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Fact check: New fakes on Zelenskyy's purported wealth

July 3, 2024

Did Ukraine's first lady Olena Zelenska just buy a million-dollar sports car? Someone presenting himself as a Paris car salesman has claimed so in a viral Instagram reel. DW's fact-checking team looked into the matter.

Screenshot of a collage posted on the social media platform X claiming to show a Paris car salesman, a Bugatti sports car, and an invoice for the sale thereof
This self-proclaimed car salesman, who may in fact be an AI fake altogether, claims his dealership sold Olena Zelenska an exclusive Bugatti sports carImage: X

Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska, has been regularly accused of going on extravagant shopping sprees while her husband, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, sends Ukrainians to war with Russia. Sometimes, she's said to have bought jewelry or a luxury yacht, other times, it was a private estate once belonging to the British royal family.

False evidence purporting to show that the president and first lady of Ukraine are living a lavish life and have amassed untold wealth — financed by corruption — regularly circulates online. The most recent of these claims suggests the couple bought one or two luxury sports cars from the French manufacturer Bugatti as gifts for themselves on a recent trip to Paris.

Claim: Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska just bought a million-dollar luxury sports car.

In a video first appearing on a now-deleted Instagram account, an individual claiming to work for Groupe Schumacher, a suburban Paris car dealer, declared support for Ukraine and welcomed the Zelenskyys to the "Bugatti family." Since Monday (July 1), the (archived) video has been shared millions of times on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

An article on the French website Verite Cachee (Hidden Truth) even claims to present an invoice for the sale. And a tweet by the notorious fake news disseminator Jackson Hinkle, in which he attempts to prop up the claim by presenting a "copy" of the aforementioned "invoice," was seen by no less than 6.5 million X users. So, did Olena Zelenska really put in an order for a €4.5 million ($4.9 million) Bugatti Tourbillon?   

A fake Bugatti sales invoice containing a number of inaccuracies
No, this 'invoice' did not come from suburban Paris car dealer Groupe SchumacherImage: X/Jackson Hinkle

DW fact check: False.

The suburban Paris car dealership referenced in both the video and the invoice is real, and a manager from the business answered a DW inquiry into the online claims with a written response. The dealership said it had nothing to do with the incident, and had filed a complaint with authorities for, among other things, document forgery, identity theft and libel.

The invoice posted online contains a number of inaccuracies, which lends credence to the dealership's claim that the invoice is a forgery. Mistakes include the misspelling of the Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine in the address line, the omission of obligatory sales tax information, and no mention of method of payment — in fact, no currency is listed at all in the document.

A press statement written in French from Groupe Schumacher explaining that it had not sold any vehicles to Olena Zelenska and that it had filed complaints over such suggestions
Groupe Schumacher replied to a DW request by clearly stating that no such sale took place and announcing it had filed complaints with Paris authorities

A 'car salesman' with no online history

The since-deleted video itself also raised a number of questions. The person in it moved in a suspiciously stiff manner, and his gestures as well as the tone of his voice did not seem to fit the news he was announcing. The speaker's French was full of mistakes, and his words were oddly inarticulate.

Although these impressions could be considered subjective, the account itself also offered evidence to suggest that the video was fake.

The since-deleted Instagram account jacqes_bertin_ls was said to belong to "automobile salesman" Jacques Bertin. However, DW was unable to find images or references to any such a person online other than in relation to the one video in question.

All in all, the clues investigated by DW suggested that rather than being a real person, the speaker featured in the video was likely a composite created with artificial intelligence (AI).

Dubious 'news' site

The "news" site where the story first appeared online offers the third indication that the story was fabricated. Although the text of the story was made to look like a normal tabloid article and offered enough detail to make it appear as if it had been generated with AI, the site itself contains the hallmarks of a troll site.

It has no masthead, no author names, no picture information and no publication dates for any of its articles. Moreover, the page's jumbled layout, skewed images and awkwardly cropped images are all the likely result of sloppy programming.

Perhaps the biggest red flag is the fact that nearly every article featured on the page starts with the words "Voici un titre court pour l'article" (Here's a short title for the article). This gives rise to the suspicion that someone, or something (like a computer program) tasked an AI chatbot with creating titles for articles and then posted the entire response on the page.

Screenshot of the fake news website 'Verite Cachee' in which all headlines bear the same wording, suggesting they were generated by a chatbot
Headlines for 'Verite Cachee' articles all appear to have been generated by a chatbotImage: veritecachee.fr

Typical patterns for disseminating Russian fakes

The way the false claim was distributed conforms to a pattern that has become familiar when dealing with Russian propaganda.

Firstly, fake information is conceived and packaged in a way that will further the interests of the creator — in this case, the targeted defamation of Ukraine's president.

After that, a fake is constructed to push the false claim — in the form of a social media video, a spoofing production (imitating an established media outlet) or a manipulated photo — these are often created with the help of AI, or a standard image processing program.

In the next step, a fake news portal — such as Verite Cachee — picks up the story. Then relevant social media accounts begin sharing the story at more or less the same time. The fake stories then spread like wildfire as a result of the large numbers of followers that such X, Facebook, Telegram or TikTok accounts have.

Nevertheless, the claim might not be entirely baseless. The Pandora Papers, published in 2021 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists suggest that Zelenskyy is the owner of an offshore shell company and may have profited from a billion-dollar corruption scheme by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.    

This article was translated from German.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the national headquarters of Bugatti Automobiles. 

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DW-Redakteur Jan D. Walter Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Jan D. Walter Editor and reporter for national and international politics and member of DW's fact-checking team.