Incident 198: Deepfake Video of Ukrainian President Yielding to Russia Posted on Ukrainian Websites and Social Media
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Hacked news program and deepfake video spread false Zelenskyy claims
A national news broadcast on the television channel Ukraine 24 was breached by hackers on March 16. The program’s news ticker was hacked to display messages to appear as though they were coming from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The messages urged Ukrainians to stop fighting and give up their weapons, while claiming that Zelenskyy “wanted to take Donbas” but was unsuccessful, so he had fled Kyiv.
The TV network confirmed that the news ticker was hacked and the messages were false. In response, Zelenskyy also filmed a short video debunking the messages and calling them a childish provocation.
On the same day, the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel “Operational” reported that hackers published to Ukrainian websites a deepfake video of Zelenskyy repeating similar messages. The Telegram channel shared a video file, which according to its metadata was created on March 16, two hours before being uploaded to Telegram. Notably, the messages shared in the ticker and the deepfake video, encouraging Ukrainians to surrender, were amplified on VKontakte (VK), the Kremlin-owned social media platform that is similar to Facebook. Some commenters in Russia hypothesized that Zelenskyy uploaded the video in desperation and then backtracked after reconsidering.
The deepfake video was debunked very quickly by Zelenskyy and was ridiculed by Ukrainians who noted the poor quality of the video and audio.
A poorly done deepfake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asking civilians to lay down their arms to the Russian military was circulated on social media in March 2022. In addition to getting some views on social media, a summary of this video was also broadcast on a Ukrainian news station after it was reportedly hacked. The running text at the bottom of this broadcast mentions the message from Zelenskyy’s deepfake video.
Ukraine 24 posted a message on Facebook stating that this message was added to the broadcast after the network had been hacked:
The message reads in English (translated via Google):
The running line of the “Ukraine 24” TV channel and the “Today” website were hacked by enemy hackers and broadcast Zelensky’s message about alleged “capitulation.”
!!! THIS IS FAKE! FAKE !
Friends, we have repeatedly warned about this. No one is going to give up. Especially, in the circumstances when the Russian army suffers losses in battles with the Ukrainian army!
Zelenskyy, too, appeared to address this rumor in a video posted to his Facebook page. That video included the caption “Ми вдома і захищаємо Україну” or “We are at home and defending Ukraine” and, according to Ukraine 24, a message to Russian soldiers to lay down their arms.
How To Spot a Deepfake Video
This likely isn’t the last deepfake video we will encounter during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Propagandists have been working overtime to change the narrative of the war, and deepfakes, a term used to describe digitally edited videos to make it seem as if a real person is saying or doing something they never said or did, are just another tool in their disinformation toolbox.
In the example above, most viewers can likely tell that the Zelenskyy footage is fake simply by looking at it. His head, for example, doesn’t seem to quite fit on his neck. The best strategy to identify deepfakes, however, is to look for their source. Zelenskyy has recorded several videos using the same background on his social media profiles and on the official social media pages of the Ukrainian government. This deepfake, needless to say, was never posted to these pages.
If you see a video that you think might be fake, try taking a screenshot from the video and then running a reverse-image search on Google Images, TinEye, or another reverse-image search engine. You can also send the video to Snopes and we’ll do our best to authenticate it.
Facebook and YouTube said Wednesday that they removed uploads of a deepfake video of Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky that purported to show him yielding to Russia.
The deepfake spread widely online Wednesday, as noticed earlier by Vice's Motherboard. In the video, which CNN Business has reviewed, Zelensky appears to stand behind a presidential podium and in front of a backdrop, both of which feature the Ukranian coat of arms. Wearing a green shirt, Zelensky speaks in Ukranian, appearing to tell Ukranians to put down their weapons in the weeks-old war against Russia.
Deepfakes — which combine the terms "deep learning" and "fake" — are persuasive-looking but false video and audio files. Made using cutting-edge and relatively accessible AI technology, they aim to show a real person doing or saying something they did not. Experts have long been concerned that, as they improve, they would be used to spread misinformation.
In a series of posts on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, Meta's head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, wrote that the company spotted and removed the video earlier that day. "We've quickly reviewed and removed this video for violating our policy against misleading manipulated media, and notified our peers at other platforms," he wrote.
YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi said the video and reuploads of it have been removed from the platform because it violates the company's misinformation policies. "We do allow this video if it provides sufficient education, documentary, scientific or artistic context," Choi said in a statement.
A Twitter spokesperson said the company is tracking how the video is shared across the social network, and has taken "enforcement action" in cases where it violates company rules (such as its synthetic and manipulated media policy, which forbids users from sharing altered content that may confuse people or lead to harm; in some cases, Twitter may label tweets containing misleading media to give users more context).
While the video doesn't look tremendously doctored, there are some telltale signs that the video is not what it appears to be. And Zelensky himself appeared in a video posted to an official Ukraine defense account on Twitter, saying he is continuing to defend Ukraine and refusing to lay down weapons against Russia.
Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and digital forensics expert, pointed out several of the obvious signs that the video is a deepfake. First, it's a low-quality, low-resolution recording; this is a common trick to hide the distortions created when making a deepfake, as our brains tend to be more forgiving of glitches in low-quality videos. Second, the Zelensky in the video looks straight ahead without moving his arms throughout the clip — it's very tricky to make a convincing deepfake that includes head motions and hands moving in front of the face. Third, there are little visual inconsistencies in the video, he pointed out, that occur during the process of making a deepfake, which is created a single frame at a time. Though Zelensky's voice is harder for Farid to comment on, in part because he doesn't speak Ukranian, he said it sounds a bit off to him.
The video comes weeks after the official Facebook account for Ukraine Land Forces posted a warning that such videos of Zelensky may appear. "Be aware - this is a fake!" the account wrote, soon adding, "Rest assured - Ukraine will not capitulate!" That warning was accompanied by an image that appeared to show Zelensky in a similar shirt as what appeared in the deepfake video, in front of the same backdrop and behind the same podium.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the video could still be found online, such as in some posts CNN Business spotted on Twitter and YouTube in which users made clear that it was a deepfake.
While Farid doesn't think the video fooled people, he thinks it "muddies the information waters," making it harder for anyone to trust what they see.
"Casting doubt on what you see and hear and read is a very powerful weapon in the information war and deepfakes are now playing a role in that," Farid said.
Broadcast news outlet Ukraine 24 was allegedly hacked on Wednesday, and a video of a faked President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is spreading on social media.
A Ukrainian television news outlet claims that its live broadcast and website were hacked on Wednesday, with a chyron falsely saying Ukraine surrendered, Ukraine 24 said in a Facebook post.
Ukraine 24 posted a warning on Facebook that its broadcast and website were hacked. Adding to the chaos is a deepfake video of President Zelenskyy appearing to tell Ukrainians to surrender began to go viral online at the same time. Zelenskyy himself has since posted a video to say Ukraine will not surrender to Russia.
“The running line of the ‘Ukraine 24’ TV channel and the ‘Today’ website were hacked by enemy hackers and broadcast Zelenskyy's message about alleged ‘capitulation’!!! THIS IS FAKE! FAKE !” the Ukraine 24 post said.
In a fake video that started spreading on social media on Wednesday, following the Ukraine 24 hack, Zelenskyy appeared to stand at a podium and address the Ukrainian “defenders,” telling them to lay down their arms and return to their families. According to an archived version of the Ukraine 24 website from Wednesday, as well as screenshots shared by journalists on Twitter, a transcription from the deepfaked video is visible:
Dear Ukrainians! Dear defenders! Being president was not so easy. I have to make difficult decisions. At first I decided to return Donbas. It's time to look in the eye. It didn't work out. It only got worse. Much worse. There is no more tomorrow. At least in me. And now I decide to say goodbye to you. I advise you to lay down your arms and return to your families. You should not die in this war. I advise you to live, and I'm going to do the same.
The Ukraine 24 website is still down, and no one has claimed responsibility for the alleged hack or the fake video.
On March 2, the official Facebook account for the land forces of Ukraine posted a warning about deepfaked videos: “Imagine seeing Vladimir Zelenskyy on TV making a surrender statement. You see it, you hear it - so it’s true. But this is not the truth! This is deepfake technology,” it wrote. “This will not be a real video, but created through machine learning algorithms. Videos made through such technologies are almost impossible to distinguish from real ones.”
The Defense Intelligence of Ukraine has also been warning about deepfaked disinformation since early March, claiming that Russia might try to use AI-generated fake video in its favor:
The one spreading around on social media today is actually pretty easy to distinguish from the real thing: His head looks like it’s been pasted onto a still photo of his body, standing at a podium. His face moves in a fairly convincing way—it blinks, after all, something deepfake detection experts used to claim wasn’t possible for AI to replicate–but it doesn’t look natural enough to fool anyone looking at it for more than a passing glance. It combines the video with an AI version of his voice, which sounds stilted and mechanical.
After the alleged hack, Ukraine 24 posted a (real) video of Zelenskyy speaking to a phone camera to deny the claims made in the hack, and assert that Ukraine was not, in fact, surrendering.
"Regarding the last childish provocation, that I’m offering to lay down arms. I can offer to lay down arms only to the militaries of the Russian Federation and to return home. And we are at home already. We defend our land, our children, our families. And we absolutely are not going to lay down our arms. Till our victory." Zelenskyy said in his message, according to a translation by VICE.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also posted the debunking video from Zelenskyy on Twitter. Rubio alleges that the Ukrainian president is speaking about the deepfake video—Rubio has advocated for more internet protections against deepfakes in the past.
On Wednesday afternoon, Facebook’s head of security and policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, tweeted that the company’s platforms were identifying and removing the video wherever it cropped up:
Since the advent of deepfake technology for casual use in late 2017, people have worried that malicious deepfakes would be used for political aims in the U.S.—to start a war, deceive the public or spread fake news faster than the already rampant disinformation on social media through more rudimentary means like text and fake photos. Earlier this month, people online tried to claim that Russia had deepfaked president Vladimir Putin into videos of meetings, which wasn’t true.
In almost five years, a deepfaked president has yet to trick any countries into launching nukes, but amid near-constant disinformation spreading about Russia’s war against Ukraine, a news outlet hack and shitty AI-generated video just adds to the pile.
A deepfake video of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenksy calling on his country’s troops to surrender to Russian forces reportedly made it onto a hacked Ukrainian news site today after going viral on Facebook, The Daily Dot reports.
According to the report, it may be the first deepfake created to deceive opponents during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While the video isn’t the cleanest or convincing example of deepfake technologies — it’s clearly not the real Zelenksy in the video as, for one, the head is far too big for the body — it’s an ominous example of a troubling new weapon in the arsenal of a world power: faked videos of statements made by enemy political leaders.
The real Zelenksy was quick to respond to the deepfake in a separate video posted to Facebook, calling for Russians to surrender instead.
“If I can offer someone to lay down their arms, it’s the Russian military,” he said in the video. “Go home. Because we’re home. We are defending our land, our children, and our families.”
According to disinformation watchdog the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), the video was aired on a hacked news program.
“This is a fake!” Ukrainian outlet wrote in an Instagram post, as translated by Google. “Friends, we have repeatedly warned about this. Nobody is going to give up.”
Facebook’s parent company Meta has since taken down the troubling video.
“Earlier today, our teams identified and removed a deepfake video claiming to show President Zelensky issuing a statement he never did,” the company’s head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher tweeted. “It appeared on a reportedly compromised website and then started showing across the internet.”
“We’ve quickly reviewed and removed this video for violating our policy against misleading manipulated media, and notified our peers at other platforms,” Gleicher added in a follow-up.
The topic of disinformation has hit fever pitch as Russian troops turn major Ukrainian cities into rubble. Hackers are waging a secondary war online, taking down government websites and interfering with military operations.
It’s not even the only deepfake video to surface today, with a similar video of a deepfaked Russian president Vladimir Putin declaring victory also making the rounds.
Meanwhile, Russia is shutting itself off from the world. The news comes after both Facebook and Instagram were completely blocked by Russian authorities earlier this month.
But without major social media platforms, Russia has cut off a massive distribution channel of its own state propaganda as well.
It’s unclear, notably, if the deepfake video actually had its targeted effect of sowing confusion or even convincing Ukrainians to surrender to the enemy. Whether a deepfake ever will remains an open question.