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The real and the deepfake Volkov. Image via Twitter

Deepfake interview with Navalny’s aid may be ploy to stay relevant

Last week, an image claiming to be Leonid Volkov, a relative of Russian opponent Alexei Navalny, contacted Dutch MPs via an online meeting. 

Published: April 27, 2021, 10:28 am

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    Navalny’s detention in Russia has not been a hot topic in the mainstream media, especially after it became known that he had described Muslims as “cockroaches”. For that reason the “dissident” has been desperate for attention. The deepfake interview with his aid may have been Navalny’s latest attempt to stay relevant.

    “MPs meet hyper-rigged imitation of the chief of staff of the Russian opponent Navalny’s team,” headlined the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, the first to reveal the information. According to the newspaper, which claims to have obtained confirmation from the lower house of parliament in The Hague, Dutch parliamentarians were faced with a deepfake during an online meeting. A similar incident had occurred with Baltic and British colleagues.

    A group of Estonian MPs and Tom Tugendhat, chair of the UK parliament’s foreign affairs select committee, were recently tricked into believing they were speaking to Volkov while he was visiting Lithuania. “The Standing Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs thought it was meeting with Volkov, who was based in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius because of the political situation…”

    A deepfake is a fake video in which the face of one person is replaced by that of another person. “After having started normally, the conversation became very bizarre, said the Dutch parliamentarians duped during a video conference with Russia,” continued De Volkskrant.

    The real aid to Navalny quickly blamed the Kremlin. Volkov told Dutch public broadcaster NOS that a group of MPs took part in a Zoom conference with a man whom they believed to be Leonid Volkov, the chief of staff for the jailed Russian opposition leader, last week.

    In fact they were talking to an impersonator using image manipulation passing off as Volkov. Some Dutch media reported that the MPs had been humoured by Russian “pranksters” but the real Volkov maintained that the technique was a deliberate ploy by President Vladimir Putin to “discredit European politicians”. But those responsible for the hoax, could at least count on the participants not carrying out the most basic checks such as contacting Volkov on social media or looking up his email address online.

    “We call them pranksters, but we’re talking about well-paid employees of the Russian government,” the actual Volkov raged during his interview with NOS. The interview had to be monitored by a deepfake expert to verify that the person NOS was speaking to was in fact the real Volkov.

    Even though he had no proof for his claims, Volkov warned European politicians that the Kremlin was abusing their trust: “Zoom has been a lifeline during the pandemic, but the Kremlin is using it as a weapon.”

    There are however a number of easy techniques to help unmask a deepfake, such as asking an interviewee to touch and pull at their face or turn round to show the back of their head.

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