By Raquel Miguel, Researcher at EU DisinfoLab
Hate speech and actions targeting specific communities must be tackled in all their forms. From EU DisinfoLab, we encourage citizens who witness and suffer from any discrimination, hate speech, or other incidents that are potentially illegal and are based on their identity, nationality, or other protected characteristics to report these cases to the competent enforcement authorities.
It is only through reporting that competent authorities can investigate in order to protect the victims and enable researchers and journalists to work safely and accurately. Therefore all reported incidents must be taken seriously and properly investigated. Still the reporting of inauthentic or even false claims of cases of Russophobia may lead to the creation of biases or instrumentalization of the victims’ narrative by stakeholders defending their own interests.
For this reason, responsible reporting is in the best interest of the victims as it will support the reception of authentic cases of aggression by authorities and society. The same goes for the prevention of the amplification of false claims that are debunked later.
- A growing anti-Russian sentiment has been reported in several European countries since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- The scenario is complex and diverse across Europe. Confirmed Russophobic incidents coexist with dubious claims, propaganda, and disinformation.
- In view of this, German fact-checkers debunked around a dozen claims of Russophobia since the beginning of the invasion, and they also verified and confirmed some episodes.
- False claims of Russophobia push a pro-Russian agenda, as they victimise Russians and attack Ukrainian refugees based in Germany. Besides, official German statistics suggest that incidents suffered by Ukrainians are disproportionately underrepresented in the German public debate.
- Disinformation transmitters include Russian media and pro-Russian actors on social media, but at the present stage it is not possible to fully understand the origin of these misleading allegations.
- Injecting the public debate with deceptive reports of Russophobia risks to negatively impact the acceptance and integration of minorities, and the possibility for real victims of discrimination and harassment to be believed.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24 unleashed an avalanche of disinformation and hate speech, including a rise of anti-Russian sentiments that even led to real-life incidents or attacks.
Accusations of Russophobia have emerged in the form of prejudice, fear, or hatred towards the country, Russian citizens, or Russian culture in general. However, while this alleged anti-Russian sentiment might have provoked discrimination and incidents in some countries, several claims present incongruences. In some cases, the incidents seem to have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes, as Russian authorities and institutions amplified and filled these allegations with a strong bias and political agenda.
In Germany, false cases of Russophobia were debunked by the fact-checkers. By analysing the circulating narratives and their transmitters, this blogpost explores the role that mis- and disinformation related to Russophobia has played in Germany during the first three months of the war. Mis- and disinformation is often used to fuel discrimination and hate towards minorities. Nonetheless, this time, disinformation seems to have taken on a different role, which is instrumentally supporting a pro-Russian narrative in the context of the war.
However, fact-checkers also confirmed real incidents against Russian citizens, which risk being undermined, not believed, or deemed false. Hence, disinformation risks negatively affecting the integration of minorities and recognition of real victims.
2. Real incidents and dubious claims
Cases of Russophobia have been registered across Europe in recent weeks. In Germany, the press reported incidents against some of the two million Russian-speaking people living in the country, who suffered damages to property – for instance an arson attack in a Russian school in Berlin – as well as insults and threats on the Internet and in the street. At the beginning of April, the Minister of the Interior reported more than 300 anti-Russian crimes in Germany since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Among the 308 registered incidents, there were 15 acts of violence. Nevertheless, Minister Nancy Faeser reported that Ukrainians are also being attacked: 109 anti-Ukrainian offenses were registered, 13 of which were violent. This means that more than 400 crimes have already been reported lately, triggered by the ongoing conflict.
In France, a major Paris-based Russian cultural institution was attacked with a Molotov cocktail. In Finland, the press reported discrimination and incidents – i.e., physical threats, intimidating phone calls, and bad reviews on Google – towards businesses owned by Russian-speaking people. Clearly, Russophobia is a legitimate problem which deserves attention and vigilance, as has been noted by Human Rights Watch.
At the same time, doubt looms over numerous accusations. The German Federal Ministry of the Interior itself warned against possible false reports and exaggerated representations: “The narrative of a supposedly anti-Russian West has been put forward for years and is part of state-sponsored Russian disinformation, a spokesperson had explained. The alleged hostility towards Russia is used to distract from Russian influence activities abroad and to defame criticism of them as irrational.”
The German newspaper Berliner Zeitung recently published a report denying the seriousness of some accusations, pointing out that warnings about Russophobia seem to have been inflated, to which the Russian embassy in Berlin responded angrily. Also, German author of Russian origins Vladimir Kaminer casted doubts on some complaints in a video interview with Der Spiegel, and claimed that some accusations were fabricated.
And even though attacks against Ukrainians also occurred, Russophobia dominates the discourse, suggesting that incidents suffered by Ukrainians are underrepresented in the German public debate.
3. The two faces of Russophobia-related disinformation: verification of real cases and debunking of false ones
Since the beginning of the invasion, disinformation related to Russophobia has also emerged in Germany. The main fact-checkers debunked almost a dozen of false claims of Russophobia, but they also confirmed the veracity of some reports.
3.1 Verification of incidents motivated by anti-Russian sentiment.
During a demonstration in front of the Bundestag in Berlin on April 6, a video circulated showing a girl singing: “Soon there will be no more Russians, and then there will be peace all over the world.” The quoted line, which comes from a Ukrainian songwriter, talked about ‘Russnia’ – which is a derogatory term for Russian soldiers or Russians in general. The event was controversial and unleashed criticism claiming this was a plea directed against all Russians and presented as evidence of Russophobia. Although the singer and songwriter said that the expression only refers to Russian aggressors in Ukraine, the fact-checker Correctiv assessed that the sentence spread anti-Russian sentiments.
In addition to this, Correctiv confirmed the authenticity of a video posted on Twitter that reportedly showed a Russian shop in Oberhausen (Germany) being covered in paint and with a smashed window. Moreover, the fact-checker collected confirmed reports of anti-Russian incidents: e.g, a doctor in Munich who no longer wanted to treat Russian people; the statement of a bakery chain from Baden-Württemberg that they would take the term ‘Russian’ away from their “Russian pluck cake”. Both cases triggered outrage after they became known and led to apologies by their perpetrators.
3.2. Debunking false cases of Russophobia: self-victimisation and attacking the adversary
However, German fact-checkers have mainly reported false allegations of attacks against Russians in Germany. These are often local events, which play on sensitive elements to appeal to emotions, such as portraying children as targets.
The strategies used to disinform about Russophobia also consist of impersonating German media in order to make the false news more credible, pushing totally fabricated content, or decontextualising and reframing real incidents as hate crimes against Russians.
Among the transmitters of these hoaxes there are Russian media (such as RT, which amplified a hoax) and pro-Russian network accounts, such as Neues aus Russland, belonging to self-proclaimed journalist Alina Lipp. The latter has been spreading pro-Russian disinformation since the beginning of the war, including two fact-checked hoaxes. Some of the hoaxes were also disseminated by Russian-language accounts. Other transmitters or amplifiers of Russophobic deceptions were disinformation websites or channels that had previously contributed to the pandemic-related infodemic. The data available does not allow us to fully establish the origin of the hoaxes and we cannot confirm whether there are Russian state actors involved, even though the narratives certainly push the Russian government’s agenda.
3.2.1. The narratives
From the beginning of the war to the end of May, eleven hoaxes were debunked trying to depict Russians as victims in Germany. This can be interpreted as a sort of pushback against the fact that Ukrainians are usually portrayed as victims, and Russians as aggressors. The narratives are diverse:
- Institutional discrimination. Some denounce institutional discrimination of Russian citizens in Germany. In these cases, German administrations, schools, banks, or health institutions are presented as actors that discriminate against Russians. Debunks included claims that the University Hospital of Munich (LMU) no longer wants to treat Russian citizens, the Deutsche Bank and Postbank sanctioned all their Russian clients, or even that Russian children were kicked out of German schools and homeschooled.
- Attacks on Russian properties. Misleading reports circulated about alleged attacks on the properties of people of Russian origins. A hoax claimed fascists destroyed KVG buses in Hittfeld, because the person responsible had Russian roots. Other decontextualised videos denounced damages to cars in Hamburg, Berlin or Hannover because the cars had Russian license plates or the car owners had participated in Russian demonstrations. In most cases, Ukrainian refugees were deemed responsible for the vandalism Another video showed a man sowing chaos in a shop that sold Russian products, maintaining that the event happened in Regensburg, in Germany, and was related to the war.
- Physical attacks and murder. Other hoaxes claimed physical attacks or even murder of Russian citizens by Ukrainian refugees, based on totally fictitious content. In Euskirchen, a viral piece of disinformation assured that a Russian-speaking 16-year-old was beaten to death, while another one claimed that ten kilometers from Nuremberg, a man of Russian origins had been stabbed. In both cases, Ukrainian refugees were pointed out as authors. Austrian fact-checker Mimikama identified another hoax that circulated on WhatsApp, according to which Ukrainian nationalists gave poisoned sweets to Russian children in a park in the German city of Ingolstadt and that two girls were in intensive care.
3.2.2. The impact: Self-victimisation, anti-refugee sentiment and polarisation.
In addition to reversing the victim-aggressor dynamic, these hoaxes also push an anti-refugee narrative that promotes a negative image of Ukrainians fleeing the war.
On the one hand, this can hinder acceptance and integration of migrants into German society. On the other hand, this sort of disinformation exploits a sensitive topic to fuel polarisation. As for the impact, the whole conversation around anti-Russian sentiments seems to have caught on in Germany. Several demonstrations have been held protesting against the discrimination of Russian citizens, sparking controversy.
4. RUSSOPHOBIA-RELATED PROPAGANDA
Apart from disinformation, EU DisinfoLab identified propagandistic efforts through the instrumentalisation of the Russophobia narrative by Russian institutions and actors, relying on several tactics.
- Russian authorities’ engagement. The Russian embassy in Berlin set up discrimination and Russophobia hotlines and claimed to have received thousands of complaints. This means that the Russian state – instead of being a neutral actor – has often worked as the intermediary channel of these claims. This could be problematic, as Russia is a player in an open conflict and that these allegations may be biased.
- Ad hoc propaganda campaign. The Russian Embassy in Berlin also launched an anti-discrimination campaign on YouTube dubbed #StopHatingRussians, which is filled with propagandistic content. For instance, a video showed a man destroying and hiding Russian books, records, and posters in the face of a police raid, in an attempt to exaggerate the anti-Russian sentiment.
Another video tells the story of a Siberian Husky being discriminated against during a dog playdate for being Russian, but later accepted by other dogs as the caption “boundaries are in human heads” appears.
This is part of a broader campaign by other Russian diplomatic missions. For instance, a fictional film, which tells the story of a final trial against figures of Russian literature and art, was propagated by the Russian Permanent Mission to UNESCO, accusing the West of promoting ‘cancel culture’ attempts against Russia.
- Abusing the term: Russophobia as a wild card. The term ‘Russophobia’ is also constantly misused by Russian media such as RT in German, which uses it to justify and explain any event, e.g., claiming that Russophobia is the reason why Western media are lying about Ukraine. The concept pushes victimisation even regarding unrelated topics on the Russian agenda, i.e., explaining Japan’s removal of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment from the list of neo-Nazi organisations back in 2021.
Similar propagandistic practices were observed in other countries such as France and Spain, where Russophobia has been misused to push a Russian victimhood narrative.
- Hyperbolic victimhood. For example, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs in Moscow tweeted the news of the arson attack against the Russian Arts Centre in Paris, which was then retweeted by the Russian embassy in Paris, as reported by EU DisinfoLab researcher Nicolas Hénin. This could lead to an amplification and distortion of real incidents by Kremlin actors or sympathisers to convey an image of victimhood.
- Attacking the adversaries. In France and Spain, domains that include the word ‘Russophobia’ appeared. Instead of collecting discrimination claims, they are used to call out adversaries that allegedly spread anti-Russian discourse, such as media or politicians. The Spanish rusofobia.com lists politicians and official bodies that expressed criticism against Russia, while the French-speaking Swiss-based website russophobie.org says to practice “crowd sourced investigations” against alleged Russophobes, looking for “anti-Russian” organisations all over the world.
Conclusions and thoughts
- Mis- and disinformation are often used to fuel hate and discrimination against vulnerable groups and minorities. In the cases of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, hoaxes are exploited to trigger negative sentiment toward these groups. Nonetheless, Russophobia-related disinformation seems to have a different role: instrumentalising the victim narrative.
- Authentic episodes of Russophobia are a legitimate problem deserving attention and vigilance. However, false or exaggerated allegations of Russophobia favour the Kremlin disinformation strategy.
- Overall, the topic is highly polarising and mobilises public opinion, either inciting animosity towards Russian groups in Europe, or portraying Russians as victims in the context of the Ukraine war.
- The data available does not allow us to fully establish the origin of the hoaxes and we cannot confirm whether in some cases there are Russian state actors involved, even though the narratives certainly promote the Russian agenda.
- Disinformation harms those who are targeted by it and those who believe it. As many reports of Russophobia were found to be false, this could affect the possibility to address real cases of discrimination towards Russians and support for the real victims of Russophobia. Further, false and misleading accusations of Russophobia might negatively impact the acceptance and integration of minorities, and the possibility for real victims to be believed.
 The data comes from debunks by German fact-checkers which EU DisinfoLab regularly collects and analyses.
 At the time of our writing, fact-checkers in other countries that EU DisinfoLab monitors (Spain and France) did not report similar situations.