Earlier this month, the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Kenya shared a picture on the platform showing what looked like a drained and exhausted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Is the former journalist’s health continuing to deteriorate for the worst? Or was this just part of Russia’s agenda to spread false news?
Assange, an Australian journalist, programmer, and activist, gained international fame in 2010 when his infamous organization WikiLeaks released a series of US military and diplomatic documents, which a former US Army intelligence analyst obtained. After his initial incarceration in the United Kindom due to allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and lived there from 2012 to 2019. The British police, who have been on standby for seven years outside the Ecuadorian embassy, immediately arrested Assange soon after leaving the building for violating his bail conditions on the sexual assault charge. He later received a guilty verdict and a 50-week prison sentence.
Since then, Assange has been staying in Belmarsh prison in London. He is also facing extradition on charges of espionage and computer hacking due to his unauthorized release of confidential US documents. However, he has since been appealing against this along with his supporters who believe prosecuting Assange is an attack on press freedom.
Assange has long completed his 50-week sentence but remains in custody inside one of the UK’s most brutal detention centers, which causes health concerns for the 52-year-old former journalist. His family has also expressed growing concern regarding his health caused by consistently facing extreme physical and mental toll.
But fast-forward to the first quarter of 2023, Assange remains in London’s maximum-security prison as he waits and pleads for the US government to drop charges.
This is why, when an image of an exhausted-looking Assange emerged and circulated online on April 6, people, especially his supporters and sympathizers, went nuts.
Most prominently, the Russian Embassy in Kenya tweeted the image, further fueling the speculations regarding Assange’s health condition.
13 years ago, Julian Assange released a video showing US Forces firing on Iraqi civilians, including children for no reason. Now he faces up to 175 years in prison for publishing it. pic.twitter.com/w2HDronGau
— Russian Embassy in Kenya/Посольство России в Кении (@russembkenya) April 6, 2023
Users in the comment section quickly expressed dismay at Assange’s deteriorating condition.
But skeptics were quick to question the authenticity of the circulating photograph, especially amid the rise of AI-generated images that has become more popular today.
The news outlet France 24 Observers, known for conducting fact-checking reports, has examined the image and “noticed some aspects,” indicating it is not legitimate. Instead, it is a fake, generated using Artificial Intelligence.
According to the Observers, they have pointed out “several visual inconsistencies that become apparent” and noticeable, especially to the eyes familiar with the AI image-generating tool.
Apart from the suspicious elements in the photo, the fact-checking team also spotted the watermark across the circulating image, which served as the “biggest giveaway” that it was indeed fake.
Through the watermark “photo property by ‘E,’” the team traced the origin and creator of the image. Reportedly, the photo was first posted online on March 30 by the Twitter account “The Errant Friend.”
In addition, “E” has proclaimed to have generated the image to show his support for Assange and to bring the incarcerated Australian journalist’s case back into the forefront of the public view.
On his Telegram channel, he admitted to generating the image using AI to “make his [Assange] documented suffering real” on April 1, which “E” clearly succeeded as it shook the community regarding the case.
The Twitter account claimed to have created other AI-generated images, including one that depicted Donald Trump posing in prayer, which he has since disclosed to several media outlets.
In an interview with Bild, a German newspaper, “E” reiterated his explanation posted via Temegram, saying he intended to “create images based on documented happenings” about Assange.
He continued: “After his arrest, he was basically barred from public appearance, including at his own trials. This means the public is unable to witness what has been done to him, but there is evidence of his decline mentally and physically. I sought, through this image, to create something that put people into a moral quandary. What does the public do when they can actively see that state of being? If we were to unerase his face.”
“E” also informed Bild that he made the image with software called MidJourney, an AI program developed and hosted by a San Francisco-based firm.
“It was designed to evoke a visceral response and to accurately represent what the public could not otherwise bear witness to. I felt it important to give Julians plight a more human face, the face the Intelligence Community has worked overtime to erase,” he added.
While his agenda worked on evoking such a response from the community, the AI-generated image gained equal criticism as it spread falsifications about the Australian journalist’s actual condition.
Nonetheless, it urged Assange’s sympathizers, from onlooker civilians to journalists and politicians, to continue convincing the US government to drop its charges.
Over a week after the AI-generated image emerged, dozens of Australian federal politicians had requested the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, to abandon the extradite of Assange from the London prison and allow the accused to finally return home. They also warned that proceeding with the case would “set a dangerous precedent” for freedom of the press, potentially harming the reputation of the US.
If proven guilty to all its charges, the Australian hacker could serve a maximum sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
Going back, Russian embassies have regularly spread fake images to discredit Ukrainians and its Western allies since the onset of the Kremlin’s conquest to invade Ukraine.