Unmasking the Mirage: How One Phoney Tom Cruise Documentary Helped Me Understand the Dark Underbelly of Digital Deceit

In the digital age, it becomes harder and harder to tell fact from fiction – as highlighted in recent weeks by an elaborate campaign of disinformation from Microsoft. The company announced finding a sophisticated faux-documentary, supposedly narrated by Tom Cruise, about alleged corruption surrounding the Paris Olympics. The episode shines a light on the layered world of digital propaganda, and the need to be vigilant in a hyperconnected world.

The Plot Thickens: A Documentary of Deception

At its centre is a phoney documentary series called Olympics Has Fallen. The narrator, who sounds and acts remarkably like Tom Cruise, is an artificial intelligence bot pretending to be a whistleblower on the staging of the Paris Olympic Games. The project was actually developed by Microsoft researchers who wanted to understand the mechanics of disinformation. They’ve traced it to Russian agents.


Despite the appearance of believability that the AI-imbued fakery provides the narrative, on closer scrutiny the charade breaks down. Microsoft has flagged code words that expose the fraud. The hoax, though impressive, occasionally exposes its own artificiality when it is delivered clunkily. Linguistic flubs also undo the ruse; words such as ‘hockey match’, a US wording that would simply not be said by Americans, are giveaways as to where the authors really come from.

Dissecting the Disinformation

Otherwise, the substance within Olympics Has Fallen bordered on the surreal, recycling the framing devices of a disinformation manual more than any serious investigation: the opening lines of the film are a contemporary update of the conspiracy theory propagated by the US senator Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s, before spitting out a barrage of characteristically baffling gibberish and an attack on the organisers of the Olympics themselves, inter-cut with life-size cutouts of Tom Cruise in a chainsaw massacre scene from one of his films. For Microsoft, such tropes were tell-tale signs that we were witnessing a live disinformation campaign unfolding.


This campaign is just one part of a larger playbook. Microsoft points to a strategic shift by Russian disinformation operators to use online bots and computer-generated social media accounts to create the impression of consensus, giving some anonymity and deniability to their operators, and amplifying the reach and impact of their fabricated stories.

Beneath the Surface: Editing Eclipses

Slip-ups resulting from frenetic editing in ‘Olympics Has Fallen’ are another giveaway, like a section that repeats several times, or an audio mishap that cuts in incredibly halfway through a scene, sending viewers scrambling for the ‘pause’ button as the door to suspension of disbelief slams shut. Despite its flaws, the fake doc was watched and disseminated on other sites such as Telegram, where it got its own deconstruction piece on Gizmodo, perpetually drawing attention to the difficulty of stopping digital disinformation.

The Implications for Paris 2023

With the Paris Olympics approaching, the stakes of such disinformation campaigns increase. Storm-1679, the group behind Olympics Has Fallen, hasn’t stopped at the fake documentary. It has cooked up stories of terrorism threats and sweeping ticket returns in a bid to sow distrust and fear in prospective attendees. It has even exploited the ongoing military tensions in Gaza to instil fears of violence at the Games – a new kind of blend of fact and fiction used to destabilise and divide.


Microsoft is becoming a watchman on the wall of disinformation. Its investigators use their expertise and tools to reveal the ‘Olympics Has Fallen’ effort and explain the broader techniques of disinformation operations’ actors. Thanks to Microsoft’s mighty tech tools, the company is one of the few who can detect the digital scams that impact our online dialogue.

Microsoft’s effort to cast light on Storm-1679 and others like it highlights the urgent importance of media literacy in an age in which automation and social media can be marshalled to attack truth. Vigilance and scepticism are important now more than ever. In the digital ecosystem, not everything is what it seems.

Finally, the story of the fake Tom Cruise documentary should serve as a warning about how even sophisticated disinformation campaigns can exploit the power of new technologies – in particular, the combination of artificial intelligence, social media and geopolitical strategy. What accounts for all the wide diversity one encounters on the internet? There is an urgency now to educate a capable digital citizenry that is aware of how the public sphere has been re-engineered by illiberal actors. Giving people the necessary tools for a critical appraisal will be vital if we are to ensure not just the credibility of the Olympic movement, but the wellbeing of the democratic public sphere.

Jun 06, 2024
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