State Department remarks on Ukraine-US are digitally faked

A video circulating online claims to show US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller telling a reporter, "There are virtually no civilians left in Belgorod," supposedly justifying Ukrainian military strikes on the Russian city. But the clip is altered, the department and the reporter involved told AFP; it combines footage from multiple press briefings, including an exchange that was, in fact, about US-Israel relations and the war in Gaza.

"The US State Department, represented by Matthew Miller, stated that there are no civilians in Belgorod, so everyone who is there is a legitimate military target," says a May 31, 2024 X post.

It was shared by Sprinterfactory, an anonymous X account that has serially spread disinformation in the past, including fabricated images and videos of President Joe Biden.

Screenshot of an X post taken June 4, 2023

The clip spread on Russian news websites and social media platforms after US officials announced on May 30, authorization for Ukraine to use US weapons to strike Russian forces amassed just across the border as they mount a major assault on the northeastern region around Kharkiv.

The 50-second video purports to show a reporter, asking Miller what he thinks of other countries, "allowing their weapons to strike targets deep within Russian territory" and whether they would have the "capability to strike military targets."

Miller appears to respond: "We're all witnessing the situation unfolding. We need to draw a clear line between what is a civilian object and what is not. We're aware that Belgorod, a Russian city nearly 45 miles from Ukranian Kharkiv has essentially no civilians remaining, it's practically full of military targets at this point, and we are seeing the same thing starting in regions around there.

"Russia needs to get the message that this is unacceptable so we're going to back our allies in whatever it is they decide to do and maybe help some of the folks who are on the fence about this make the right choice."

The video elicited a reaction from Russia's Human Rights Council Chairman, Valery Fadeyev. "Washington deliberately does not want to notice Kyiv's obvious crimes against humanity," he said in a May 30, 2024 Telegram post.

However, the video is digitally manipulated and is the latest in a flood of war-related disinformation that has proliferated on social media since the start of Russia's invasion. Fadeyev later retracted his remarks according to Tass, a state-run Russian news outlet that also spread the false claim (archived here).

The State Department initially denounced the video as a fake "that does not represent statements made by the department's spokesperson nor US policy," a spokesperson told AFP on June 4, 2024. At the department's briefing a day later, Miller was asked if the video came from Russia and he replied by saying experts were studying its provenance.

"We have seen the Russian government execute videos like this in the past and use disinformation to fool their own people as well as people of other countries, but we don't have an assessment. It's something that people with a lot more technical expertise than myself are looking at, at this point.

"Whether it's spliced-together clips from me saying one word and put together in different ways or it's an AI version, we don't know yet."

Asked about the broader problem of altered videos, Miller said: "It is something that we are extremely concerned about. You saw an AI-generated video of the president several months ago that appeared in Africa.

"The best thing that we can do is try to put out reliable information to the people the United States, the people of the world, every day, and to quickly call out disinformation when we see it."

An examination of the footage by AFP found several indications that it has been digitally manipulated, including a lack of synchronization between speech and mouth movement.

Much of it was sourced from a May 9, 2024, State Department daily press briefing, with identical footage (archived here). These similarities can be seen highlighted below:

Screenshot of an X post taken June 4, 2024 with elements outlined by AFP
Screenshot of YouTube video from the official Depaprtment of State YouTube page with elements outlined by AFP on June 4, 2024

The journalist asking the question was identified as Joel Gehrke, a foreign affairs reporter for the Washington Examiner, who also confirmed the social media video to be fake.

"The clip is manipulated into a complete fabrication. In that exchange, my question had nothing to do with Russia and Ukraine. I was asking about US-Israel relations and the war in Gaza. And Matt did not say what this manipulated video purports to show him saying. Ironically, we were discussing US efforts to limit civilian casualties in Gaza by placing conditions on certain military assistance to the Israelis," he told AFP on June 4, 2024.

Screenshot of an X post taken June 4, 2024, with elements highlighted by AFP
Screenshot of YouTube video from the official Department of State YouTube page, taken June 4, 2024, with elements highlighted by AFP

"He also didn't change from wearing a blue tie to a red tie in the time that it took for me to ask my question," he added, referring to an inconsistency in the apparel worn by Miller in the manipulated video.

Screenshot of an X post taken June 4, 2024 with Miller''s tie outlined by AFP
Screenshot of an X post taken June 4, 2024 with Miller''s tie outlined by AFP

The Russian border city of Belgorod is regularly targeted by Ukrainian drone and missile attacks and civilian casualties continue to be reported in the Russian region. Kyiv says it is doing so to counter bombardments by Russian forces on Ukrainian cities since the February 2022 invasion.

Map of northeastern Ukraine locating the region of Kharkiv on the border with Russia (AFP / Thierno TOURE, Valentin RAKOVSKY)

Although the Biden administration's policy change allows Ukraine to use American-made arms in its war against Russia, this access is limited. US officials attributed the change in Washington's thinking to Russia's daily pounding of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second biggest city.

However, policy prohibiting the use of Army Tactical Missile Systems or long-range strikes inside of Russia has not changed, US officials say.

AFP has debunked other misinformation about the war in Ukraine here.

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