The mayor of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, has appeared on camera for years. Some of these images have apparently been manipulated by imposters impersonating him.
In video calls, the fake Klitschko spoke to the mayors of Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw and other cities, discussed details of Russia’s war in Ukraine – and demanded that people fleeing the war be returned to Ukraine.
A spokeswoman for Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey said she grew suspicious when the fake Klitschko asked her to send young Ukrainians back to the war zone. She claims the meeting has endedthe office alerted security and the police began to investigate.
Ukrainian officials have confirmed that Giffey did not speak to the real Klitschko. Two Russian comedians have claimed responsibility for the infringements.
Largely low-tech manipulations such as poorly contextualized videos reposted online have emerged since the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In February, a photograph of Klitschko holding a machine gun was widely shared on social media, alleging he was in combat on the front lines. In fact, it was taken during a training session in 2021. Another fake video released in March shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proclaiming the alleged surrender of Ukrainian forces.
Manipulated photographs and videos are all over the internet, from Instagram chat filters to professional film productions. So-called deepfakes or manipulated intimate images – gender-based violence made possible by technology – cause considerable harm to victims.
But not everything is manipulated. Governments have attempted to discredit legitimate video evidence of abuse and have also criminalized satire that criticizes it on the grounds that it is “fake”.
Human Rights Watch makes every effort to verify the digital content and corroborate the documentation of war crimes and serious human rights violations.
Whether manipulated appeals to European mayors are a “modern means of warfare,” as the mayor of Berlin called them, or simply a media farce, hijacking diplomatic meetings to call for illegal evictions can have serious repercussions. The Berlin government estimates that 267,000 people fleeing Ukraine arrived in the German capital by May. The German authorities are responsible for their safety.
Authorities should verify sensitive digital content and communications to reduce the risk of deception. They should also investigate cases where manipulated images are used for malicious purposes and cause harm, especially where human rights are at stake.