Although the Russo-Ukrainian war began eight years before the full-scale invasion, the preconditions and facts of Russian aggressive actions against Ukraine and other independent states have accumulated for centuries. The information war had begun way before the enemy tanks entered Ukrainian soil. – Key tasks of Russian propagandists are to cause division among Ukrainians, give them an inferiority complex, and discredit them in the eyes of the global community. They have worked even harder since February 24.
Analysts of Molfar, a global OSINT-community, are actively investigating Russian war crimes and debunking Russian propaganda since February 24. They researched how Russians are trying to tarnish the reputation of Ukrainian refugees abroad and the authorities and foreign opinion leaders supporting Ukraine. The fact that some countries support Ukraine with weapons, humanitarian aid or sharing information extremely annoys the Russian propagandists.
OSINTOpen-source intelligence is a method used to collect and analyse data gathered from open sources.
In the spring and summer seasons of 2022, the Molfar team tracked the main anti-Ukrainian messages on various social media and verified the Russian trace in most of them.
The researchers monitored two key phrases — “Ukrainian refugees” and “Ukrainian government” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, VK (Russian social media), and a number of other Russian, English, German and Italian resources. The team reviewed the posts with these phrases published in May-June 2022.They checked the number and frequency of publications, the emotional connotation (neutral, negative or positive), and sources. Molfar researchers wanted to find out the main messages of Russian propaganda on various online platforms. The primary tool for deep data analytics was Social Searcher service.
Who has a problem with Ukrainian refugees?
More than 14 million Ukrainians left their homes due to the invasion of Russia. Some of them became internally displaced persons, others fled abroad. Of course, Russian propagandists decided to abuse this topic because the flow of refugees has long worried the EU countries, and manipulation on this issue for Russia is a tool of “soft power”.
From the beginning of the full-scale invasion, many European countries supported Ukraine, accepted lots of people, created special conditions and various programs for them. Russian propagandists decided to play on the emotions of both sides: aggrieved Ukrainians and foreigners accepting them.
The starting point for the analysis of the pro-Russian misinformation were high-profile events related to Ukrainian refugees and celebrities’ visits to Ukraine. There was tabloid news about Ukrainian refugee Sofiia Karkadym, who fled Lviv to Great Britain, Angelina Jolie’s arrival to Ukraine (on April 30 she visited Lviv with a humanitarian mission), Ben Stiller (on June 20 visited Lviv and Makariv to meet the victims of war), and Sean Penn (on June 27 visited Irpin and Bucha to shoot his documentary film).
The results of research
An interesting sample of media demonstrates the spread of negative news about refugees from Ukraine, coming from little known medias. In the list, here are two American ones — YourTango and Mommy Page, Irish Extra.ie, Austrian The Adviser, Nigerian Pocotua, and GHBase.Com. The audience of these medias varies between 50 thousand to 4 million (traffic data from January to May 2022). None of them has a recognizable brand, long history or proven reputation. In other words, they are nonames. Although there’s no evidence for a direct relation between mentioned websites and Russian government, their social media pages pushed heavily Russian narratives.
There were plenty of publications about Ukrainian refugees in the media in all researched languages. During May–June 2022, the phrase “Ukrainian refugees” was found 1,955 times, of which at least 369 mentions (18.87%) had a negative emotional connotation.
Out of the total publications analysed, the share of discrediting posts in English was the smallest (8.4 %), while the largest shares were in Russian (39.8%), Italian (27.1%), and German (24.6%). (View the source data here).
The team analysed posts in four different languages separately and then highlighted the top 3 social media or media with the most frequent occurrence of tracked phrases.
The largest amount of posts about Ukrainian refugees and Ukrainian government has been found on Twitter (34.1 % in average for all languages ) and VK (V Kontakte – 26.5 %). The largest number of negative posts about Ukrainian refugees has been noticed on Twitter (32%) and VK (55%).There are reasons for choosing these platforms. Twitter has a simple registration process, is popular among foreigners, and its content is not as moderated as Facebook or Instagram. VK, in turn, is still the most popular social media in Russian with its monthly audience being around 85 million users.
While looking to worsen the attitude of Europeans towards Ukraine and Ukrainian people, Russian propagandists are trying to destroy the image of Ukrainians. For this reason, they not only use bots that spread fakes, but also involve bloggers and opinion leaders in creating content. Lists of the 10 most active users who spread negative content were compiled. The lists include Alexey Petrukhin, Zakhar Prilepin, Tatiana Montyan, Yulia Vityazeva and others who spread pro-Kremlin narratives.
Most of the users who spread discrediting content about Ukrainian refugees were Russians or pro-Russian residents of other countries. Their social media pages were full of Russian war attributes such as: “Z”, “V”, and “special operation”. The users published their own content or reposted ready-made content in whatever language they chose, supporting a pro-Russian position.
30.8% of the most popular posts were made by Russian residents. Researchers could not figure out the location of another 48.1%, but the content of their pages shows support for Kremlin narratives. Another 21.2% of posts indicate users from various locations.
Among the 100 analysed tweets in Russian concerning Ukrainian refugees, 52% of posts have negative connotations. The most popular narratives are “Poles are fed up with Ukrainian refugees” and “Ukrainian refugees can be sent to Rwanda”.
In the Russian social network VK (banned in Ukraine since 2017), 68% of posts have negative connotations. The theses are pretty similar: “the Dutch began evicting Ukrainian refugees from their homes”, “Poles are fed up with Ukrainian refugees”, and “Ukrainian refugees in Belgium are required to leave their homes.”
Apparently, propagandists do not shy away from using derogatory language, twisted phrases and emotional, manipulative wording that doesn’t have any verified background. These posts highlight only one side of the problem that benefits the position of Russia.
Sometimes Russian propagandists work smarter. They take real information and add emotionally charged headlines. Just like in the case when Poland announced the free of charge transit cancellation, negative emotions are added to real neutral news. This helps spread panic among vulnerable groups who share unreliable posts in a rush of emotions.
Only 10% of posts with keywords “Ukrainian refugees” in English Twitter are negative. The negative concerns the migration policy of states accepting refugees, but not Ukrainians themselves.
32% of tweets in German per 100 mentions contain negatives. The main theses are “Europe’s best kept secret: Poles go to the streets because of Ukrainians” and “#Poland #cancels #help for #Ukrainian #refugees. Free public transit will be cancelled”. The emphasis is on the same issues as in Poland — mainly on different possibilities for Ukrainian refugees. So, Russian propagandists are monitoring the media agenda and are trying to react to the information as soon as possible.
VK in Germany is more Russocenrtric — 60% of publications have negative connotations.
Negative headlines from VK in Germany include: “Europe is tired of Ukrainians”, “Europeans expel Ukrainians from their homes”, and “Great Britain sends Ukrainian refugees to Rwanda”. Thus they want to push the idea of arrogant Ukrainians who demonstrate poor manners abroad. Also, there was a video, allegedly from a Polish parking lot, full of very expensive cars with Ukrainian licence plates. The authenticity of the video is not confirmed. It is clear that the Russians do not wish to come to terms with such a striking difference in the standard of living of the citizens of the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
The same narrative was spread in VK in Italian. Italian-speaking Twitter has 42% negative publications per 100 analysed posts. The main messages are almost identical: “Poles against Ukrainians” and “Ukrainian refugees with expensive cars in Poland”. Russia also has powerful zones of influence in Italy: some political forces favour the aggressor country, plenty of cultural institutions promote pro-Kremlin narratives, and some Italians idolise Putin as a strong leader.
The Ukrainian government and “bribed” celebrities
The “incompetence” of the Ukrainian government is another subject that is promoted by Russian propagandists. The Russian media picked it up and replicated it as one of the primary theses of their high-ranking officials. The ominous goal of the aggressor country is to destroy Ukrainian statehood. A very convenient way to wipe out the country from the inside is to feign inner crisis in Ukraine and spread fakes about betrayal.
At the same time, Russian propagandists do not miss opportunities to depreciate the effort of various celebrities supporting Ukraine and Ukrainians. Russians are mocking and spreading fakes because they cannot respond calmly to such a great amount of attention shown by foreign celebrities to Ukraine.
The results of research
There are far fewer posts about the Ukrainian government than Ukrainian refugees. There are only 9 negative russian-speaking tweets per 100 publications as opposed to 52 on refugees.
The keywords “Ukrainian government” appeared only 401 times in the media, with only 2.2% of tweets having negative connotations. The primary narratives are “Ukrainians give up Donbas”, the “Ukrainian government started to bomb cities themselves”, and “Ukrainian government lies and spreads fakes”. The examples show two trends: Russian representatives continue to blame their crimes on Ukrainians and to slur Ukrainians.
Russian propagandists used Hollywood stars arriving in Ukraine to spread smear stories about both Ukrainian refugees and the Ukrainian government. There was active discussion about Angelina Jolie’s visit to Lviv with posts like: “Lviv bakery owners put up for sale the toilet Angelina Jolie sat on once”, “Lviv bakery owners put up for sale the croissant Angelina Jolie hasn’t finished”, and “Jolie promised to adopt Ukrainian kids but stopped communicating”. Of course, all of these posts are fakes made to depreciate the attention and support of celebrities visiting Ukraine.
Russian representatives also spread the narrative on “fraternal nations”, putting them into such statements as “my people have killed my people for eight years“. Or, on the contrary, absurd messages that Ukraine was “the motherland of sharovary (cossack pants), kizyakov, and hopak (cossack martial art)”.
UN Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stiller’s visit to meet the victims of war in Lviv and Makariv was discussed without any specific theses, but 10% of publications in VK have negative connotation — they express contempt for the actor and mock his intentions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Sean Penn’s visit has also been discussed on Twitter and VK (1, 2). Pro-Russian users concluded that all of the celebrities visiting Ukraine now are bribed. At the same time, the commenters give no evidence of stars’ mercantile interest. However, celebrities continue to visit Ukraine and tell the truth about the war to their followers regardless of their humanitarian missions and obligations towards the UN.
One of the goals of Russian propaganda is to ruin the reputation of the Ukrainian government. Thus pro-Russian bloggers and opinion leaders post some jokes that, at first sight, seem innocent. For instance, Alexey Petrukhin’s shared a post with the series “Servant of the People” footage on his blog. Nevertheless, those publications are made to humiliate and deride the Ukrainian government by twisting the facts and the primary content of the message. In this case, the blogger uses the footage without any context to blend the image of the president Goloborodko from the series and the current leader of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Such narratives are the extension of propaganda which calls the Ukrainian government “the gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”.
Another propagandists’ goal is to convince as many people as possible that the war (which is still called a “special operation”) is “the collective Wests” fault. Thereby they shift focus, allegedly, the war is not between Russia and Ukraine but between Russia and western countries that threaten the future of “the Great Power”. In other words, Russia is trying to show itself as a victim, not an attacker.
First, this narrative is a way to humiliate Ukraine and shows that it is “worthless” and a “failed state” (1, 2). It also pushes the idea that the war is fought with a “stronger” opponent. Second, this is how Russia tries to decline responsibility for war crimes committed on the territory of Ukraine and to salvage its reputation (1, 2, 3). That is why Russian bloggers and opinion leaders post things like “the whole thing is the fault of the West” to justify the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
In hybrid wars, confrontation takes place simultaneously on several fronts. Information warfare has a considerable impact in the short and long term. Although it is much harder to check the data during the war, it is important to remember basic informational hygiene. Read only verified and authoritative sources. Think over what you see in the media and social networking. Avoid spreading anonymous messages or those that aren’t trustworthy. Spreading fakes and emotional messages without verifying facts helps the enemy’s propaganda machine. Avoid ill-considered and feverish reposts as well as uncontrolled news consumption. In this way, you will preserve not only your own mental health, but you will also help hasten our joint victory. Your impact and support for Ukraine is more significant then you’d think.
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