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Deepfakes now a political weapon in the Ukrainian war

The use of deepfakes in politics has insofar been rare. But in the last week, two deepfakes related to the war in Ukraine have emerged online.

Just days ago, a doctored video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy began making rounds on social media. It also found its way onto a local live news channel and website after being uploaded by hackers.

Over the minute long video, Ukraine’s President appears to tell his soldiers to put down their weapons and surrender the fight against Russia.

But upon closer inspection, the video’s differing colour contrasts, size and shape of Zelenskyy’s face, as well as his unnatural body movements raised suspicions that the clip was not authentic.

President Zelenskyy quickly denounced the video calling it a ‘childish provocation’ and reassured Ukrainians that he had not fled the country as the deepfake had claimed.

Social media companies such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have removed posts containing the video on their platforms as it violates user policy, but not before they had already amassed hundreds of thousands of views.

The creator of the deepfake remains unknown, however Ukrainian officials have been cautioning citizens over the potential for Russia to spread fake media information about the war for several weeks.

Predicting the use of this tactic in early March, Ukraine’s military intelligence distributed a video explaining how manipulated videos could be utilised to incite worry and confusion amongst their citizens.

Upon its release on Wednesday, many Ukrainians detected that the video was a fraud. Even though the lip-syncing of Zelenskyy was passable, the rest of the video is not made well, with Zelenskyy’s accent, head shape, and voice not matching up.

This deepfake might not have been so convincing, but future versions could be more difficult to distinguish. Paying close attention to subtle details (like mouth, face, and body movement) are key ways to get a sense of whether a video is real or not.

On top of this, most deepfake creators will rely on already existing footage as a template for constructing their media, meaning finding the source of an original video clip can help to squash any looming uncertainties.

Shortly after the deepfake of Zelenskyy was released, a deepfake of Putin telling soldiers ‘to go home while you’re alive’ and announcing the surrender of Russia was released.

Viewers pointed out that this video was made using a clip from a recent national address by Putin and manipulating it with AI technology. The Putin deepfake was believed to be released in direct retaliation to the deepfake of Zelenskyy.

The use of deepfakes in politics has been rare so far, but many believe that these two recent videos are ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ in a series of deepfakes that will emerge throughout Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.

As Putin makes frivolous attempts to change the narrative of the way the war is unfolding, there is no doubt he will have his state propagandists working overtime to try to swing a victory in Russia’s favour by any means necessary.

And in the age of news misinformation and machine learning algorithms, it’s worrying to think we could see this technology advance and become far more involved in future political conflicts.

That said, while the internet allows for fake images and videos to circulate quickly, mobile phones and social media also make it easy for world leaders to debunk these falsifications by speaking directly to their citizens at a moments’ notice.

After learning of the deepfake, Zelenskyy taking to Ukrainians on his Telegram story, saying: ‘We are defending our land, our children, our families. So we don’t plan to lay down any arms. Until our victory.’