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What does facial recognition software make of Putin’s backdrop crowd?

Social media is awash with claims, repeated on news websites, that Russian President Vladimir Putin surrounded himself with actors for his New Year's address and at previous events. But what's the evidence?

We used facial recognition software to check some of these allegations.

The Russian president has a track record of posing at events where some of the attendees are not what they seem.

A BBC Russian investigation in 2020 found that some events presented as impromptu conversations with everyday people were actually filled with friendly local officials.

Social media posts, and news websites such as the Sun and the Daily Mail, have suggested a blonde woman has been playing different characters at several previous events with Mr Putin, including a fishing trip in 2016 and a church service in 2017.

Others, including a Ukrainian news report, say she may be part of Russia's Federal Guards Service (FSO) - a security force that protects top leaders.

We've used facial recognition software to compare the face of the woman in the New Year picture with those in 2016 and 2017, producing low match results of 29% and 28% respectively.

"Usually, a similarity score of 75% or higher should be considered when looking for an identity match," says Professor Hassan Ugail, Director of the Centre for Visual Computing at the University of Bradford.

Next, we compared the images from the events held in 2016 and 2017, which generated a 99.1% score, strongly indicating that these two are of the same person.

This woman has been identified in Russian media as Larisa Sergukhina. Both events at which she appeared took place in the Novgorod region where she is a member of the regional parliament for the United Russia Party, which backs Mr Putin.

When we compared her 2016 image from the boat with her official party portrait online we got a 99.8% match. Ms Sergukhina is also listed as the founder of a company that trades fish in Novgorod.

The woman at the New Year address has been named in Russian media as Anna Sergeevna Sidorenko, a captain and military doctor. Comparing her face at the event with an image taken from a video interview posted online by the Russian Isvestia newspaper gave a 99.5% match. Her name also appears on a members list of a Russian military regiment published by the Ukrainian intelligence services.

We then looked into claims about a group of men in fishing gear, photographed with Mr Putin on a boat in 2016.

The same men, it was alleged, were also photographed at the 2017 church service.

Comparing the faces on the boat with those in the church through facial recognition software gave us similarity scores of over 99% for all four men, so we looked further into their identities.

We found evidence they all worked in the Novgorod region, and at least three of them appear to be fishermen.

Aleksey Lyashenko (1) is the leader of the fishing crew pictured with Mr Putin. We know this from his social media accounts as well as profiles published about the crew online.

Yevgeny Lyashenko (5) is Aleksey's son. He is also named in the profile as part of the same team. Both Aleksey and Yevgeny have social media accounts which confirm they are father and son.

According to the same profile, the crew is part of the local agricultural conglomerate called Evrokhimservis, whose deputy general director is Larisa Sergukhina (3).

Sergey Alexandrov (2) is quoted in Russian media as a fisherman. We found his social media profile which shows him on a boat wearing fisherman's clothing.

We couldn't find a social media profile for man number 4, but we found an image which matches him on which someone has commented "How did it happen with Putin?" with the reply: "He met several times with Putin at work in Novgorod".

Another image posted online claims two of these fishermen also met Mr Putin posing as farmers in the Stavropol region. But when comparing the faces of the farmers highlighted with the two fishermen, facial recognition shows less than an 8% similarity for both.

There have been several other examples where blonde women have been highlighted as potential actors at events in the past, including two pictures of a woman serving ice cream to Mr Putin at an air show in 2017 and 2019.

The images here are from the side, and of lower resolution, which makes facial recognition unreliable, so we can't use it to make a judgement.

But we found an interview on Russian television in 2019 with a woman recorded claiming to be the ice cream seller who served the president on both occasions.

And if they are the same person this wouldn't be particularly surprising given that they're both taken at the same air show, visited by Mr Putin two years apart.

People have claimed that the same woman who sold Putin ice cream had posed as a member of staff at Aeroflot, a Russian airline, but once again, facial recognition is not a reliable tool which to compare the images in this case.

There was also an example in May when people claimed an injured soldier who met Mr Putin during a hospital visit had been pictured with him in a factory previously.

However, when you run the faces of the man from both events through facial recognition it shows around a 25% similarity, indicating there isn't a match.

Additional reporting by Olga Robinson. Graphics by Jana Tauschinski.

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