In China, deepfakes of 'Russian' women point to 'national sexism'

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The woman announced in a light Mandarin that Chinese men should marry “us Russian women”. In other videos on Chinese short video platform Douyin, she shares how much she loves Chinese food, and hawks salt and soap from her country. “Russian people do not deceive Chinese people,” she promises.

But her lip movements don't exactly match the audio in the videos, which were recently posted on an account called “Ladina.” That's because it's footage of Shadé Zahrai, an Australian career strategist with over 1.7 million TikTok followers, that has been altered using artificial intelligence. Someone dubbed Ms. Zahrai's video clips with a Mandarin Chinese-speaking voice to make it seem like she was selling Russian products.

Welcome to a burgeoning genre on Chinese social media: AI-manipulated videos that use young, allegedly Russian, women to support Sino-Russian relations, drum up patriotism or make money — and Sometimes all three at once.

It's unclear who is behind many of the videos, but most eventually lead viewers to a link to a product, suggesting the primary purpose is commercial. And the real target audience seems to be nationalist Chinese men.

Videos are often labeled with hashtags such as “Russian wife” and “Russian beauty”. Featured women describe how successful Chinese men are, or plead for them to be rescued from poverty or their own less beautiful country.

Another set of videos shows a blonde woman thanking him for landing in China.

“I really envy my Chinese friends. You are born with the most precious identity in the world and the deepest and most charming language,” she says in a video posted on another platform, Xiaohongshu. Which is similar to Instagram.

A separate video shows the woman thanking the Chinese people for helping Russia's economic woes by buying her Russian chocolates. “In the last one year, the whole world has been boycotting Russia, imposing all kinds of sanctions and difficulties on us. China is like a savior,” she says.

The videos looked much more natural, with the woman's lips syncing fluently in Mandarin. But they are also fake. They were retooled from YouTube videos posted by college student Olga Lueck, whose original videos are about self-improvement and her gap year in Germany.

Ms Luik does not speak Chinese. And she would never appreciate Russia like that, she said in an interview. He is from Ukraine, and some of his relatives are still there.

The makers of these videos are trying to capitalize on the market created by China's current moment in geopolitics, technology and public sentiment.

Relations between Russia and China have deepened significantly in recent years, with the countries' leaders, Vladimir V. Putin and Xi Jinping, declaring a “no-limits” partnership in the face of growing antagonism from the West. Mr Putin visited Beijing last week where Mr Xi gave him a warm welcome.

The use of foreign faces to glorify China also seeks to promote a sense of national pride, or nationalism, among Chinese audiences. In an environment of censorship where most topics are off-limits, nationalist content has become one of the surest drivers of Internet traffic in China.

This nationalism — like nationalism around the world — often includes a strain of sexism, said Chenchen Zhang, a professor of international relations at England's Durham University.

“This representation of young white women in sexually objectified ways is a specific form of gender nationalism, or nationalistic sexism,” Professor Zhang wrote in an email. “Viewers can affirm both their nationalist and masculine pride in consuming this material.”

In several videos that have been compared to Ms. Zehrai's manipulation, the fake character calls her viewers “big brother”. The figure also noted that Russia is not selling these products to Japan or South Korea, two countries with which China has strained relations.

The Chinese government has often encouraged nationalism online, but there is no indication that this has anything to do with deepfake videos (although some local governments have promoted similar messages about China's appeal). has partnered with real Russian women to give). There is also a small economy of real Russian influence on Chinese social media, many of whom are young women.

Many video creators may be taking advantage of China's adoption of shopping through live streaming and short videos. As AI technology becomes more advanced, some Chinese companies have already switched from real to virtual salespeople to save money.

Hebing Lu, a professor at Santa Clara University who studies AI governance, said artificially generated videos are likely to become more and more common as a sales tactic, because AI technology has advanced so quickly and ordinary people can't. has become much more accessible to

Ms Zehrai's management company said in an email that the AI ​​changes were of “poor quality” and that they would “likely look fake” even to casual viewers. Some of the account's videos received only a few dozen views, although the number of people discussing marrying Russian women was 22,000.

It didn't matter. An automated counter that pops up in one of the account's videos shows that the brand of salt being stocked has already been purchased 360,000 times on the platform.

When The New York Times reached out to Doane's account with Ms. Zahrai's videos, the account holder confirmed in an audio message that the videos were made by her. “You set up three things: audio, video and mouth. You can make any video you want,” he said before unfriending a reporter.

Levels of sophistication vary. Some fake women appear to be completely computer generated, moving stiffly and looking like glorified Sims. Some, like Ms. Lueck's likeness, are great.

“Even though I knew it wasn't me, the reality was terrifying,” said Ms. Lueck, who recently discovered that more than 30 different social media accounts in China had shared her image. “When I decided to create my YouTube channel, I was aware of the dangers of deepfakes, but I believed that it was mainly a concern for famous political and entertainment figures. Now I understand that anyone Can be affected with video footage of yourself online.

Ms. Loiek reported the accounts on Xiaohongshu and made a YouTube video about her experience. Eventually, most profiles using his likeness were shut down.

In recent weeks, social media platforms have tightened vetting, removing AI videos or adding labels to some of them. China was the first country to introduce regulations around creative AI, and on paper, some of its policies are stricter than those in the West.

But countries around the world are struggling to enforce their laws. Detecting wrongdoing can be particularly difficult in China, because of its closed Internet environment, where many foreign social media outlets are banned.

Foreign influencers are unlikely to know that their image has been used on Chinese social media and file a copyright complaint. And Chinese platforms may not gravitate toward overseas content, either, when scrutinizing AI manipulation, said a 35-year-old man who ran two accounts of AI-generated Russian women. . The man, who gave only his surname, Chen, said he earned $1,000 a month from them before closing the accounts in March, fearing more regulation.

But more are still spreading. And Russia may be a hot topic now, but the practice will soon become the next trend, said Lowe, a professor at Santa Clara.

“The people behind it will manipulate any possible topic to get people's attention,” he said. Show parents 'how to get into top schools'. 'How to be beautiful' for young women. I believe that going forward, everyone will use AI technology to customize topics to create videos that appeal to specific audiences.”

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