Vitali Klitschko called various European mayors. But now it turned out: It wasn’t the real Klitschko, but the caller was a fraudster. The deception causes unrest and raises the question: How could this work?

Everything was right for Franziska Giffey: Vitali Klitschko’s face on the screen, gestures, facial expressions, lip movements – but it wasn’t him. It was not the well-known Kiev mayor and former professional boxer who held successive conferences with city hall heads across Europe, but an unknown person. The politicians are victims of a so-called deep fake, a particularly carefully manipulated video link. Madrid, Vienna and possibly other cities are also affected. The connection to the Ukraine war is obvious, but a suspect has not yet been named.

“A fake Klitschko has reported to several mayors in Europe who said absurd things,” said Klitschko on Saturday in Kyiv in a video distributed by “Bild”. Behind it is criminal energy. It must be determined urgently who is behind it. In Berlin, the state security service responsible for politically motivated criminal offenses is investigating. Madrid filed a complaint against unknown persons for using a false identity.

Spain and Austria are also affected

“Even professionals can’t tell if they’re talking to a real person or a fake,” Giffey said. You only had doubts when you switched to the video because of the questions from the stranger. The interlocutor wanted to know whether Berlin could help organize a Christopher Street Day in Kyiv. “So I said to my people: ‘Something’s wrong here.’ And that’s when the conversation ended.” That was after almost half an hour.

In Madrid, Mayor José Luis Martinez-Almeida quickly became suspicious of the video call with the alleged Klitschko and broke off the conversation, as confirmed by mayor’s office spokesman Daniel Bardavío Colebrook. Vienna’s Mayor Michael Ludwig noticed an unusual tone of voice. The alleged Mayor of Kiev became unusually demanding towards the end of the video call, Ludwig told ORF. “But it wouldn’t have made me question that in any way now,” he said.

Face Reenactment

Realistic-looking media content that has been manipulated using artificial intelligence techniques is referred to as deep fakes. So far, one can only speculate about what kind of manipulation was used in the video call with the fake Klitschko.

The photo released by the Berlin Senate Chancellery shows Kiev’s mayor in a setting that looks like an interview with a Ukrainian journalist in the spring. Klitschko wears the same tan jacket and the Ukrainian flag can also be seen in the background.

Video footage of the interview at the time may have been used as a basis and merged in real time with the voice and lip movements of the person actually speaking to Giffey. Experts call this face reenactment.

According to the Senate Chancellery, the conversation with Giffey was initiated via fake e-mail traffic at the beginning of June. The Ukrainian embassy was involved. “It was a pretty standard process,” Giffey said. At the beginning of the conversation, the other person asked to be able to speak Russian so that his employees could listen. The other side called in a Russian-German interpreter.

A threat to democracy?

Klitschko said on Saturday that official talks could only take place through official channels in Kyiv. He never needs a translator for conversations in German or English.

Vienna’s social-democratic mayor Ludwig said: “Since no catchy topics were discussed in the conversation, it’s certainly annoying in a specific case, but not a big problem.” Giffey, on the other hand, reacted with concern: “It is a means of modern warfare.” The point is to shake trust in the Ukrainian partners.

From the perspective of the SPD politician, deep fakes pose a threat to the democratic social order. People might be put in their mouths with words they never said. “That means that in the future we will have to go into the test even more and be even more suspicious.”