Russian disinformation is demonizing Ukraine refugees
The Washington Post December 8, 2022
GROSS STRÖMKENDORF, Germany — The news clip showed a towering blaze in a residential neighborhood in Germany, followed by a weeping homeowner giving an interview from the rubble of her burned-down house. A chyron at the bottom of the screen explained that Ukrainian refugees had set the fire, accidentally ravaging the home of their German hosts.
The video, which bore the logo of the German tabloid Bild, spread from a small YouTube account through the messaging app Telegram to Russian state media, until it could be found on nearly every major social platform, a forensic analysis later showed.
But it was a fake, with footage from unrelated events stitched together to form a bogus news report that cast Ukrainian refugees as feckless instigators wreaking havoc on the generous Germans who had taken them in.
As Russian forces continue to shell Ukrainian cities, pro-Kremlin propagandists have homed in on a new target: turning Europeans against the 7.8 million Ukrainian refugees who make up the continent’s largest displacement since World War II. In doing so, Russia’s disinformation merchants are needling at deep-seated European fault lines over immigration, echoing how Russia-linked operatives famously exploited major U.S. social media platforms to sow division around topics such as race ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Experts say the propaganda campaign, which Facebook parent company Meta has called “the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine,” aims to stoke fear and divisions among Ukraine’s critical European allies as they brace for a new influx of refugees this winter. And while Europeans remain overwhelmingly supportive of fleeing Ukrainians, there are fears that Russian efforts to weaponize the issue may be finding their mark.
In Germany — home to more than 1 million Ukrainians — attempted arson attacks and threatening graffiti on refugee accommodations and schools in recent months suggest the messaging is already reaching a radicalized fringe. In many cases, it’s spreading via the fast-growing messaging app Telegram, which does far less content moderation than established giants such as Meta’s Facebook and Google’s YouTube.
One morning in October, at a local hotel that was converted into a refugee center run by the Red Cross in Gross Strömkendorf, a village on Germany’s north coast, someone used spray paint to turn the Red Cross sign into the shape of a bright red swastika. Two days after the swastika attack, the hotel was burned down — not by its Ukrainian inhabitants, but by a German serial arsonist, authorities say. They say they don’t believe the fire was politically motivated. All 14 refugees escaped unharmed.
Russian disinformation “is a long-term investment, and it could become very, very toxic,” Huberta von Voss, executive director of the Germany office for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit that studies extremism and disinformation, said of the Russian efforts. “That can do real-world harm.”
While Europeans are still overwhelmingly in favor of welcoming refugees, support is slipping in key countries. A poll by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that the proportion of Germans who believe the country should take in refugees from Ukraine fell from 86 percent in March, near the beginning of the war, to 74 percent in September.
“Lies about Ukrainian refugees and efforts to capitalize on Europeans’ fears have not successfully polarized or shaped the public discourse so far,” according to a recent European Parliament-supported study by the Brussels-based European Policy Center. But the proportion of information that is hostile toward Ukrainian refugees “is increasing and generating greater engagement on social media,” it warned.
Russian disinformation narratives have also seeped into mainstream politics. In September, Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s opposition Christian Democrats, accused Ukrainian refugees of “social tourism” - taking advantage of Germany’s welfare system while traveling back and forth to Ukraine, a narrative frequently touted by pro-Kremlin accounts. He later apologized.
And there are indications that anti-refugee propaganda may be finding its mark among an already radicalized fringe taking to the streets for weekly demonstrations against energy prices.
In one incident in the eastern city of Leipzig in October, marchers faced off against a group of Ukrainian refugees demonstrating against Russia’s bombardment. One protester called the group of Ukrainians “pigs,” adding, “You are living on our dime,” as others chanted, “Nazis out.” (Equating Ukrainians with Nazis has been a dominant theme of Russian propaganda since President Vladimir Putin sought to justify the invasion as a campaign to “de-Nazify” the country.)
Kateryna Pikalova, a 26-year-old from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro who helped organize the Ukrainian demonstration, described the scene as “chaos” but said she was not surprised. She recalled a recent incident when she and her mother, who recently arrived as a refugee, were approached by a man on the street who began comparing Ukrainians to Nazis, referring to images he’d seen online.
“You hear this on the street, and you understand that this Russian psychological operation is in action,” Pikalova said. “This Russian big machine is unstoppable, it’s everywhere. You can see it on the internet, you can feel it on the streets.”
Insidious strand of disinformation
The demonization of Ukrainian refugees in Germany via social media hoaxes and bogus news stories represents a characteristically insidious strand of disinformation, experts say, from Russian propagandists, who have long shown a knack for tapping into other countries’ domestic political divisions to advance their aims.
Europe’s largest economy has been central to Moscow’s informational warfare since the Cold War, when the country was the dividing line between east and west. That is still a fault line Russian propaganda attempts to exploit, while in recent years Kremlin information operations have also focused on stirring the backlash against Germany’s decision to allow in more than a million largely Middle Eastern refugees.
And Germany is a country where Russian channels have reach. Before it was shut down by German authorities in March, RT DE, the German language arm of Russian state television channel Russia Today, was the most interacted with German language media outlet on Facebook, and the third on Twitter, according to a study last year by the German Marshall Fund.
The anti-refugee narrative began as the first fleeing Ukrainians crossed the border, but took off in the spring and summer, after early attempts to justify Russia’s February invasion or play it down as a “special military operation” did not persuade Western audiences.
Whereas past waves of disinformation targeting Middle Eastern refugees portrayed them as a “cultural” threat to Europeans, the campaign against Ukrainian refugees presents them as a threat to Europeans’ health and wealth, the European Policy Center found.
A growing body of research makes clear that the anti-refugee messaging has been fueled by a sprawling, coordinated, Russia-based network of fake news websites, Telegram channels, YouTube and Instagram channels, and even Change.org petitions. And it’s being systematically amplified by armies of fake social media accounts, real pro-Kremlin influencers, and Russian state media accounts across virtually every major social platform.
Exactly who in Russia is behind it is not yet clear, and researchers have yet to find direct links to the Kremlin. But whoever it is appears to be well-resourced, experienced in disinformation campaigns, and very persistent. In a September report on the network, Facebook parent Meta said the campaign relied on “an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force.”
New research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, shared with The Washington Post ahead of its publication, provides the most detailed insight yet into the disinformation campaign, highlighting its focus on Ukrainian refugees and tracing how the campaign worked to push specific narratives to European audiences.
The ISD report focuses on a specific Telegram channel with about 10,000 followers, called Deutsche Wahrheit (“German Truth”), as a microcosm of the broader campaign. Though the channel’s name and posts were in German, researchers noticed that the file names of the videos and clips it uploaded were often in Russian. Those files also included folder names and project names that matched those found on videos posted by accounts previously identified as part of a pro-Kremlin propaganda network.
Out of 219 videos posted in Deutsche Wahrheit between April 15 and July 11, 40 percent mentioned refugees, according to the ISD study. Other videos sought to link Ukraine more generally to Nazism, discredit specific Ukrainian leaders, or blame Europe’s energy woes and inflation on its support of Ukraine.
The posts, many of which featured faked or doctored videos made to look like mainstream media reports, implicated Ukrainian refugees in everything from plotting terrorist attacks to bringing monkeypox to Germany.
The faked clip that appeared to show Ukrainian refugees burning down their German hosts’ house in Wulfen was one of those. Its spread offers a case study in how the campaign used small, obscure accounts to seed and perhaps focus-group falsehoods that it could then spread to wider audiences, staying a step ahead of the big platforms’ content moderators.
On May 14, someone created a German-language YouTube channel with a name that translates to “News and Rumors,” according to ISD’s forensic analysis, and uploaded the faked Bild news clip. It received a paltry 12 likes and was later deleted. YouTube didn’t respond to requests for comment.
That same day, however, the video was uploaded to the Deutsche Wahrheit Telegram channel, which appears to have served as an early or original source for numerous videos in the campaign. Posting on Twitter on May 17, Bild’s head of Digital, Timo Lokoschat, denounced the report as a “complete fake” — but that didn’t stop its spread. Bild didn’t respond to requests for comment.
By the next day, the video was making the rounds of large Russian-language Telegram channels, some with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. On May 19, it made headlines across Russian media, including Sputnik and the news agency RIA FAN. It also spread to Chinese social media site Weibo, where it was viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Though the video was eventually debunked, few of the stories were ever corrected or retracted. And links to the articles and videos continued circulating on Telegram, Twitter and Facebook, where fake accounts with AI-generated profile images systematically amplified them.
The German public television network, ZDF, first tied a spate of such faked news videos, which purported to be from German outlets such as Bild, Die Welt and Der Spiegel, to a coordinated disinformation campaign in August. ZDF noted that some of the fake videos were being promoted in Facebook advertisements.
That triggered Meta’s investigation, which identified dozens more fake news sites and examples of disinformation targeting European audiences, primarily in Germany, and attributed the campaign to Russian origins. Meta took down all the ones it could find. While Deutsche Wahrheit’s Instagram account survived those sweeps, Meta spokeswoman Margarita Franklin confirmed that it was part of the same campaign, and Instagram suspended it in November following The Post’s inquiries.
Such investigations have become part of Facebook’s business, and to a lesser extent those of Twitter and YouTube, since they first identified evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
But as content moderation has increased on the major U.S.-based social platforms, propagandists and extremists have found new outlets.
Those include Telegram, the stateless messaging app that has become a leading communications channel in much of Eastern Europe, including Russia and Ukraine.
Similar anti-refugee disinformation campaigns linked to “hacktivism” groups in Russia and neighboring Belarus have been targeting Polish audiences, said Givi Gigitashvili, a Poland-based research associate for the nonprofit Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn defended the company’s role in the information ecosystem. Vaughn did not dispute that Telegram takes a laissez-faire attitude to channels that spread misinformation, but said it is working to expand a fact-checking initiative. “It is our belief that the most powerful tool against misinformation is the spread of verified information,” Vaughn said.
Only about 2 million Germans subscribe to Telegram channels, Vaughn added, making it “unlikely Telegram channels could play any noticeable role in Germany’s information landscape, let alone be used as a tool for disinformation of any relevance.”
But German authorities warned the messaging app has become a “medium for radicalization,” and in October a court fined the company $5 million for failing to comply with German law regarding the reporting of illegal content.
A string of incidents in recent years — including a plot to kidnap the health minister — have stoked fears that online extremism fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories is increasingly manifesting into offline violence.
On Wednesday, German authorities arrested 25 members of what they described as a “terrorist group” suspected of plotting to storm parliament and overthrow the state by force. Prosecutors said members followed a mix of conspiracy theories and accuse its ringleader of reaching out to Russian officials during his attempts to bring about a new order in Germany.
Finding the Russian propaganda
Pinpointing the role of Russian propaganda amid domestic extremism can be tricky, because foreign and domestic actors often work in concert, said Pia Lamberty, co-CEO of CeMAS, a German think tank that tracks online conspiracy theories and extremism. “There’s a certain atmosphere created online, and this gives people the idea that they need to do something about it” — sometimes in the form of real-world hate crimes.
During the summer, graffiti in poorly spelled English reading “kill Ukrain kids” was sprayed on a school that teaches refugees in the eastern German city of Leipzig, while another kindergarten in the city attended by Ukrainians was targeted in an attempted arson. In October, a planned home for non-Ukrainian refugees was set fire to in Bautzen, Saxony.
Bild branded the hamlet of Gross Strömkendorf, situated on a picturesque inlet of the Baltic Sea, where the Red Cross refugee center was defaced and then burned to the ground, the “village of shame” in a column.
So far, attacks on refugee centers have only risen slightly amid the strain of more than a million new arrivals. There were 65 in Germany through October of this year, according to official figures cited by the German press, compared to 70 all last year, before the Ukrainian wave began. That compares to a peak of around 1,000 in 2015, as more than a million largely Middle Eastern refugees arrived in the country.
But there has been an increasingly “bad vibe” toward refugees in recent months, said Ulrike Seemann-Katz, the head of the refugee council for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the state where the burned down refugee center was located.
And as winter sets in, officials have said they expect an uptick in arrivals from the front lines in Ukraine, as Russian shelling inflicts severe damage to Ukrainian infrastructure — just as the impact of the energy crisis could be felt most strongly in Germany. Seeman-Katz said her organization has had an influx of emails asking them to give aid to Germans instead of refugees.
“Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be insults — often they just make statements based on Russian propaganda,” she said.
Anti-refugee sentiment has been fueled by weekly street demonstrations around Germany, said Seeman-Katz. Regular demonstrations against coronavirus vaccines and lockdown mandates have morphed into protests over the war and high energy prices, and anti-refugee sentiment has also bubbled up.
On a Monday in late October, in Germany’s northern city of Schwerin, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the steps of the city’s 19th-century museum next to a banner asking, “Do you want to starve or freeze?”
Attendees carried Russian and German flags, and a speaker read a supposed “testimony” from a worker in the energy industry warning of a collapse in the grid. “You may have read it already in the channels,” he began, referring to Telegram. The crowd swelled to several thousand as night fell.
A 64-year-old retiree wearing a string of fairy lights around her felt hat said she sees Ukrainian refugee children with new bicycles. “There are German children who can’t afford that,” she said. “Why does a refugee have to ride a bike? A refugee can walk.”
She complained that state support meant refugees could leave windows open while having the heat on, while pensioners struggled to pay their bills. The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared potential repercussions, and like others at the demonstration expressed a distrust of the “mainstream media.”
The retiree, who said she went to Telegram for her news, had heard about the fire at the refugee center in Gross Strömkendorf about 25 miles north, which at the time was assumed to be a targeted attack. “The fire is not okay,” said the woman, “but the discontent of the people you can understand.”
Morris also reported from Schwerin and Berlin. Oremus reported from Newark, Del. Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin and Gross Strömkendorf contributed to this report.