Last year, VoxCheck presented the first database of Russian disinformation narratives in two European media — Italian and German. On the eve of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, these countries were the main targets of Kremlin propaganda in Europe.
This year, VoxCheck updated this database, now it is available on a new resource: russiandisinfo.voxukraine.org, and 4 new countries were added to the list: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. For the most part, the disinformation narratives about Ukraine spread by these media are consistent with the main narratives of Russian disinformation campaigns.
How we conducted monitoring
As part of the monitoring, we managed to single out 325 fakes and 27 disinformation narratives. The number of disinformation cases will be constantly updated as VoxCheck continues to monitor selected resources. All disinformation messages grouped into narratives will appear on the Propaganda Diary database website.
We also created white and black lists of information resources for each of the six countries. Therefore, we were able to identify the key quality resources in these countries and distinguish the reliable sources from the questionable ones.
The database consists of almost 5,000 frankly fake or manipulative messages, i.e. cases of disinformation. To classify them, we grouped all cases by a common theme into fakes. From the fakes, we formed narratives based on the key common message. This means that different cases of disinformation are examples of one fake. And different fakes are examples of one disinformation narrative.
In which countries and during which periods did we identify the highest number of cases of disinformation?
According to the results of our research, a quarter of all fakes were spread in Polish media. We recorded 1384 cases of disinformation in Poland. Hungary ranked second in terms of the number of fakes with 869 cases, and the Czech Republic ranked third with 787 cases. In Germany and Slovakia, we found 709 and 592 cases of disinformation respectively. We found the least amount of propaganda messages in Italian media, accounting for only 10% of all detected false claims.
Russian propaganda continuously appeared in European media, constantly adding new cases. At the same time, according to our observations, the peak of Russian fakes was in December and January. In January, we recorded the largest number of fakes —148.
The most popular narratives
Russia spread the most fakes in the European media within the following narratives:
- the actions of Ukraine and the West forced Russia to start a war — 633 cases
- Nazism in Ukraine — 616 cases
- The West controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes — 559 cases
How has the topic of Russian fakes changed in Europe?
The disinformation narratives that Russia spread in Europe during the full-scale war depended primarily on the situation on the front, diplomatic arena, and economy. At the beginning of the Russian invasion, Kremlin narratives about so-called “Nazism” and “fascism” in Ukraine dominated the European information space, as well as the claim that NATO countries posed an external threat to Russia by increasing their military presence in Ukraine, and that there had been a civil war in Ukraine since 2014. In this way, Russia aimed to justify its own armed aggression against Ukraine.
These narratives were also reinforced by historical fakes, such as the narrative about the so-called “fraternal nations” — Ukrainians and Russians, or about Crimea being a gift from Khrushchev to Ukraine. Pro-Russian media added that Ukraine is a corrupt state that suppressed the Russian language. Through information pressure, the Kremlin tried to sow the idea in European society that there was no sense in supporting Ukraine, as Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation does not have the right to exist.
Within a few months after the start of the war, new narratives appeared in Russian propaganda rhetoric. With the influx of Ukrainian refugees into European countries, Russia began a campaign to discredit them abroad. Pro-Russian media spread fake stories that Europe was tired of refugees from Ukraine, they behaved badly, violated social norms, committed criminal acts, did not want to work, and created problems for other migrants.
One of the significant events was the agreement on the resumption of grain and other agricultural product exports from three Black Sea ports on July 22, 2022. They were separately concluded by Ukraine and Russia through the mediation of Turkey and the UN. Since then, fake stories have been circulating about Ukraine allegedly violating the terms of the grain agreement and seeking to create a famine in the world.
Against the background of Russian army defeats in Ukraine, pro-Kremlin media in Europe discussed the inevitable defeat of Ukraine in the war. For example, this could be seen in the context of the battle for Kherson. The media wrote that Ukraine lacked both people and weapons to deoccupy the Kherson region. After the withdrawal of Russian forces from Kherson, the media slightly adjusted the narrative: Russia’s escape was not considered a defeat, and Russia was still capable of achieving its strategic goals in the war, as the Ukrainian state could not hold out for more than 2 months.
As soon as the EU or the US announced new packages of sanctions against Russia or the provision of financial support or weapons to Ukraine, disinformers claimed that support for Ukraine was more harmful to the West than to Russia. Using fakes, propagandists tried to create the impression that Europeans were dissatisfied with helping Ukraine. Supposedly, due to sanctions, Europe would face an energy crisis, inflation, and public dissatisfaction with the government.
The specificity of fakes in each country of monitoring
During the disinformation campaigns, Russia often used the same narratives in different European countries. Fakes were often duplicated in media outlets in different languages. However, there were also narratives that were particularly popular within a specific country. Here are some examples:
A typical fake that Russia spread in Polish media was the claim that Poland was seeking to occupy western regions of Ukraine. This fake news was part of a narrative about Ukraine’s allies wanting to divide it among themselves. Polish media wrote that the support and assistance provided by Poles was just a cover for implementing a “clever plan.” In this way, Russia sought to provoke hostility and distrust between Ukrainians and Poles.
Poland became the European country that sheltered the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, over 1.5 million. Therefore, propagandists in Polish media sought to create an image of Ukrainian refugees as dangerous, aggressively-minded people who espouse Nazi ideology. Thus, Russia wanted to sow discord between Poles and Ukrainians.
In Slovakia, Russia has often sought to discredit the Ukrainian government and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The disinformation campaign aimed to create doubts among Slovaks about the justification for providing financial, military aid, and support to Ukraine.
The propaganda also focused on the thesis of “Ukrainian fascism”. To strengthen the legitimacy of this narrative, pro-Kremlin media appealed to history, often referring to representatives of Ukrainian radical nationalism and their actions (both real and fictional) from the 1930s to the 1950s. The fakes mentioned that supposedly Ukrainians collaborated with Nazi Germans during World War II and killed civilians, particularly in post-war Czechoslovakia. Disinformers tried to identify stereotypical images of Ukrainians present in the collective memory of a certain part of the Slovak population. All of this was aimed at reducing the social support and solidarity of Slovaks with Ukrainians.
In Hungarian media, many fakes were encountered about supposed numerous protests by Europeans against providing support to Ukraine. By spreading fake news about the harm from sanctions against Russia, the media tried to show that the West and Ukraine themselves were responsible for the crisis. In Hungary, this message was also transformed to suggest that people supposedly oppose “US interference” in the war, which prolongs it.
In addition, propagandists actively promoted the narrative that Ukraine is under full control of the West. Allegedly, the policy of partners is not to help Ukraine, but to “sacrifice it” to weaken the Russian state.
The Czech Republic
Just like in other countries, pro-Kremlin media in the Czech Republic discredited and mocked the Ukrainian government. The targets of these information attacks were President Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Zaluzhnyi. They were portrayed as puppets of the West, Nazis who throw unprepared soldiers as “meat” to the front line.
In January 2023, the attention of propagandists was focused on the presidential elections in the Czech Republic. Before the elections, targeted audiences received email campaigns, mainly targeting Czech pensioners. They were threatened with “war” in the event of the election of Petr Pavel as president. The email claimed that he would send the Czech army or even “Czech civilians” to fight in Ukraine.
The typical narrative for Italian media was the claim of the supposed “Western control over Ukraine.” In Italy, the narrative that Russia is fighting against NATO countries, the United States, or the conditional collective West, rather than Ukraine itself, is clearly visible. Propagandists often used the term “proxy war” led by the United States or NATO. According to the media, the only possible outcome for Ukrainians in this conflict is defeat.
In Italy, there were also widespread fakes about Ukraine being a “terrorist state” that attacks “peaceful cities,” kills civilians in Russia, and uses chemical weapons.
In the German information space, there were often fakes about the weapons provided to Ukraine by Western countries. Media outlets wrote that Ukrainians use Western weapons for unintended purposes or that the weapons are incapable of turning the tide of the war. The goal of this narrative was to create an impression of Ukraine as an unreliable partner that cannot ensure the intended use of the assistance provided. Therefore, supposedly, there is no need to allocate weapons or other aid to Ukraine.
A common narrative for German media was “war crimes committed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Many reports appeared alleging that Ukrainian troops were shelling and destroying civilian infrastructure objects. Most often, such reports concerned the territories occupied by Russia, especially the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations