Deepfake of US officials appears after change on Ukraine attacks on Russia

A day after U.S. officials said Ukraine might use American weapons in limited attacks inside Russia, a deepfake video of an American spokesperson discussing that policy appeared online.

The fabricated video, taken from real footage, shows State Department spokesman Matthew Miller appearing to suggest that the Russian city of Belgorod, just 25 miles north of the Ukraine-Russia border, was a legitimate target for such attacks.

The 49-second video clip, which has an authentic feel despite tell-tale signs of manipulation, illustrates the growing threat of misinformation and in particular so-called deepfake videos powered by artificial intelligence.

U.S. officials said they had no information on the video's origins. But they are particularly concerned about how Russia might use such techniques to manipulate public opinion about the war in Ukraine or even American political discourse.

In Belgorod there were “essentially no civilians left,” the video purportedly showing Miller's speech to the State Department in response to a reporter's question, which was also fabricated. “It's pretty much full of military targets at this point, and we're seeing the same thing starting in the surrounding regions.”

“Russia needs to get the message that this is unacceptable,” Miller adds in the video, which circulated on Telegram channels followed by Belgorod residents widely enough to draw responses from Russian government officials.

The statement in the video about Belgorod is completely false. Although it has been the target of some Ukrainian attacks and its schools operate online, its 340,000 residents have not been evacuated.

False claims that civilians have fled and that the city is primarily a military zone might imply a Western willingness to support indiscriminate attacks there, but this is not the case.

President Biden has given Ukraine what officials call a limited permission to use American weapons for self-defense attacks inside Russia. The policy change came in response to Russia's placement just inside its border of missiles, glide bombs and artillery shells that it is using to attack the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and surrounding areas.

The video also shows Miller appearing to respond to a journalist's claim – also manipulated – that other countries “allow their weapons to strike deep inside Russian territory,” which is not accurate, although some leaders Westerners have claimed that their weapons can be used to strike border targets in Russia that threaten Ukraine.

“So we will support our allies in whatever they decide to do, and maybe help some of the people who are on the fence about this make the right choice,” Mr. Miller is made to say.

Mr. Miller, who was traveling with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to Moldova and the Czech Republic this week, denounced the video in a statement.

“The Kremlin has made the spread of disinformation a key strategy to mislead people both within Russia and beyond its borders,” he said. “It's hard to think of a more convincing sign that your decisions aren't working than having to resort to outright fakes to defend them to your own people, let alone the rest of the world.”

Several Russian media outlets and websites referenced or syndicated the video, without mentioning that the lip-syncing was off or that Mr. Miller's shirt and tie changed color in the middle.

As it happens, combating Russian disinformation was the central theme of Blinken's latest trip. In both Moldova and the Czech Republic, he spoke publicly about such attacks in European countries engineered by pro-Russian propagandists. In many cases, perpetrators have spread lies using social media networks, including through fake accounts.

At a meeting Friday in Prague, Blinken and his counterparts from other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization discussed how to mitigate Russian disinformation and other types of “hybrid attacks” aimed at eroding governance and democratic systems in the United States and in Europe. allied nations.

“I can tell you that in the meeting today, virtually every ally has been affected by this escalation of Russia's hybrid attacks,” Blinken said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “We know what they are doing and we will respond both individually and collectively as necessary.”

On the first stop of the trip, in Chisinau, Moldova, US officials and their counterparts discussed online propaganda aimed at undermining President Maia Sandu, who has pushed for Moldova to join the European Union and is up for re-election in October.

Blinken and Jan Lipavsky, the Czech Republic's foreign minister, signed a memorandum of understanding in Prague on Thursday to counter “manipulation of information by foreign states,” the State Department said.

Joining the trip was James P. Rubin, who held Miller's post in the Clinton administration and is now a special envoy focusing on disinformation and coordinator of the State Department's Global Engagement Center.

Mr. Miller's false statements were repeated word for word on the Telegram channel of the Russian Human Rights Council, a state body that nominally advises President Vladimir V. Putin. The council's report then shared the angry response of its president, Valery Fadeyev.

“Washington deliberately does not want to notice Kiev's obvious crimes against humanity,” Fadeyev wrote. “I don't particularly expect this information to be passed on to the cynics at the State Department, but the truth is ours nonetheless.”

Fadeev, in his post condemning Miller's “lies”, suggests that the United States does not understand that civilians are at risk in Belgorod. He claimed that at least 175 civilians have been killed in the Belgorod region and another 800 injured since February 2022.

Russian state news agency TASS published an article on Thursday based on Fadeyev's comments. As of Friday evening, the Human Rights Council had not issued a statement on its Telegram channel acknowledging that the video was fake.

The Insider, an independent Russian newspaper with a section dedicated to rooting out fake news, noted that the video was also available on the Russian social network VK, which is now controlled by businessmen close to Putin, and on other websites run by professionals. war propagandist Alexander Kots.

Life in Belgorod is far from normal: schools operate only online and air raid sirens sound regularly. Explosions are heard regularly, with buildings damaged and civilians killed. A wave of explosions on December 30, 2023, which Moscow blamed on Ukraine, killed 25 people and injured at least 100. The explosions came a day after Russian airstrikes in cities across Ukraine killing 57 people and wounding 160.

Some regions near the border have been evacuated, and many smaller towns and villages within range of the border are regularly subjected to drone and artillery attacks from Ukraine. In late April, Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said that at least 120 civilians, including 11 children, had died as a result of Ukrainian attacks. He said another 651 people have been injured since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.

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