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Deepfake video of Zelenskyy could be 'tip of the iceberg' in info war, experts warn

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv in this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv in this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook.

A fake and heavily manipulated video depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy circulated on social media and was placed on a Ukrainian news website by hackers Wednesday before it was debunked and removed.

The video, which shows a rendering of the Ukrainian president appearing to tell his soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender the fight against Russia, is a so-called deepfake that ran about a minute long.

It is not yet clear who created the deepfake, but government officials in Ukraine have been warning for weeks about the possibility of Russia spreading manipulated videos as part of its information warfare. Ukraine's military intelligence agency released a video this month about how state-sponsored deepfakes could be used to sow panic and confusion.

While the video shows a passable lip-sync, viewers quickly pointed out that Zelenskyy's accent was off and that his head and voice did not appear authentic upon close inspection.

Officials at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter said the video was removed from their platforms for violating policies. On Russian social media, meanwhile, the deceptive video was boosted.

"This is the first one we've seen that really got some legs, but I suspect it's the tip of the iceberg," said Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is an expert in digital media forensics.

In a video posted to his Telegram channel, Zelenskyy responded to the fake video by saying: "We are defending our land, our children, our families. So we don't plan to lay down any arms. Until our victory."

The message was not just displayed across social media, however. It also appeared briefly on television in Ukraine and on a news broadcaster's website.

The national television station Ukraine 24 confirmed that hackers managed to send the fake Zelenskyy message across live television on the scrolling-text news crawl known as "the ticker," and the video showed up briefly on the news station's website. It was the work of "enemy hackers," the station said.

The messages the hackers managed to broadcast through Ukraine 24 urged Ukrainians to stop fighting and give up their weapons. They also falsely stated that Zelenskyy had fled Kyiv, according to the Atlantic Council's Eurasia researcher Roman Osadchuk.

The messages were amplified on VKontakte, the social network comparable to Facebook that is popular in Russia and controlled by allies of the Kremlin, Osadchuk noted.

Researchers said that despite the deepfake not being particularly sophisticated, it should still be considered dangerous.

"The deepfake is not very well done," said Sam Gregory of the human rights group Witness, which specializes in detecting inauthentic media in crises.

He said the Ukrainian government getting out in front of the deepfake by warning about manipulated videos weeks before this one was released, as well as Zelenskyy himself quickly saying it was a fake, helped slow its spread in the West, but it is possible that lower-quality versions of the video could take on a life of their own in other parts of the world.

"If you look at other contexts globally where the deepfake is poor quality, or of good enough quality to create room for doubt, and it's not so easy to challenge it directly," Gregory said.

Furthermore, the video, regardless of where it came from and its quality, could potentially make some people question the veracity of videos of Zelenskyy in the future, researchers said.

"The particular issue is also around the so-called liar's dividend, where it's easy to claim a true video is falsified and place the onus on people to prove it's authentic," Gregory said.

Farid added: "It pollutes the information ecosystem, and it casts a shadow on all content, which is already dealing with the complex fog of war," he said. "The next time the president goes on television, some people might think, 'Wait a minute — is this real?' "

A Twitter spokeswoman said the company will allow the video in instances where it was shared to expose it as a fake. But if the video is being posted to deceive people, it will be taken down, the company said.

NPR's Shannon Bond contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.