Navalny Film 'Debunk' Author Rejects Accusation of Writing with AI

The author of an article describing the Oscar-winning documentary "Navalny" as being packed with misinformation has rejected accusations that her piece was partly written by AI text generator although she did use as an AI chatbot to help find back-up sources.

On Sunday, March 12, the film about the poisoning that nearly killed Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition leader, and his imprisonment upon his return to Moscow in 2021, was awarded best feature documentary at the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, his wife Yulia, opposition politician Lyubov Sobol and other demonstrators march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow on February 29, 2020. A film about the poisoning that nearly killed Navalny was awarded best feature documentary at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The documentary centers on an investigation by Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group founded in 2014 that has frequently probed Russian authorities. It looks into who poisoned Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok in August 2020. Navalny has accused the Kremlin of ordering the poisoning attempt.

On March 13, U.S.-based media The Grayzone published a now-removed article by journalist Lucy Komisar titled "Oscar-winning 'Navalny' documentary is packed with misinformation." The news outlet, founded by American journalist Max Blumenthal, has been accused by critics of publishing materials consistent with Russian propaganda. It describes itself as an investigative website "on empire" that gets no government funding.

Komisar in her article suggested that at the time of the poisoning, Navalny had already been unwell, and had a history of medical conditions. She also raised questions over the veracity and timing of events portrayed in the film, including phone conversations with Russian agents and his questioning by German investigators.

Bellingcat's founder, Eliot Higgins, published a lengthy Twitter thread on Tuesday, saying that there are "some big issues with the sourcing." "Komisar's research has been aided by AI, and not the smart kind," he said.

In an email to Newsweek, Komisar said: "It is false that the article was written "partially" or in any respect by AI."

Komisar, however, said that she used ChatSonic, a conversational AI chatbot, "as a partial source and reference because I believed it was accurate, relatively unbiased, and it was a time efficient way of linking to sources."

Komisar said that five of 27 links in the article had later needed fixing, something she had done.

After the controversy over how the article had been written, The Grayzone initially amended the article and later said it had been removed at the request of Komisar, who has published a version on her own website.

"The republished third party article was removed after its author, Lucy Komisar, objected to our issuing of one correction, adjusting her sourcing in a handful of places, and publishing an editor's note explaining the changes. Because the article was not originally authored for our site and was a reprint, we abided by Komisar's request," The Grayzone said in an email to Newsweek.

Komisar said she had not objected to the correction, had objected to only one element of the sourcing and had asked for the editor's note to be rewritten.

The Grayzone said it strove to "uphold higher editorial standards" than Bellingcat.

Bellingcat describes itself as being an "independent international collective" that does not accept funding from any national government. The European Union is listed among current funders and it has previously received money from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, among others.

Bellingcat's Higgins had said Komisar used the AI assisted writing tool Writesonic while writing up the article.

"Several of the links in the article are PDFs [that] contain answers apparently set by the author of the article to the AI assisted writing tool Write Sonic, and in some cases are used as sources for claims in the article," he wrote, providing an example that the article makes claims about Navalny's medical history based on a response from Writesonic to questions set to it.

The article has fictional "sources," Higgins went on.

"The author has asked the AI to provide links to the articles presented, but there's a bit of an issues with these links. You can probably tell right away what the issue is, with a 2014 Guardian URL mentioning Navalny and Yulia Skripal in this example."

Former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were hospitalized in 2018 after being targeted in a nerve agent attack in the British city of Salisbury.

The URL presented in the article "doesn't actually exist," said Higgins. "I've also checked if there might be the stories cited on different URLs, Googling variations of the URL, doing everything I can to find them, but they just don't exist, in any of the cases where URLs have been provided."

Higgins said that in the case of the claims about Navalny's health conditions, there were no articles that supported the claim.

The piece on Komisar's website does, however, include a link to an article from bne IntelliNews which cited Navalny as having said he had suffered from diabetes in 2019 without giving further details.

Komisar said Higgins could point to no error in the article beyond one mistake that had nothing to do with the film or with AI and had been corrected.

Bellingcat's Aric Toler said on Tuesday that The Grayzone "published an article written in part by an AI tool which generated fake links/references/PDFs cited in the article."

"An example is a Guardian 'article' on the Navalny poisoning from 2014. The editors apparently never caught that the piece cited AI-imagined sources," Toler tweeted.

Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about the Russia-Ukraine war? Let us know via

Update 03/17/23 10:23 a.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from Lucy Komisar.

Update 03/20/23 4:30 a.m. ET: This article was updated after removal of the article by The Grayzone

Update 03/21/23 12:00 p.m. ET: This article was updated to reflect the inclusion of a link to a report citing Navalny as saying he had had diabetes

Update 03/22/23 12:04 p.m. ET: This article was updated with Lucy Komisar's response to comment from The Grayzone and Higgins