas, ratchet up the transparency, and they’re nigh on identical
So what else makes them seem off? Well, it's a little weird that so many people who were contributors to two suspicious sites (more on those in a bit) all (except one) had account creation dates in March or April

They (mostly) presented themselves as living in European cities and had some fairly similar bios as “political analysts” and consultants.

And then there's their bios. A few had LinkedIn pages. Most didn't. My favorite was the author page for “Amani Shah” at @GVS_News. Imagine my surprise when I found out she claimed to do “ghostwriting” for The Daily Beast

Needless to say, we don't hire ghostwriters and this person never wrote for us.
Most of these fake personas wrote for two websites, The Arab Eye and Persia Now. The sites don't say so but they're linked. Created on the same day. Share a google analytics account. Both at the same IP. Share SSL certs with the same group of other websites.

Persia Now listed an address in London. Couldn't find it for the life of me. They also had a phone number. Called. Texted. Nobody's home :/
(Not everyone who wrote for them is a fake persona. Some people who wrote for them are very real and legit)
So what did they write about? Quite a bit! Themes the network harped on were about taking a tougher stance on Iran, combating Iranian influence in Lebanon/Iraq and cracking down on their proxies there.

Qatar: Not big fans! Here's “Joyce Toledano” giving her Take™ on the subject.

Another thing they didn't like: the Muslim Brotherhood or Tawakkol Karman. Facebook appointed Karman, a 2011 Nobel laureate, to their oversight board. This network weren't so wild about it.

Where did they write? Lots of places. American conservative pubs where these personas placed opeds included Washington Examiner, NewsMax, Post Millennial, American Thinker, RealClear Markets.

Others appeared to target Israeli and Jewish news outlets like Jerusalem Post, Jewish News Service, and Arutz Sheva

Another couple of accounts focused on East and Southeast Asian pubs. (this one stole the profile picture of an unwitting financial analyst in Singapore and managed to rack up a few bylines in the South China Morning Post.

The person who deserves the credit for uncovering this is @marcowenjones. Marc does great work uncovering disinformation networks and he was the first to spot something wrong with “Lin Nguyen” and “Raphael Badani.” Do yourself a favor and follow Marc.
I'm very tired and have not slept a lot lately so this is how I’m gonna end this entirely too long thread. I'm sure I forgot some stuff.

@mentions is an invaluable resource and has helped me with forensic image analysis on Russian Secondary Infektion disinfo forgeries. Here’s his work on one of the avatars in the network



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