March 14, 2022

By Maria Giovanna Sessa, Senior Researcher at EU DisinfoLab

While this conflict is still unfolding at this date, our ambition is to provide a snapshot of common trends of disinformation based on fact-checking published by networks such as #UkraineFacts and EDMO. Therefore, this analysis cannot be exhaustive of all disinformation spreading in the conflict. 

We are sadly aware this research might be weaponised in efforts to blame stakeholders engaged in this conflict. We warn the public against such actions, which hinder efforts to document the disinformation phenomenon.

As yet another international event shakes the world as we know it, we decided to take a closer look at the disinformative narratives that have been spreading since the end of February. This blog post wished to complement our Ukraine Conflict Resource Hub, which is regularly updated with useful resources from various organisations to contrast the information disorder around the Ukrainian conflict. Some labelled the ongoing conflict the world’s “first TikTok war”, given the leading role of the platform in conveying authentic and deceiving content.

As it is now customary in view of major events, myriads of social media accounts have been created to cover the conflict, notwithstanding the lack of expertise and authentic information. It is this type of information entrepreneurs overflowing the debate in “an effort to leverage tragedy and conflict to gain followers” or deliberately polluting it to push a certain agenda that forges the infodemic.

Learning from the coronavirus-led infodemic, we could also assess that the response of fact-checking organisations and counter-disinformation networks has been immediate. 

Disinformation has been travelling fast across countries, which implies that the same fabricated stories, decontextualised news, and biased accounts spread to different continents. Strategy-wise, malign actors mainly produce entirely fabricated content, while the most recurrent tactic to disinform is the use of decontexualised photos and videos, followed by content manipulation (doctored image or false subtitles). As evidence of the high level of polarisation, the same narratives have been exploited to serve either pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian messages.

Disinformation as the casus belli of the Russian invasion

False accusations, misleading information, and instrumental use of language are all elements that contributed to conveying a certain representation of the invasion, which would justify the Russian attack. 

Prime evidence of this can be found in Putin’s February 21 address, dubbed as a “war declaration”, fact-checked by The Washington Post, the BBC, and VoxUkraine, according to which the Russian President is “the world’s main liar”. It is interesting to note, that as the conflict erupted, most efforts from the Russian part have been directed towards the local Russian audience, making the Russian citizens the primary target of Russian disinformation.

Accordingly, the Kremlin President claimed the intention to “denazify” and “liberate” Ukraine, which he unfairly accused of plotting a “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” in Donbass. Language plays a crucial role in the Russian propaganda machine, as Putin called the 2014 Euromaidan protests “a coup d’état”. To corroborate this, Russian-state media (see Sputnik titles below in multiple languages) avoid the term “war” in favour of ambiguous wording like “operation”, “situation”, or ‘crisis’.

Typology of narratives

Among the narratives observed, EU DisinfoLab extracted the following overarching trends online:

  • Military escalation (sub-narratives include erroneous details about military actions and reactions from the international community);
  • The construction of the enemy (the instrumental use of Nazi imagery and ambivalent descriptions of Zelensky’s conduct populate this narrative);
  • Conspiracy theories (from war denialism to fears of a nuclear attack and connections to the pandemic);
  • The human cost of the war (the narrative tackles emotional elements related to the human experience of the war and polarising issues connected to incoming refugees).

1. Military escalation

Fabricated information about the development of the war from a military perspective have been the first ones to spread since the beginning of the invasion, confusing public opinion and creating panic. Marking the new era of “information wars”, this misleading framing shares similarities with the Armenian-Azeri armed dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Military attacks and targets

Disinformation about armed aggression, explosions, and other military endeavours have been popular since the very beginning of the conflict in late February, which rely strongly on decontextualised images. For example, photos claiming to show explosions in Ukraine were actually from Gaza, photos of a Russian fighter shot down by Ukrainian anti-aircraft were really from Libya, or the imagery of a Russian military plane on fire truly represented an incident during a 1993 military airshow in the UK. Another form of deception was the addition of false subtitles to Putin’s Ukraine war declaration video, either threatening an attack on African nations or praising the Pakistani Prime Minister for his alleged support.

Even mainstream media fell for these decontexualisations: the video of a massive explosion that took place in China in 2015 was broadcasted by Italian Rai News 24 TV news channel in relation to the Ukrainian war. Also in Italy, TG2 Rai television channel showed footage from a video game called War Thunder as evidence of a “missile rain” falling on Ukraine.

International reactions

Hoaxes about initiatives by international powers and world leaders have contributed to the information disorder. According to viral publications in Spanish and French from early March, the Chinese Defense Minister said that China is ready to support Russia in case of NATO intervention. However, the Ministry explicitly denied the declaration of which there has been no official record. On Facebook, the photo of the Ukrainian ambassador in Japan wearing a traditional samurai dress was mistaken for the Japanese ambassador in Ukraine, who allegedly “remained in Kiev” to fight the Russian intruder. Another debunk falsely maintained that France has sent over 500 soldiers to fight in Ukraine. 

2. Constructing the enemy 

Although this section takes into account disinformation spread by both parties of the conflict, a necessary disclaimer is that nothing compares to the magnitude of the information war conducted by Russia. The New York Times explained that Ukrainian propaganda is based on anecdotes of Ukrainian heroism (e.g. the ghost of Kyiv shooting down a Russian fighter jet) that is meant to keep morale high. 

From a Russian State perspective, popular social media posts maintained that Ukraine never “registered its borders” with the United Nations since declaring independence in 1991, which means that Russia is not breaching international law. This is false: AFP explains that states should not register their borders with the UN and that Ukraine’s sovereignty is recognised internationally, including by the United Nations and Russia.

Comparisons to the Nazi regime

As the conflict awakens heavy historical memories, the Nazi regime has been heavily weaponised. On the one hand, a manipulated cover of Time magazine circulated online, superimposing Hitler’s moustache to Putin’s face. On the other hand, a doctored photo of Ukrainian President Zelensky was falsely shown holding a football jersey with a swastika. In addition, a TikTok video showing Third Reich flags in Ukrainian streets was really taken during a neo-Nazi reunion in Bulgaria, and a 2014 photograph of the Azov Batallion wielding Nazi symbols was revived on Twitter as current. 

Praising or blaming President Zelensky

False news regarding President Zelensky’s reaction during these hard times have gone both ways. On the one hand, an old photo of the leader in a military uniform was employed to say that he decided to take up arms to defend his country, and the portrait of a female soldier was mistaken for the First Lady, celebrating the bravery of the couple. On the other hand, according to an unproven claim at our time of writing, Zelensky had fled the country as the fall of the country was imminent. 

3. Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy mentality triggers a domino effect in the mind of believers that overlap multiple narratives, in this context based on the underlying assumption that the conflict is yet another result of the plotting of corrupted world elites (e.g. the deception that Ukrainian donors are the “most generous financiers” of the Clinton Foundation). 

War denialism 

In order to say that the war is a farce, TV scenes of actors made up to look injured and bleeding, or footage of Austrian climate activists in dead body bags, have been misleadingly reshared in the context of the conflict. This worrisome trend reminds us of pandemic denialism (e.g. an actor smoking a cigarette on set while in a body bag as evidence that COVID-19 deaths were fake).

Fears around nuclear disasters, bioweapons, and COVID-19

Since Russia’s actions seem unpredictable and tension is high, malign actors pry on fears of a nuclear attack or disaster. In view of this, a tweet (published on 24 February 2022 and now removed) falsely stated that “Russian forces have entered Chernobyl. A nuclear waste storage facility was destroyed”. However, the Ukrainian Interior Minister assured that despite ongoing clashes in the area, the nuclear waste storage facilities remain intact 

An extremely popular piece of disinformation, officially endorsed by Russia, justifies the invasion as a reaction to the fact that Ukraine currently hosts over a dozen biological weapon labs paid for by the US Defense Department. Back in 2014, Coda Story attributed this hoax to “Russia’s information war with the West”. The fabricated story of US-funded secret biolabs in Ukraine feeds into unsubstantiated beliefs that COVID-19 was man-made and Putin means to stop deep state plots.

Pro-Russia disinformation thrives in online anti-vax communities, although fact-checks combining disinformation on the pandemic and the war in Ukraine remain virtually non-existent so far. One fabricated quote attributed to Putin stated he would not be taking “democracy lessons” from a country like Italy that implemented the health pass, allegedly in response to Prime Minister Draghi’s invitation to stop the invasion.

4. The human cost of the war

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees informed that the number of Ukrainians fleeing the war to neighbouring countries has reached 2.2 millions as of 10 March, already turning the hostilities into a humanitarian crisis. This section wants to shed light on the mis- and disinformation taking advantage of the victims for clickbait and likes.

Emotional stories about Ukrainian civilians

Amidst graphic images of war victims, the photo of an injured woman taken on 24 February 2022 was shared online with the false accusation that it was a decontexualised image from a 2018 gas explosion, challenging the work of fact-checkers.

Children, especially young girls, have been often used by disinformers to trigger an emotional response in the audience. This type of heart-breaking disinformation includes decontextualised photos, like the 2018 photo of a wounded Syrian child passed for a Ukrainian toddler or the photo of a crying little girl that actually came from a 2010 Russian film. Similarly, the video of a Ukrainian soldier saying goodbye to his wife before going to the front lines was actually taken from a 2017 Ukrainian film.

Other popular narratives emphasise the bravery of Ukrainians: the viral images of a local girl confronting a Russian soldier turned out to be a young Palestinian activist defying an Israeli soldier in 2012. Furthermore, the teen carrying a gun on a bus is an unrelated social media post by Russian model Ekaterina Gladkij from two years ago. Then, old photos of people praying outdoors or a couple hugging while draped in Ukrainian and Russian flags have been reshared in the context of the conflict to emphasise civilians’ desire for peace.

Migration and refugees

Disinformation has still not delved too much on the topic of migration yet, but we expect this to change soon as flows of refugees are expected to increase. Relevant hoaxes are that Slovakia’s decision to change the rules for the entry of refugees nine days before the Russian invasion would prove the conspiracy nature of the war, or the unconvincing report that non-white people are forbidden from crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border. Polish fact-checker Demagog debunked claims that refugees are mostly African and Middle-Eastern males guilty of assaults, thefts, and rapes. On the topic, DGAP warns that Russia might instrumentalise migration by spreading “disinformation about the character of the people fleeing into the EU”.

Concluding thoughts 

As the war scenario is rapidly evolving in Ukraine, so are disinformation narratives, which also travel globally. On a positive note, the level of alert is extremely high and fact-checking organisations have immediately organised initiatives to counter hoaxes. Moreover, although pro-Ukraine inaccuracies are equally if not more fact-checked than pro-Russian threads, the ratio is far from equivalent. The information war conducted by the Kremlin is systematic, far-reaching, and destructive. 

In the very early stages of the invasion, falsities were primarily focused on military aspects that would raise the level of alarm and confusion. Then, the negative othering of the enemy anchored on historical beliefs served to legitimise and even justify antagonism, while moving stories of Ukrainian civilians sought the emotional reactions that disinformation wishes to trigger. Finally, conspiracy theories on Ukraine made events come full circle with pandemic- and deep state-related hoaxes. 

Therefore, we expect disinformation to continue to adapt to the evolving scenario, for example with growing disinformation about rising migratory flows.