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How Chinese AI turned a Ukrainian YouTuber into a Russian How AI turned a Ukrainian YouTuber into a Russian

A YouTuber falls victim to generative AI on Chinese social media, but the ramifications stretch beyond China.

How AI turned a Ukrainian YouTuber into a Russian

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"I don't want anyone to think that I ever said these horrible things in my life. Using a Ukrainian girl for a face promoting Russia. It's crazy.”

Olga Loiek has seen her face appear in various videos on Chinese social media - a result of easy-to-use generative AI tools available online.

“I could see my face and hear my voice. But it was all very creepy, because I saw myself saying things that I never said,” says the 21-year-old, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The accounts featuring her likeness had dozens of different names like Sofia, Natasha, April, and Stacy. These “girls” were speaking in Mandarin - a language Olga had never learned. They were apparently from Russia, and talked about China-Russia friendship or advertised Russian products.

“I saw like 90% of the videos were talking about China and Russia, China-Russia friendship, that we have to be strong allies, as well as advertisements for food.”

One of the biggest accounts was “Natasha imported food” with a following of more than 300,000 users. “Natasha” would say things like “Russia is the best country. It’s sad that other countries are turning away from Russia, and Russian women want to come to China”, before starting to promote products like Russian candies.

This personally enraged Olga, whose family is still in Ukraine.

But on a wider level, her case has drawn attention to the dangers of a technology that is developing so quickly that regulating it and protecting people has become a real challenge.

From YouTube to Xiaohongshu

Olga’s Mandarin-speaking AI lookalikes began emerging in 2023 - soon after she started a YouTube channel which is not very regularly updated.

About a month later, she started getting messages from people who claimed they saw her speak in Mandarin on Chinese social media platforms.

Intrigued, she started looking for herself, and found AI likenesses of her on Xiaohongshu - a platform like Instagram - and Bilibili, which is a video site similar to YouTube.

“There were a lot of them [accounts]. Some had things like Russian flags in the bio,” said Olga who has found about 35 accounts using her likeness so far.

After her fiancé tweeted about these accounts, HeyGen, a firm that she claims developed the tool used to create the AI likenesses, responded.

They revealed more than 4,900 videos have been generated using her face. They said they had blocked her image from being used anymore.

A company spokesperson told the BBC that their system was hacked to create what they called “unauthorised content” and added that they immediately updated their security and verification protocols to prevent further abuse of their platform.

But Angela Zhang, of the University of Hong Kong, says what happened to Olga is “very common in China”.

The country is “home to a vast underground economy specialising in counterfeiting, misappropriating personal data, and producing deepfakes”, she said.

This is despite China being one of the first countries to attempt to regulate AI and what it can be used for. It has even modified its civil code to protect likeness rights from digital fabrication.

Statistics disclosed by the public security department in 2023 show authorities arrested 515 individuals for “AI face swap” activities. Chinese courts have also handled cases in this area.

But then how did so many videos of Olga make it online?

One reason could be because they promoted the idea of friendship between China and Russia.

Beijing and Moscow have grown significantly closer in recent years. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin have said the friendship between the two countries has “no limits”. The two are due to meet in China this week.

Chinese state media have been repeating Russian narratives justifying its invasion of Ukraine and social media has been censoring discussion of the war.

“It is unclear whether these accounts were coordinating under a collective purpose, but promoting a message that is in line with the government’s propaganda definitely benefits them,” said Emmie Hine, a law and technology researcher from the University of Bologna and KU Leuven.

“Even if these accounts aren’t explicitly linked to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], promoting an aligned message may make it less likely that their posts will get taken down.”

But this means that ordinary people like Olga remain vulnerable and are at risk of falling foul of Chinese law, experts warn.

Kayla Blomquist, a technology and geopolitics researcher at Oxford University, warns that “there is a risk of individuals being framed with artificially generated, politically sensitive content” who could be subject to “rapid punishments enacted without due process”.

She adds that Beijing’s focus in relation to AI and online privacy policy has been to build out consumer rights against predatory private actors, but stresses that “citizen rights in relation to the government remain extremely weak”.

Ms Hine explains that the “fundamental goal of China’s AI regulations is to balance maintaining social stability with promoting innovation and economic development”.

“While the regulations on the books seem strict, there’s evidence of selective enforcement, particularly of the generative AI licensing rule, that may be intended to create a more innovation-friendly environment, with the tacit understanding that the law provides a basis for cracking down if necessary,” she said.

'Not the last victim’

But the ramifications of Olga’s case stretch far beyond China - it demonstrates the difficulty of trying to regulate an industry that seems to be evolving at break-neck speed, and where regulators are constantly playing catch-up. But that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.

In March, the European Parliament approved the AI Act, the world's first comprehensive framework for constraining the risks of the technology. And last October, US President Joe Biden announced an executive order requiring AI developers to share data with the government.

While regulations at the national and international levels are progressing slowly compared to the rapid race of AI growth, we need “a clearer understanding of and stronger consensus around the most dangerous threats and how to mitigate them”, says Ms Blomquist.

“However, disagreements within and among countries are hindering tangible action. The US and China are the key players, but building consensus and coordinating necessary joint action will be challenging,” she adds.

Meanwhile, on the individual level, there seems to be little people can do short of not posting anything online.

Meanwhile, on the individual level, there seems to be little people can do short of not posting anything online.

“The only thing to do is to not give them any material to work with: to not upload photos, videos, or audio of ourselves to public social media,” Ms Hine says. “However, bad actors will always have motives to imitate others, and so even if governments crack down, I expect we’ll see consistent growth amidst the regulatory whack-a-mole.”

Olga is “100% sure” that she will not be the last victim of generative AI. But she is determined not to let it chase her off the internet.

She has shared her experiences on her YouTube channel, and says some Chinese online users have been helping her by commenting under the videos using her likeness and pointing out they are fake.

She adds that a lot of these videos have now been taken down.

“I wanted to share my story, I wanted to make sure that people will understand that not everything that you're seeing online is real,” says she. “I love sharing my ideas with the world, and none of these fraudsters can stop me from doing that.”


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