On March 2, the Ukraine government’s Center for Strategic Communication warned that its enemies might be preparing a “deepfake” video that appeared to show president Volodymyr Zelensky announcing his surrender to Russia’s invasion. On Wednesday, that warning appeared prescient.
A fake video emerged on Facebook and YouTube in which a strangely motionless version of Zelensky asked Ukrainian troops to lay down their weapons in a voice different from his usual tone. The clip was also posted to Telegram and Russian social network VKontakte, according to the US think tank the Atlantic Council. TV Channel Ukraine 24 said hackers defaced its website with a still from the video and inserted a summary of the fake news into a broadcast’s scrolling chyron.
Minutes after the TV station posted about the hack, Zelensky himself posted a Facebook video denying that he had asked Ukrainians to lay down their arms and calling the fake a childish provocation. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook’s owner Meta, tweeted that the company had removed the original deepfake clip for violating its policy against misleading manipulated media. A statement provided by Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said the company was tracking the video and removing it in cases where it breached rules banning deceptive synthetic media. YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi said it also had removed uploads of the video.
That short-lived saga could be the first weaponized use of deepfakes during an armed conflict, although it is unclear who created and distributed the video and with what motive. The way the fakery unraveled so quickly shows how malicious deepfakes can be defeated—at least when conditions are right.
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The real Zelensky benefited Wednesday from being part of a government that had prepared for deepfake attacks. His quick response with a video debunking it, and the nimble reaction from Ukraine 24 and social platforms, helped limit the time the clip could spread uncontested.
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Those are textbook strategies for defending against a threat as new as political deepfakes. Preparation and rapid response were at the heart of a playbook for defeating deepfakes that the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released for political campaigns ahead of the 2020 US presidential election.
Zelensky also benefited from his position as one of the highest-profile people in the world and the deepfake’s poor quality. The deepfake presidential double looked unnatural, with a face that didn’t match its body, and its voice sounded different from that of its target.
Other conflicts and political leaders may be less fortunate, and could be more vulnerable to disruption by deepfakes, says Sam Gregory, who works on deepfakes policy at the nonprofit Witness.
Zelensky’s high profile helped Ukraine’s deepfake warning two weeks ago win international news coverage, and it also helped his quick response on Wednesday to spread rapidly. His prominence may also have prompted a quick response to the video from social networking companies. Meta spokesperson Aaron Simpson declined to say how it detected the video; so did YouTube’s Choi. The statement provided by Twitter’s Kennedy credited unspecified “external investigative reporting.”
Not all people targeted by deepfakes will be able to react as nimbly as Zelensky—or find their repudiation so widely trusted. “Ukraine was well positioned to do this,” Gregory says. “This is very different from other cases, where even a poorly made deepfake can create uncertainty about authenticity.”
Gregory points to a video that appeared in Myanmar last year, which appeared to show a former government minister held in detention saying he provided cash and gold to the country’s former leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The military government that displaced Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup used that footage to accuse her of corruption. But in the video the former minister’s face and voice were distorted, causing many journalists and citizens to suggest the clip was faked.
Technical analysis has not resolved the mystery, in part because the video is of low quality, and because the former minister and others familiar with the truth don’t speak as freely or to as large an audience as Zelensky could on Wednesday. While automatic deepfake detectors could someday help combat bad actors, they’re still a work in progress.
Deepfakes are still generally used more for titillation or harassment than grand deception, especially as they become easier to create. A deepfake of Russian president Vladimir Putin circulated on Twitter this week as well, although it was identified as inauthentic from the start. The Zelensky deepfake and accompanying hacks, though, could represent a troubling new frontier. The quick and successful response to the clip highlights how, with a few tweaks and better timing, a deepfake attack could be an effective political weapon.
“If this was a more professional video and had been released early on in a more successful Russian advance on Kyiv, it could have created a lot of confusion,” says Samuel Bendett, who tracks Russian defense technology at the nonprofit CNA. As deepfake technology continues to get easier to access and more convincing, Zelensky is unlikely to be the last political leader targeted by fake video.
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