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Kremlin critic Bill Browder says he was targeted by deepfake hoax video call

The Kremlin critic Bill Browder has said he was targeted by a deepfake hoax when he participated in a bizarre video call this week with somebody impersonating the former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

The anti-corruption campaigner was invited to discuss “anti-Russian sanctions,” but ended up being asked if he favoured lifting sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs, and even to perform a salute to a rap song performed by the current president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The video call took place on Thursday morning, and began with participants being told, by a person introducing themselves as an aide, that the call would be simultaneously translated into English. Shortly after, an image of Poroshenko appeared.

Initially Browder assumed the call was genuine, although whenever Poroshenko appeared to speak the link was “weird and delayed” with the translation dubbed over video of the former Ukrainian leader’s moving lips.

“We thought it was a stilted conversation with simultaneous translation at first,” Browder said, but a change of subject prompted concern. Browder was asked if wealthy Russians should be “let off the sanctions list in exchange for giving money to Ukraine”, a surprising question from a Ukrainian political leader.

The conversation then turned to Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow tax lawyer who died in jail after exposing a corrupt scheme to take over companies once owned by Browder’s firm. “Wouldn’t it have been better if you had paid your taxes?” the financier was asked pointedly.

At this point the conversation became stranger still. Browder and his aides on the call were asked to listen to the Ukrainian national anthem “with our hands on our hearts”, he said – and then called on to do the same to “a Zelenskiy rap”.

The on-screen Poroshenko did not match their gesture during either song, and shortly after the call ended. By now Browder was convinced he had probably been the victim of a “clumsy but convincing” deepfake aimed at embarrassing him.

“We didn’t record the call, but they surely did, perhaps in the hope of putting something on national TV,” Browder said. “They were presumably trying to get me to say something not so hardcore on Russian oligarchs, but I said nothing I hadn’t said in 100 speeches.”

After the unusual conversation, Browder checked the email from which the meeting request had been initiated and found that the domain used – poroshenko2019.com – was registered in Russia. Other Ukrainian MPs said the email addresses were not known to be ones use by his campaign team.

Poroshenko has been in Brussels leading a special delegation lobbying for Ukraine to join the EU and Nato and calling for “ways to strengthen the sanctions regime”. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

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