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Fact check: Fake Zelenskyy video raises fears of AI disinfo

September 26, 2023

Social media users are claiming a video was showing Volodymyr Zelenskyy belly dancing. But the viral clip of the Ukrainian president is not genuine, it was manipulated – and shows somebody else.

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Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a lot of mis- and disinformation has been spread by both sides. However, when it comes to mis- and disinformation about Ukraine, it is often President Zelenskyy himself who is the target of smear campaigns.

Claim: "Every time you need more money … you gotta give ‘em a good show!," claims a user on X, formerly Twitter. He posted a video that purports to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a skin-tight glittering golden costume dancing to belly dance rhythms. The video has been shared by many accounts on other social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram as well, and with similar claims in order to discredit Zelenskyy and to question the Western help for Ukraine. These claims have also gone viral in foreign languages like Arabic

DW fact check: Fake

The video does not show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but a belly dancer, teacher and choreographer from Argentina named Pablo Acosta. He had shared the original video on his Instagram account on June 1. Multiple other videos of him dancing in the same costume can also be seen on his account.

Wolodymyr Selenskyj UNO Hauptquartier
When Zelenskyy appeared at the United Nations headquarters more disinformation was spread about him onlineImage: Craig Ruttle/AP Photo/picture alliance

The fake version circulating online has been manipulated by superimposing Zelenskyy's face onto Acosta's body. It has been shared widely across several social media platforms for weeks since its original upload by Acosta himself. It recently resurfaced when Zelenskyy traveled to the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 20. It was then amplified by conservative influencers like Benny Johnson and Joey Mannarino on their social media accounts with similar claims where Zelenskyy is described as the "definition of insanity."

Not the only video of its kind

Before being elected as Ukraine's President in 2019, Zelensky worked as an actor and comedian. There are therefore several older videos of him performing on stage or dancing. Zelenskyy also won the 2006 TV show "Dancing with the Stars," in Ukraine.

Another video from 2014, showing Zelenskyy parodying a music video by a Ukrainian boy band, is also being shared online to suggest that Zelenskyy enjoys crossdressing and dancing provocatively and hence should not be taken seriously as a political leader. In the 2014 video, he can be seen dancing in high heels, a crop top and tight pants. According to our own verification and other media outlets like Snopes, this video is not a manipulation but simply dates from Zelenskyy's work as an actor and comedian before he took office.

AI used to accelerate disinformation

Ever since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Zelenskyy has been the target of mis- and disinformation campaigns to tarnish his and Ukraine's image and standing in the world. 

"Deepfakes in a disinformation campaign are often used to impersonate public figures or celebrities who have high visibility in the media and play important roles in the ongoing event. The aim is to either promote a particular agenda or confuse the public's opinion. This is the reason I think we have seen many deepfakes of Ukrainian President Zelensky," says Siwei Lyu, Professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, who has specialized in digital media forensics and machine learning.

This deepfake was one of the first results of AI being used to manipulate the war. At the time, DW Fact Check analyzed it and showed it was a fake. Since the introduction of tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney, there is growing concern that fakes will not be easily recognizable in the future and that there will be too many fakes to monitor and debunk. 

"There is no doubt that we are going to see more deepfakes with improving qualities. This is because of the accelerating development of generative AI technologies and the increasing revenue in commercial applications of these technologies. When the cost and effort of making high-quality deepfakes, we will reach a point when using deepfakes becomes cost-effective compared with other low-tech options in mis- and disinformation campaigns," adds Lyu. 

With AI tools getting better by the day and cheap to use, fake content can essentially be produced by anyone. The sophisticated manipulation of videos makes it increasingly harder to detect — but there are signs you can watch out for if you're uncertain about a video or picture.  DW Fact Check has published a guide here.

Emad Hassan contributed to this article.