Propaganda diary: review of Russian disinformation in European media in February 2023

Propaganda diary: review of Russian disinformation in European media in February 2023

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / serezniy
9 March 2023
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In February, VoxCheck monitored 85 Polish, German, Italian, Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak media. In total, we recorded 964 cases of disinformation about Ukraine and traditionally singled out key pro-Kremlin narratives from them. Czech (200), German (177), and Polish (160) mass media had the most cases. In February, disinformation narratives that Russian aggression against Ukraine was and remains justified were again at the peak of popularity; that the West continues to use Ukraine to wage war against Russia; as well as new fakes about the prevalence of neo-Nazism ideology in Ukraine.

VoxCheck monitors the media in European countries (Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) and analyzes the disinformation narratives about Ukraine spread by these media. For the most part, the detected fakes and manipulations are consistent with the main narratives of russian disinformation campaigns. Every month, the VoxCheck team publishes a report on the monitoring results. All disinformation messages, grouped into narratives and their refutations, will be displayed on the “Propaganda diary” database website.

Czechia

The leader in terms of the number of detected cases of disinformation is the Czech mass media. We found 200 fakes and manipulations in 12 media, from which 12 pro-Kremlin narratives can be singled out. The largest among them are the justification of Russian aggression (40 cases), Nazism in Ukraine (37 cases), and the so-called Western control over Ukraine (34 cases).

Trying to justify Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, disinformers write about the prerequisites for a full-scale invasion and about current events at the front, which supposedly explain Russia’s need to continue the war against Ukraine. The Czech media write that now the Russian Federation is “fighting for its existence and independence” and will not give up the “liberated” — that is, actually just occupied — territories of Ukraine. As a “threat” to Russia, some media chose not Ukraine, but NATO countries: allegedly, before 2022, Putin and Zelenskyi had peace agreements, but some members of the alliance, in particular Britain, prioritized the fight against Russia.

This Kremlin narrative was supported by Croatian President Zoran Milanović, whose statement was widely disseminated by the Czech media: he declared that “Russia has been provoked into war since 2014.” Well, in order to explain to the Czechs why, a year after the attack, the Russians are still “defending” themselves from Ukraine, the mass media spread the fake news that the Ukrainian military is going to drop unknown ammunition from kamikaze drones on the heads of the Russians, which are now “stored in refrigerators”.

The Czech media turned to the myth of Nazism in Ukraine in order to “whitewash” Putin. Offended by the fact that the Kremlin dictator is being compared to Hitler in the West, they wrote about the “fascists of the Ukrainian regime”, consisting of anti-Semites and “white ultra-nationalists”. A fake was also circulating in the Czech mass media, alleging that the police in Italy announced a series of raids against neo-Nazis associated with the Ukrainian “Azov”. In addition, the media spread the statement of the head of the “Wagner” PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, that he would organize the “Nidhoggr” special unit from Norwegians, which would “punish Ukrainian neo-Nazis.”

Regarding the so-called control of the West over Ukraine, a number of resources reported that the Americans for the first time offered “concessions that can satisfy Russia’s security requirements.” At the same time, this US proposal bypasses Kyiv, and this allegedly confirms that the entire Russian-Ukrainian war is a competition between the United States and NATO against Russia. In addition, the Alliance and the United States seem to already fully make military decisions instead of Kyiv, for example, regarding the retreat from Bakhmut or a counteroffensive operation.

Another widespread narrative is the so-called “foreign mercenaries”. In particular, the Czech mass media, with reference to the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, reported that more than 8,000 “mercenaries” from more than 60 countries are allegedly fighting in Ukraine. Other media reported about thousands of dead soldiers from NATO countries.

Against this background, the media spreads fakes that Ukraine’s losses at the front are so great that 15-year-olds are mobilized and sent immediately to the front. Fakes from the Hungarian segment about the fact that ethnic Hungarians are being illegally mobilized in Zakarpattia were also spread in the Czech mass media — they, too, seem to be immediately “thrown” to the front.

Germany

In February, we recorded 177 cases of disinformation in 19 German media. They can be divided into 19 narratives, the largest of which will be discrediting or ridiculing representatives of the Ukrainian government or the army (42 cases), justifying Russian aggression (28) and false accusations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine of committing war crimes (20).

One of the key reasons on the basis of which disinformers try to discredit the Ukrainian authorities is the mobilization process. Among other things, the German media spread fakes, as if the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced the mobilization of people with disabilities, and in Odesa, men are simply kidnapped from the street to be taken to the front. In addition, they write that those mobilized in the military commissars are treated “like cattle.”

However, in addition to the mobilization process, disinformers promote the topic of corruption. The media report the alleged corruption scandals and the dismissal of officials close to Zelenskyi after the US audit. Allegedly, after that, Western countries refuse to send military aid to Ukraine.

Justifying its own aggression, Russia is trying to blame Ukraine for the same — and at the same time, the collective West. The propagandists write that the EU and the USA, in their investigations of war crimes, are preventing the Russian Federation from “protecting civilians in Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol, Melitopol, Kherson, and Crimea.” In addition, the mass media repeatedly mentioned the manipulation, as if Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Boris Johnson, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyi at one time admitted that none of the parties was going to implement the Minsk agreements, and that they were needed only to arm Ukraine better for confrontation with Russia. Therefore, in Russia, allegedly, there was no other way out than to “protect itself.”

During this month, we traditionally recorded the largest number of fakes about “war crimes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine” in the German media. Most of these reports are about apparently targeted shelling or bombing by the Ukrainian military on civil infrastructure facilities in the territories occupied by Russia, most often in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The resources also spread Kremlin fakes about torture and abuse of captured Russian soldiers. In addition, we recorded a number of fake reports about Ukraine’s alleged violation of the Geneva Convention due to the use of “chemical weapons”. Volodymyr Zelenskyi is often directly called a “war criminal.”

In February, the narrative also became widespread that residents of various European countries oppose the provision of weapons to Ukraine and anti-Russian sanctions, and instead “demand” from their governments peace talks and restoration of ties with Russia. In the German media, there are numerous reports about the protests, to which Europeans allegedly come out with similar slogans.

Poland

During the monitoring of 10 Polish mass media in February, we recorded 160 fakes and manipulations, from which 24 pro-Kremlin narratives can be singled out. The most disinformation was about the so-called Western control over Ukraine (34 cases), the justification of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine (22 cases) and Nazism in Ukraine (19 cases).

Polish mass media continue to actively cultivate the myth of Nazism in Ukraine. Despite the logical assumptions that the peak of this narrative should have declined over time, disinformers do not reduce attention to the topic at all, continuing to “feed” Polish society with explanations that neo-Nazism has been cultivated in Ukraine, if not since 1991, then at least since 2014. In parallel with the reference to historical manipulations, Poles are intimidated by the fact that Ukrainians, “as before”, pose a threat to them. The media also spread the fake that Azov fighters are now teaching 6-year-old children to own weapons in order to attract them to their “Nazi” formation and use them on the front lines.

In order to convince that Russia’s aggressive actions have some kind of justification, propagandists traditionally try to involve Western authorities, even mostly falsely and manipulatively quoting their words. In February, the Polish media widely mentioned that the American economist Jeffrey Sachs pointed to the policies of the White House and NATO, which threatened the security of Russia, and therefore led to the war in Ukraine. Russian propagandists don’t get tired of throwing Kremlin officials’ statements into Poland’s information space from time to time, as if Russia did not start the war in Ukraine, but “is trying to end it.” At the same time, the opinion is being actively promoted that the supply of Western weapons does not help Ukraine, namely prolongs the war and the suffering of civilians.

As part of the narrative about the so-called control of the West, the Polish media wrote that since the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine remained the most devoted to pro-American policy, which led the state to impoverishment and the status of the poorest in Europe. And they pointed out that today Ukraine is only fighting for its poverty, not independence from Russia. At the same time, a campaign was launched to discredit Poland as a “vassal of the USA” that does the “dirtiest work” of waging war against Russia in the region. The goal of America is to seize the European energy market and to repel all the costs of the war in Ukraine. It is obvious that Kremlin voices continue to push the topic of the crisis in Europe without Russian energy sources.

Another major narrative in the mass media of Poland is the so-called oppression of ethnic minorities in Ukraine. They write that the mobilization in Ukraine takes the form of “genocide against minorities”: allegedly, they are caught illegally just in public places and sent to the front without preparation. At the same time, there should be an impression that the most brutal conscription process is about minorities, and the most fake reports are about Hungarians, Romani and Poles. Ukraine seems to be trying to forcefully assimilate national minorities in order to get rid of ethnic diversity within society.

More and more Polish media are writing about the fact that the provision of Western weapons will not help Ukraine in any way, since the country itself seeks to prolong the war in every possible way.

Hungary

We analyzed the content of 14 Hungarian mass media and found 154 disinformation messages in them for February. In total, we highlighted 17 narratives from them, the largest ones about the fact that the West supposedly controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes (30 cases), that Russian aggression is justified (21 cases), as well as fakes aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian government and army (19 cases).

As in the case of the German media, the Hungarian media wrote a lot about the seemingly numerous protests of Europeans against the provision of support to Ukraine. But in the Hungarian media, this message was transformed into the fact that people are allegedly opposing “US intervention” in the war, which is prolonging it. As an example, they wrote about the “10,000 meeting in Berlin” with such slogans. In fact, this is also part of the Kremlin’s narrative that Western aid is prolonging the “conflict” rather than helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. Other publications promoted the idea that the entire war in Ukraine is just a service to American globalist ideas or “European militarization.”

To prove that Russia still has a justification for waging war against Ukraine, propagandists point to new and new threats. This time, the Hungarian media widely disseminated the comment of Putin’s press secretary, Dmitrii Peskov, that since Ukraine is organizing air assault brigades to attack Donbas and Crimea, the Russians still have someone to “protect” — “the population of Donbas” (which Russian troops are actually killing destroying cities). With reference to “useful idiots” who voice the Kremlin’s necessary messages in the West, the Hungarian mass media wrote that the threat to Russia is the existence of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as such, and the war will continue until their complete destruction.

It is noteworthy that, compared to other countries, the Hungarian mass media, in an attempt to discredit the Ukrainian government, do not so much spread fakes as they make fun of it very sharply. “Bearded photo model“, “Nazi clown“, “gang of drug addicts from Bankova” are just a few examples of how the Hungarian pro-Kremlin media refer to Volodymyr Zelenskyi and the rest of Ukraine’s political leadership. In addition, the Hungarian media emphasize the alleged “undemocraticness” of the ruling elite and the state in general, in particular they write that any political party in Ukraine can be banned within a day, therefore they do not allow the existence of an opposition in the country. At the same time, there are mentions in the Hungarian media that the Ukrainian authorities refuse to negotiate and exchange captured miltary, as well as mercilessly treat the mobilized, sending 16-17-year-old teenagers to the front.

Hungarian mass media are also biased towards the opinion that Ukraine has no chance of winning, and the supply of weapons from the West only prolongs the war and causes human casualties.

Compared to other European media, the Hungarian media write more about the oppression of ethnic minorities, in particular, the alleged illegal mobilization of Hungarians in Zakarpattia. And also about the fact that Ukrainians seem to want to join Russia.

Italy

In 17 Italian media, we found 138 cases of disinformation, which can be divided into 18 narratives. The biggest ones are that allegedly the West is using Ukraine for its own purposes (23 cases), the discrediting of the Ukrainian authorities and the Armed Forces of Ukraine (18 cases), and the narrative that the supply of weapons to Ukraine prolongs the war (14 cases).

In the Italian media, the most attention was paid to the prerequisites of a full-scale invasion. In particular, widely spread was the statement of the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Maria Zakharova, that military personnel from EU member states were sent to Ukraine long before 2022 in the form of instructors, representatives of the special services and “foreign mercenaries”. The media wrote that in recent years, Ukraine was “supplied” with weapons from the West and massive NATO maneuvers were held on its territory. In addition to protecting itself, Russia also tried to carry out “anti-fascism propaganda” in Ukraine, the publications say.

As for the discrediting of the Ukrainian authorities, the most manipulations in the Italian media were that Volodymyr Zelenskyi defends the positions of NATO and not the Ukrainians. Allegedly he repeatedly refused peace for the sake of Western weapons, and now the Ukrainian army is left without weapons, money and even minimal resources because of him. At the same time, disinformers accuse Zelenskyi and “his oligarchs” of large-scale embezzlement.

Another common pro-Kremlin narrative in the Italian media is that the supply of weapons perpetuates the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Europeans are intimidated by the fact that later the war will cover all of Europe. Allegedly, the more weapons enter Ukraine, the faster it will lead to the complete destruction of Ukraine, and will drag all of Europe into the abyss of conflict. And the news about the decision of the USA to provide Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks was commented on as if it was directly leading to the Third World War. Many messages within this narrative are also about the fact that only their manufacturers will benefit financially from the provision of weapons, but Kyiv will definitely not benefit.

In the Italian mass media, the narrative that Russia is at war with NATO countries, the USA, or the collective West in general, and not with Ukraine, is also clearly visible. The term “proxy war” led by the USA or NATO is mostly used, and it is said that the only possible role of Ukrainians in this conflict is to die.

In addition, Italian media, more than resources monitored in other European countries, tend to believe that Ukraine is already devastated and losing the war.

Slovakia

We analyzed 13 Slovak media and found 135 cases of disinformation, which we grouped into 18 narratives. Among them, the majority are about Western control over Ukraine (25 cases), the inevitable loss of Ukraine in the war (18 cases) and Nazism in Ukraine (17 cases).

The Slovak media wrote about the so-called Western control over Ukraine, indicating that Zelenskyi and Putin could agree between themselves on “peaceful solutions” even before 2022, however, the Ukrainian president could not oppose the decision of NATO and the West to start a war against Russia. In particular, all peaceful solutions were allegedly blocked by the British politician Boris Johnson. Disinformers write, Ukrainians were assigned the role of “cannon fodder” in this war. Particular attention is being paid to the issue of the West supplying weapons to Ukraine: allegedly, they have started this only now, because it is necessary to force the Kyiv authorities to exhaust Moscow for as long as possible.

Slovakian media are spreading quotes from pro-Kremlin speakers, in particular former adviser to the US Defense Secretary Douglas McGregor, who has been talking about the “quick defeat” of Kyiv since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Slovak media are actively spreading his statements that the “peak of the collapse of Ukraine” will already come in the coming weeks. Or that the policy of the “Kyiv regime” led Ukraine to a demographic, economic and military catastrophe, and now the state is under threat of extinction. Another former American soldier, Scott Ritter, loyal to the Putin regime, says that the war in Ukraine has already ended in defeat, and Biden continues to supply weapons to pretend to the Americans that he is doing his best.

In addition, the Slovak mass media write about approximately 200,000 dead soldiers and “foreign mercenaries” from Ukraine.

The Slovak media promoted the narrative of Nazism in Ukraine through numerous reports that Volodymyr Zelenskyi assigned the 10th separate mountain assault brigade of the Ground Forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces the honorary name “Edelweiss”. Propagandists wrote that the brigade was named after Hitler’s Nazi unit with the same name, which committed mass murders in Slovakia during World War II. This is a fake: in fact, the brigade was named after the edelweiss flower (this name was chosen due to the constant deployment of the unit in the mountains, and the edelweiss flower grows high in the mountains).

In general, an active campaign to discredit the military of the Armed Forces of Ukraine can be followed in the Slovak mass media, directly aimed at causing Slovaks to doubt the justification of financial aid to Ukraine. For example, they write that the funds sent to Ukraine by other states, including the Czech Republic, are used inefficiently, because each soldier, regardless of whether he is in the trenches or simply “playing games on the phone”, receives 114 thousand crowns. At the same time, they try to portray Ukrainian soldiers as unprofessional and unprepared, and the entire military leadership as disorganized and corrupt. And also cruel: the Slovak mass media spread fake news that Ukrainians released from captivity were immediately sent back to the front.

Authors

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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