Updated: May 11, 2021
Fear of deepfakes seems to have outpaced the technology itself
Deepfakes use AI techniques to generate or manipulate videos and pictures. Artist: William Joel
Last week, numerous news outlets reported that a string of European politicians had been tricked by a sophisticated Russian plot. Parliamentarians from the UK, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had all arranged video calls with a hoaxer claiming to be Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to imprisoned Russian anti-Putin politician Alexei Navalny. As the politicians tell it, they fell victim to a digital fake: a doppelgänger using “deepfake” technology created specially to trick them — the latest example of Russia’s misinformation campaigns in the West.
But the Russian men who orchestrated the calls say the “deepfake” claim is itself misinformation. Speaking to the hoaxers say their imitation Volkov was created using effects no more sophisticated than makeup and artfully obscure camera angles.
THE CASE OF THE FAKE DEEPFAKE
“Meet Leonid Volkov, Russian opposition leader,” says Vladimir Kuznetsov in a recent video call with group of people, introducing his colleague and partner-in-crime Alexei Stolyarov, a man who does indeed bear a passing resemblance to Leonid Volkov.
The pair say they tricked their way into various meetings with European politicians and even a live interview on Latvian TV. They did so by cold-calling and emailing their targets from fake addresses, using a real picture of Volkov as their digital avatar. As proof, the pair shared some of this correspondence with blog. They’ve also uploaded a meeting between “Volkov” and Ukrainian politicians to YouTube and say more videos are coming.
“I didn’t need to prepare much to look like the real Volkov,” says Stolyarov. “I just had some brushes and some colors and that was enough.”
Kuznetsov and Stolyarov are better known as Vovan and Lexus: a pair of self-described “pranksters” who have a history of fooling Western politicians and celebrities. Over the years, the pair have tricked their way into phone calls with the likes of Justin Trudeau, Elton John, Bernie Sanders, Lindsey Graham, and Boris Johnson, each time aiming to catch these figures off-guard and tease potentially embarrassing statements out of them.
“WE WOULDN’T PRANK PUTIN. WE DON’T WANT TO HARM OUR COUNTRY”
Although the pair have denied any official connections to the Kremlin, there’s no doubt their work is useful to and supported by the Russian government. In the past, they’ve had their own show on Russian state TV and their antics approvingly covered by state news. They plainly know which side their bread is buttered. As Stolyarov told The Guardian a few years back: “We wouldn’t prank Putin. We don’t want to harm our country. We don’t want unrest here; we don’t want to do anything that would help the enemies of Russia.”
Creating unrest elsewhere, though, is par for the course. “Our work is to prank high officials and celebrities and to make a lot of fun and publish it to social media,” says Stolyarov.
A screenshot showing Stolyarov posing as Volkov (top left), speaking with Ukrainian officials, including the country’s youngest MP, Sviatoslav Yurash (top right).Image: YouTube