Deepfakes v pre-bunking: is Russia losing the infowar?

Ukraine and its allies seem to be doing a good job in this vital battleground, but experts warn the global picture is complex

Speaking behind a podium bearing the Ukrainian state emblem, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his now signature green attire, calls on his soldiers to lay down their weapons and return to their families.

The one-minute clip is a deepfake, the term for a sophisticated hoax that uses artificial intelligence to create a phoney image, most commonly fake videos of people.

A deepfake of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling on his soldiers to lay down their weapons was reportedly uploaded to a hacked Ukrainian news website today, per @Shayan86

— Mikael Thalen (@MikaelThalen) March 16, 2022

What unfolded next was the latest episode in the infowar that has accompanied the Russia-Ukraine conflict, a war being waged across social media platforms, via satellite images of battlefields and on hackers’ keyboards.

Zelenskiy posted a bona fide response on his Instagram account on Wednesday dismissing the “childish provocation” and telling Russian troops to return home. His response to the deepfake, which remains of unknown provenance and is not of a high quality, received more than 5m views.

Social media platforms swung into action as well. Facebook and Instagram’s owner, Meta, said it had removed the video from its services and tipped off other platforms after the deepfake appeared on a reportedly hacked Ukrainian news site and started spreading across the internet. Twitter said it was “actively” tracking the video and removing it if it was being displayed without comment or held up as real.

Sam Gregory, programme director at Witness, a technology-focused human rights group, said the Ukrainian response showed Zelenskiy’s team had an effective strategy in place to deal with this type of disinformation. “The Ukrainians had warned about a video like this,” he said, referring to pre-bunking efforts. “Then the video itself was poor quality and discernible as faked to the human eye and ear. And then the subject of the deepfake was able to rapidly rebut it in real-time, via his own social media channels to an audience who trusts him.”

One expert said the concept of an infowar between Russia and Ukraine and its allies needed be seen in a global context.

“Ukraine is doing an extraordinary job. It is making sure the world understands the gravity of the situation and the fight that they’re undertaking on behalf of the rest of democracy,” said Andy Carvin, managing editor of the digital forensic research lab at the Atlantic Council, a US thinktank. Russia has “flailed and fumbled”, he said, including by “posting questionable videos of doubtful provenance”.

Hackers have claimed success too in hampering the state narrative inside Russia, with the RT news service among the websites targeted by distributed denial of service attacks that render sites unreachable. The volume of DDoS attacks since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began has “disproportionately targeted Russia”, according to Recorded Future, which monitors cyber threats.

But Carvin cautioned against drawing only positive conclusions from the infowar. “It’s very easy for us in the west to assume well, they stink at this, and Ukraine is winning the argument online and in public discourse. But if you look around region by region, or even within certain countries, you’ll see very different narratives spreading.”

Carvin pointed to Russia, where Facebook and Instagram are blocked, access to Twitter is heavily restricted, all western content has been barred on TikTok, and dissent has been all but quashed. “From Putin’s perspective, domestically, I think he’s probably fairly happy with where things stand,” he said.

Internationally, RT and another state-owned news service, Sputnik, have been removed in the UK and EU by Facebook and Instagram, and RT’s UK broadcast licence was revoked on Friday.

But Carvin noted that RT and Sputnik are “thriving” in South America and pointed to a recent study showing that 50% of posts examined on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, backed Russia’s argument that the war was the fault of western countries, Nato or Ukraine. In places like sub-Saharan Africa, he said, the Russian narrative was also playing well. “Region by region, it’s not necessarily looking as great as it may appear through our lenses,” he said.

Other aspects of the infowar are more difficult for Russia to counter, thanks to open source intelligence, or OSINT. OSINT refers to publicly accessible information, from mobile phone footage to images made available by Maxar, a commercial satellite company, which are then scrutinised by organisations like investigative journalism site Bellingcat.

“OSINT is playing a transformational role in the information landscape surrounding the political and military conflict in Ukraine,” said Justin Crow, a researcher at the University of Sussex school of engineering and informatics. “It is helping to inform high-level strategic decisions, as well as keeping the general public informed. Perhaps most importantly, it is helping to prevent Russia from dominating the narrative around the war.”

For some Russians, the dwindling information options are not a deterrent to seeking out the truth. Mikhail, a 29-year-old consultant in Moscow, said that the ban on social media and independent outlets would not affect the way he consumed the news.

“I saw this coming from a mile away, this was expected given in which directions the authorities are moving,” said Mikhail who got a virtual private network, which allows you to access sites blocked in your country, at the end of last year. “Getting real information about the invasion is very important to me. I don’t want to become a zombie watching state television.”

• This article was amended on 19 March 2022 to correct a transcription error in quoting Andy Carvin. His comment that Russia had “flailed and fumbled” was rendered as “failed and fumbled” in an earlier version.


Dan Milmo and Pjotr Sauer

The GuardianTramp

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