‘Neural Meduza’ Meet the real person behind the AI network that’s spoofing our headlines on Twitter
In January 2020, Andrey Klimenko — a Russian military contractor who also goes by the nickname “Krasniy Doshik” (Red Ramen) — launched the Twitter account Neural Meduza. The project went on to become, in our opinion, one of the best parody media outlets to appear in the past year. Throughout 2020, Neural Meduza helped keep many of the staff working for the real Meduza from succumbing to depression, as it broadcast news from a bizarre parallel universe that makes ours still seem tolerable in comparison. To mark the project’s one-year anniversary, Meduza spoke with its neural doppelganger’s creator.
Every day, the Twitter account “Neural Meduza” generates absurd fake news headlines based on real headlines from Meduza. And that’s how we got these masterpieces:
- “Zhirinovsky called outer space again and changed basically everything. On index cards”
- “A rare illness has become more accessible for Krasnoyarsk residents”
- “Putin promised to speed up the battle with St. Petersburg”
- “The State Duma has endorsed a law banning Russians in the Russian Federation”
- “Far Eastern Federal University refused to obey the giant squid”
- “The ruble’s exchange rate fell into the Atlantic Ocean”
- “Russia, for the first time, has approved a military parade in memory of the military struggle against Telegram”
- “Physicists have created a darkness equivalent to a pitch-black bathroom”
- “Russia couldn’t”
- “The rapper Ivan Golunov, who was called the ‘father of all rappers,’ was killed in Moscow. He killed himself after his four-hour acquaintance with rap”
The headlines were initially created using Markov chain modeling, but later Neural Meduza transitioned into a full-fledged, continuously learning neural network. Now it analyzes and comes up with its own words that have never appeared in Meduza headlines.
In the beginning, Neural Meduza creator Andrey Klimenko was posting Meduza-esque headlines on Neural Shit, his Telegram channel on neural networks. New compilations of neural network-generated headlines would appear once every two or three weeks. They were a hit with Klimenko’s subscribers, many of whom requested that the neural “news” be turned into a separate project. This was how Neural Meduza was born. “Meduza generally has awesome headlines, hence the name Neural Meduza,” Klimenko explained.
According to Klimenko, he never tinkers with the AI’s creative work, although many suspect him of doing so. He manually picks the “most fun” headlines from the ones generated by the neural network. After all, the network itself wouldn’t know which headlines are funny and which ones aren’t. Its task is simply to generate text. Therefore, the sorting has to be done by a person.
“But, as a rule, I don’t change anything myself,” Klimenko stressed. “If somewhere there’s a case ending that doesn’t correspond with Russian grammatical norms, then I simply discard that headline. Although there could be a lot of awesome content if I were to let myself correct things. When I say ‘Neural Meduza,’ I mean [the content was generated by] Neural Meduza. And only what was generated by the neural network.”
It takes Klimenko about half an hour to sort through the headlines. He does it while he’s on the bus to work or, occasionally, while lying in bed. All he needs for this task is a mobile phone. Now and then Klimenko would open up a new file with freshly generated Neural Meduza “news” and start chuckling. Overhearing his laughter, his wife would usually run over immediately and ask what funny new headlines he had seen.
Klimenko has long enjoyed experimenting with neural networks — it’s his favorite hobby. Neural Meduza and his other projects don’t really interfere with his job (which he prefers not to talk about); his work schedule allows for it. And Klimenko isn’t worried about “the Defense Department’s top brass,” as he puts it, finding out about his connection to Neural Meduza” “If they find out, I would just say, ‘Sorry, but it’s not me, the computer’s the one writing the headlines.’ But the top brass there won’t find out – they’re typically people who don’t get along well with the Internet. And if they do use the Internet, it’s limited to [the Russian social network] Odnoklassniki. My hunch is that no one there knows what a neural network is. So it’s all good.”
When Klimenko first launched Neural Meduza, the headlines in the database were taken exclusively from Meduza. He used a scripting code to gather around 80,000 news headlines that were published on our Twitter account. Later, when the generated headlines began to repeat themselves, Klimenko expanded the database, adding headlines from Lenta.ru and MediaZona. In his view, a database of 80,000 headlines is too small to train a neural network, and therefore the database needs to be constantly updated and expanded. Recently, Klimenko found a ready-made database that someone had populated with last year’s news headlines from a variety of Russian-language publications. This database helped diversify Neural Meduza’s headlines.
Nevertheless, Klimenko continues to add new Meduza headlines to the database, so that Neural Meduza headlines “would be more like the real Meduza’s.” Every three to four days, Klimenko retrains the neural network, setting new parameters, because otherwise “selecting the headlines gets boring.” However, in the future — at our request! — he might add the more playful headlines from Kommersant into the database. One wonders how the neural network will manage those headlines — and whether it will be able to manage them at all.
According to Klimenko, Twitter users will sometimes get confrontational with Neural Meduza. Some even demand that this or that post be taken down. “I often get complaints from feminists about the headlines. And also from vatniks [Russian patriots]. When there’s something negative written about the church, people would complain. They’d say, ‘Take it down now!’ With all of them, they just get upset when some idol of theirs is joked about,” Klimenko lamented. “The liberals come to me and say, come on, delete the Navalny stuff. And the patriots demand that the Putin headlines be deleted immediately. I’d say, ok, then I’ll also delete the headlines that the feminists demanded that I take down. And they’d say, ‘No, don’t. What for?’ I’d reply, ‘Well, they’ve also been complaining recently. They get offended too’.”
Klimenko tries his best to explain to disgruntled readers that every group has its sensitive topics. “If we were to start deleting anything somebody didn’t like on demand, then you’d immediately have to delete the whole fucking Internet and use carrier pigeons,” he concluded.
It’s a similar story on Instagram: people manage to confuse Neural Meduza’s parodies with the real Meduza. Klimenko doesn’t publish everything on Instagram, just the headlines that have the most likes and retweets on Twitter. Usually these are headlines that have to do with politics — with Vladimir Putin or Alexey Navalny. “There was this nutcase who started visiting the Instagram page, always writing comments like ‘What are you guys thinking, leaving all these comments and likes?! You’re being fooled by the State Department!’ Apparently the person thought that this is the real Meduza. But then I was curious to see who this person was. And right there in the profile it says ‘Member of the National Liberation Movement (NLM) [a political movement whose followers believe that Russia has been under U.S. control since the collapse of the Soviet Union].’ And I’m like, I see who you are, I’m not even going to respond.”
In fact, up until recently, Klimenko had thought that the NLM was some sort of parody movement, “something like Panorama News Agency, something satirical.” But one of his coworkers recently “got caught up in the cult” and started “proclaiming those sorts of ideas.” Only then did Klimenko go on the Internet and read about the NLM. He found himself unpleasantly surprised.
On Twitter, in contrast, the real Meduza almost never gets confused with Neural Meduza. However, back in October there was an amusing incident involving Russian Post, whose bot saw a Neural Meduza headline that read “Russian Post has created a website that will allow you to exist somehow.” Russian Post’s Twitter bot, having evidently mistaken this tweet for a service complaint, issued a response. “Hello. Please describe the situation that you have experienced,” the one bot said to the other.
Klimenko has no desire to join Tik Tok, especially not with a project that is built on text-based news. He just doesn’t understand the platform’s appeal. “I’m not getting into that cesspool,” he told Meduza. However, his wife insisted on a little experiment with Tik Tok. Klimenko agreed, but on the condition that she do it all herself. This led to a new format of neural network-generated news: a neural anchor reading neural news from Neural Meduza, to the theme song from Channel One’s evening newscast “Vremya.” Here’s how it turned out:
In general, Klimenko loves to experiment. For instance, a few times he’s tried to put together news round-ups in the style of Meduza’s evening newsletter. But the finished product even turned out to be too intense.
The news, as told by Neural Meduza
A protest against memes was held in St. Petersburg. The protest was cut into strips and taken to the landfill. Ten Russian sailors were killed there, along with half a million crew members of the cruiser. Early Wednesday, on Tuesday, the Sevastopol airport was shot on board the cruiser, which was returning to Moscow. Later, a bomb exploded, blowing everyone into tiny pieces. Several dozen people were sent to the ICU, and many were hospitalized.
As reported by Izvestia, a mobile version of Stalin was installed in Volokolamsk Standards, one of the Russian cultural houses (“The Russian Surprise”) and was turned off after some time as it did not meet Russian standards and did not satisfy local notions of welfare and justice… Addressing the cultural house management, Stalin’s official department published a protest through the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) website.
Soap contains a toxic substance that leads to poisoning. The court also ruled that the soap was seized in order to intimidate the opponents of the opposition group. As reported by RIA Novosti, Russian president Alexey Navalny announced on TV his intention to run for president of Russia with the aid of a gas attack on the governing faction of the Yabloko poll ratings. This is reported in the newspaper Kommersant as resulting from the realization of this strategic plan. On Monday at 7:00 a.m., Navalny was in his yard, where FSB officers were held, but on this day they were not there. The attackers broke into the building, climbed up to the third floor, and forced their way into the elevator shaft. Initially the attackers planned to drink a soap solution. The prosecutor said that during the hearing he was accompanied by two women and a young lady who looked like his wife.
Klimenko also has other projects beyond Neural Meduza: neural network-generated horoscopes, neural network-generated articles of the Russian Criminal Code, and a fake Elon Musk Instagram account where the captions are generated by a neural network trained on real posts from female Instagram users (in the photos, the women’s faces are all replaced with Elon Musk’s). That said, Klimenko’s hobby hardly generates any income. During the most “booming months,” he earns about 20,000 rubles (approximately $270) from ad revenue — just enough money for Klimenko not to lose his enthusiasm: “Let’s just say, all of the money goes toward beer, and I’m happy with that.”
Klimenko finds a lot of inspiration from other neural network projects. “I’ve laughed out loud at some of Mikhail Neurosvetov’s tweets. At first I even mixed Neurosvetov up with the real [Mikhail Svetov],” he recalled.
He’s even more impressed by projects from outside of Russia — for instance, neural networks that generate beautiful images that are then sold at auctions.
Klimenko says that he was once approached with a similar proposition and was promised money, access to artists, and the opportunity to go on television. And Klimenko does in fact have a feature on Telegram that uses neural networks to generate images. At the time, he responded by saying he wouldn’t invest his own money in the project, but he nevertheless shared the images that were generated. In the end, the business “didn’t work out.” And Klimenko believes it failed because in Russia “people don’t even want to pay for a Photoshop license, much less for some doodles and pictures.”
In the next year and half or so, Klimenko hopes to have collected enough headlines that he finds funny to allow for Neural Meduza to be entirely automated and no longer require any human intervention. And that is when neural news will have prevailed once and for all.
Translated by Sydney Lazarus