By Maria Giovanna Sessa, Ana Romero, Raquel Miguel, and Nicolas Hénin.
As 2022 marked the passage from the infodemic to information war, but many other disinformative events and narratives unfolded as well, we decided to review the more ‘popular’ ones circulating from July to December in France, Germany, and Spain. This account completes a similar report the EU DisinfoLab made covering the first semester of 2022, based on the three countries in which we monitor fact-checking activities.
Besides “the virus, the war, and elections”, 2022 was marked by disinformation that preyed on the sense of financial stability and security – from the energy crisis to xenophobic fears-, which together with civil-rights related concerns evidences how cultural topics affect the information disorder.
Disinformation aims to increase polarisation and erode institutional trust, by blaming national and international authorities for actual or perceived wrongdoings. In fact, alongside fully-fabricated deceptions, many hoaxes contain some elements of truth that are strategically misinterpreted or exaggerated to mislead the public.
Fact-checked content comes from a wide range of malign actors and online outlets, which conveys a picture of the main deceptive trends. Last year, media impersonation and synthetic media constituted an increasingly pressing challenge. Regarding the former, proof of this abounded in the Russian disinformation campaign that EU DisinfoLab took down during its later investigation on media clones dubbed Doppelganger. As for the latter, image manipulation, deepfakes, and other doctored interactive materials are cutting-edge and expected to increase further.
THE MAIN EVENTS POPULATING THE FRENCH, GERMAN, AND SPANISH DISINFORMATION LANDSCAPE FROM JULY TO DECEMBER 2022
1. THE WAR IN UKRAINE
The ongoing war in Ukraine has been the greatest disinformation-catalysing event throughout 2022.
After months of politics-centred narratives, economic fear-mongering was perhaps the most pervasive narrative during the July-December period. These hoaxes serve the two-fold purpose of fostering distrust against national authorities and sowing doubts on the efficacy of sanctions, which are claimed to affect European national economies (e.g., eventually leading to the dismantling of the German industrial complex) more than Russia. Overall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is portrayed as expensive, unsupported by citizens, and exacerbating social inequality. Anti-migration narratives are revived against Ukrainian refugees. On the one hand, foreigners are framed as criminals who are even treated better than nationals. On the other hand, false claims that Ukrainian refugees were hosted in concentration camps spurred indignation.
Security-related debunks maintained that Russia sent nuclear weapons to its borders during the summer, or that the so-called Poseidon nuclear weapon’s attack was approaching during the fall, dubbed as the “weapon of the apocalypse”. Moreover, Kyiv’s management of the received aid is often questioned, for instance, stating that weapons are re-sold to the black market.
On a more cultural and identity-based note, unfounded accusations of Nazism against Ukrainians and President Zelensky continued to abound. As already addressed in our previous research, the Russian propaganda machine recurrently puts forward alleged cases of Russophobia. The same fabrication that Ukrainian fertility clinics rejected Russian donors appeared in France, Germany, and Spain. Other pro-Russian narratives attack the West to support their cause. Either by accusing Western media of manipulating facts or by claiming that Western countries are offering Ukrainian refugees to live in the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.
In a context of profound ideological polarisation, the Kremlin information war has been recruiting European allies to defend its cause: inviting on TV alleged foreign experts like German journalist Alexander Sosnowski or former French military Adrien Bocquet. To circumvent state-media limitations, Moscow exploited embassies for propaganda via Twitter or specific Telegram accounts (e.g., the Spanish “Russia in Spain”) that even pretended to fact-check war-related content.
2. THE ENERGY CRISIS
Building on the notion that the war in Ukraine is lasting too long and causing financial distress to the European population, disinformation emphasised and exaggerated the negative consequences of the sanctions against Russia for the people of the countries imposing them. Misleading videos showed Russian supermarkets filled with Western products or anti-NATO protests in various cities, as evidence of the inefficacy and undesirability of the sanctions.
The effect is unleashing a pro-Russian agenda in foreign matters and institutional distrust at domestic level. The decisions were challenged politically: AfD’s co-leader Tino Chrupalla accused the government of waging an “economic war” against Russia, while National Rally’s leader Marine Le Pen initially commented that the Russian oil embargo would have “cataclysmic consequences”.
Sanctions against Russia forced the German government to act, looking for alternatives and promoting energy savings, which inspired hoaxes such as deadly incidents due to streetlight savings. Other lies bad-mouthed energy transition policies, targeting wind turbines or electric cars. After the summer, malign actors seeking to attack the government falsely maintained that the Spanish energy-saving plan included limiting electricity to three hours per day and introducing ration cards for gas consumption.
3. CLIMATE CHANGE
Climate change disinformation was constantly present during the second half of 2022, accounting for 9% of the verified content during the summer’s extreme heatwaves, and for 10% in December. Manipulated charts, maps, and photo collages supported allegations that climate change is not man-made or unsupported by scientific evidence. Besides fully-fledged denialism, movements of “climato-rassuristes” (as they were dubbed in French) gained ground, acknowledging the reality of climate change but downplaying its gravity.
On that note, debunked rumours mentioned that the world’s ozone hole was an exaggeration or that the Greenlight ice sheet melting is temporary and cyclical. Conspiracies played a significant role in climate-related disinformation, with false accusations of arsons in Gironde to build a power plant or absurd allegations that the rains and droughts, hurricanes, and tornadoes are being remote-controlled.
4. COVID-19 AND THE MONKEYPOX OUTBREAK
Despite a refocus on the war, infodemic-related disinformation continued to thrive last year. Vaccines dominated the conversation, as fears that the COVID-19 vaccine would become mandatory for school children went viral. Fact-checkers continued to shed light on anti-vaxxers’ support for alternative cures such as Ivermectin or diffusion of hashtags such as #DiedSuddenly.
Fear-mongering statements about health emergencies focused on the coronavirus (e.g., the lab-made fabrication of a new variant that is lethal 80% of the times) and monkeypox. As we previously wrote, hoaxes were recycled from the pandemic, with the addition of social stigma associated with the idea that the virus derived from homosexual behaviour.
Unrelated to the pandemic but representative of scientific disinformation, a controversy developed in France during the summer, as the medical appointment platform Doctolib hosted several naturopaths supporting alternative cures.
OTHER DISINFORMATION-TRIGGERING EVENTS WORTH MENTIONING
ISLAMOPHOBIA AND THE ALLEGED ISLAMISATION OF THE WEST. This is an excellent example of how malign actors capture the information space by creating controversies about polarising issues, such as migration or Islam, and constitute hot topics in the countries where they operate. In parallel with the more recent antagonization of Ukrainian migrants, xenophobic stances against Moroccan migrants continued to thrive in Spain. Fabricated claims insisted on an alleged imposition of Islamic values in Western societies, e.g., compliance with Sharia law, mandatory veil-wearing for women, and teaching of Islam in schools. In France, the inclusion of a medal-winning employee in Djibouti wearing a headscarf in the calendar of the Ministry of Armed Forces sparkled accusations of “Islamisation of the army” and betrayal of the memory of French soldiers killed by jihadists.
GENDER-BASED DISINFORMATION. Homophobic and transphobic disinformation certainly affected several countries. In Spain, it was spread to oppose the new law on sexual consent dubbed “only yes means yes” (approved in August) and the new bill on transgender rights (passed in December). Inaccurate and misleading statements presented the legislation as a way to conveniently change gender to avoid sexual violence charges, and a green light for paedophilia. In addition, gender-based attacks were also weaponised in the context of the war, e.g., claiming that gay men were being recruited by the Ukrainian army or raped by Russian female soldiers.
INTERNATIONAL ELECTIONS. Although marginal if compared to other topics, some disinformation emerged around international polls. Deceptive content addressed the Italian elections (supporting Meloni’s new cabinet), and the Brazilian elections (accusing Lula of having a drinking problem), as well as reviving the electoral fraud conspiracy over the U.S. mid-term elections.
CHARACTER-SPECIFIC HOAXES. Conspiracy theories appeared about various actors: from Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter to Shinzo Abe’s assassination. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II prompted a wave of clickbait and anti-monarchist hoaxes worldwide.
FOOTBALL WORLD CUP. As the decision to host the World Cup in Qatar divided the public, deceptive narratives exaggerated the hosting country’s prohibition to consume alcohol, homophobic stances, or alleged ban for HIV-positive people from entering Qatar.
THE REICHSBÜRGER PLOT. The conspiracy, spread throughout the year by the Reichsbürger movement, in their attempt to deny German sovereignty and the legitimacy of the country’s institutions, culminated in December with a coup plot uncovered and foiled by the police. Among those arrested, according to the police, were members of the “Querdenker” scene (anti-vaxxers and pandemic deniers) and QAnon supporters. This event illustrates again how disinformation and conspiracy theories fuel dangerous anti-institutional positions that can have unpredictable consequences. Related narratives continued to circulate even after the arrests, while some actors, including AfD, sought to downplay the episode.
This analysis looked back at the fact-checked disinformation in the second half of 2022 for the three EU countries the EU DisinfoLab monitored. During this period, false news on the war in Ukraine was central, further replacing the mediatic attention previously dedicated to the pandemic. However, coronavirus-related hoaxes and conspiracies became even more radical in fostering anti-establishment feelings and vocal against vaccines.
The energy and economic crises stemming from the ongoing conflict provided malign actors with new opportunities to mobilise institutional distrust, often pressing for a war resolution – regardless of the terms and implications. Economic fear-mongering was a huge novel topic, as deceptions threaten life as we know it.
In conclusion, new tactics and technologies (e.g., the use of AI and decentralised platforms) continuously bring new challenges. One thing is sure: deceiving content evolves and adapts, but with an accumulative effect, as new narratives do not replace old ones, but add to them. The result is an added complexity to the information disorder.