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Disinformation about refugees from Ukraine: Start preparing today for the lies of tomorrow

Disinformation / COMMENTARY
Alberto-Horst Neidhardt

Date: 23/03/2022
Disinformation about Ukrainian refugees has so far remained limited to niche outlets. However, once the full effects of the economic sanctions against Russia kick in, disinformation groups will find more fertile ground to spread lies about refugees and promote their divisive agendas. The EU, member states and civil society should step up their efforts now and develop appropriate strategies in anticipation of future disinformation.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the displacement of millions to the EU, disinformation groups wasted no time pushing lies about the refugees. They falsely accused them of committing violent crimes against locals. They alleged that children are thrown out of oncological hospitals and replaced by Ukrainians. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space programme, repackaged a two-year-old video of an assault in Rome, claiming that Ukrainian refugees would soon ‘take over’ Italy and prohibit the Italian language.

The war in Ukraine is being fought with weapons, while in Europe, online disinformation aims to both create hostility towards Ukrainians and undermine social and political cohesion. For now, hoaxes remain circumscribed to extremist eco-chambers. But how long will it take before they reach larger, non-radicalised audiences? And what are the lessons to be learned from highly visible migration developments from the recent past?

Migration-related disinformation and its adaptability to ‘crises’

EPC research shows that disinformation narratives constantly evolve, adapting quickly to the shifting news cycle. Salient events, such as so-called migration crises, act as a catalyst for disinformation, allowing extremists to stoke fears and set the tone and content of the discourse. That is unless other political actors and migrants’ rights groups occupy that discursive space first. Recent events in Afghanistan and Belarus illustrate disinformation’s capacity to adapt and shape the political discourse.

For example, days after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last summer, it was falsely claimed that hundreds of thousands of Afghans were making their way to Europe. Right-wing activists spread hoaxes that only Afghan men escaped and that their lives were not in danger. Although blatantly false, doctored pictures and sensationalist articles achieved their purpose: to promote fears about an imminent ‘invasion’ of Afghans, overpower peoples’ desire to provide refuge, reinforce clichés and ultimately securitise the policy agenda.

Similarly, disinformation increased massively when the Lukashenko regime lured migrants and asylum seekers to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Online media spread lies about uprisings and violent fights in reception centres. Fear-mongering articles alleged that disguised terrorists were among the newly arrived. Such stories came straight from the migration disinformation playbook, to undermine Europeans’ support for refugees and trust in public institutions.

Some of the lies promoted at the height of the tensions with Belarus were disseminated by pro-Kremlin media and published in Russian. But many others were published by Europe-based activists and European websites. To win support for its hard-line, anti-immigration stance, the Polish government also launched smear campaigns against migrants.

The goals and risks of migration-related disinformation following the Ukraine war

Disinformation narratives systematically frame migration as a threat to people’s health, wealth and identity. However, their messages shift in response to each development in the news cycle and their target audience. Depending on the circumstances, migrants are described as an invasive force and threat to cultural traditions and identity, criminally-minded and incapable of respecting social and legal norms, job-stealing or a security risk.

By strategically linking migration to broader societal concerns and developing messages that resonate with people’s values, disinformation actors exploit attention-grabbing events to manipulate public perception and steer social divisions.

So far, lies about Ukrainian refugees and efforts to capitalise on Europeans’ fears have not been successful because an overwhelming outpouring of solidarity has overshadowed them. The dominant feeling is one of compassion for the refugees from Ukraine. This is the first lesson from the ongoing information war: If groups promoting migrants and refugees’ rights are the first to occupy a discursive space with a message that resonates with wider audiences, disinformation that targets refugees (as well as other migrants) will not go mainstream.

However, dangers lie ahead.

As EU citizens start to feel the full socio-economic effects of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s sanctions, disinformation actors in Europe will use every opportunity to manufacture discontent. The question is not if but when.

The war and consequent rise in inflation and energy prices will hit ordinary Europeans hard. Poorer households will struggle to pay their bills, while higher food prices will lower living standards. Millions of euros will be needed to provide Ukrainian refugees access to work, education and housing in the EU. Meanwhile, conflicts and rising inequalities worldwide will lead to more forced displacement in Ukraine and elsewhere.

In this context, lies about refugees and other migrant groups will be used to polarise public opinion and popularise divisive agendas.

Forward-looking actions from the EU, national actors and civil society organisations

Fighting disinformation, including on migrants, is front and centre of many EU activities. Such initiatives aim to, among others, mobilise tech companies to tackle disinformation and improve the Union’s capacity to detect and expose harmful content. Civil society organisations have also stepped up their activities, particularly via fact-checking. However, these initiatives face political, legal and financial limitations.

More can and should be done to fend off disinformation in the future, starting with improving the real-time monitoring of and early interventions against viral hoaxes.

EU-level initiatives, to begin with, focus on threats from outside the Union, predominantly hostile states like Russia. But as the examples of Ukraine, Belarus and Afghanistan show, disinformation originates from not only outside but also within Europe. Russian sources – which, as in the case of Sputnik, are now banned in the EU – account for only a fraction of the thousands of false stories that circulate online. A large share is promoted by European extremist groups and individuals. An “actor-agnostic approach” to detection and fact-checking that is not contingent on the origins of disinformation is, therefore, necessary for more timely and effective interventions.

At the same time, Europe’s approach to disinformation remains, for the most part, reactive. As such, false and misleading narratives spread quickly – often more so than fact-based information – because of their emotional appeal. While an important tool, fact-checking can also backfire since it can unintentionally give the disinformation message and frame more visibility.

The prevalent debunking efforts must therefore be complemented with a prebunking strategy: disinformation should be pre-empted with strategic action before it begins to circulate.

A test for EU’s resilience against migration-related disinformation

What does this mean in the case of Ukraine, and how will it help address future disinformation?

Firstly, Europe must strengthen its media and information literacy (MIL). Policymakers tend to rely on ‘technical’ or paternalistic approaches, pushing social media companies to delete bots, crack down on manipulative use of their platforms, and so on. This does not suffice. So long as migration remains a politically sensitive subject, it will continue to attract manipulative content.

MIL programmes can help address these problems by raising citizens’ agency and enabling them to identify disinformation and manipulation techniques independently. Making citizens better able to spot, resist and reject disinformation will protect not only them but also others by turning them into ‘gatekeepers’ and preventing the further propagation of lies.

Secondly, EU and national institutions and civil society must think strategically about future disinformation connected to forced displacement from Ukraine and beyond. Foresight efforts should assess which disinformation frames will be used in a context of growing economic hardship and geopolitical uncertainty, and identify which stories and narratives could harness widespread concerns and target particular population segments.

By anticipating possible disinformation about migrants and refugees, it will be possible to lay the groundwork against future lies proactively. The Ukrainian government is doing precisely this when, for example, pre-emptively warning the public about specific disinformation campaigns from Russian actors. Journalists and fact-checkers can also be empowered by gaining access to tools and information that will enable them to counter hoaxes.

Nevertheless, to maintain the current welcoming climate for refugees, it will also be necessary to devise messages and communication strategies that can sustain it in the face of future hostile narratives. To do so, progressive civil society organisations and like-minded political actors will have to craft messages that continue to resonate with people’s values. Against a background of rising economic insecurities, they will also have to acknowledge, but not amplify, their concerns. Not recognising their anxieties would make it easier for disinformation actors to ‘capture’ the debate.

Alberto-Horst Neidhardt is a Policy Analyst in the European Migration and Diversity programme at the European Policy Centre. 

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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