By Raquel Miguel, Ana Romero, Maria Giovanna Sessa and Nicolas Hénin.
As we are far past the first half of the current year, this report investigates the main disinformative trends circulating between January and June in France, Germany, and Spain. These are the countries whose fact-checking activities the EU DisinfoLab currently monitors and analyses according to its original methodology, detailed in a technical document.
The paragraphs below will show common cross-national patterns – as hoaxes and conspiracies proliferating online overcome borders to insinuate multiple languages, platforms, and communities – as well as country-specific narratives.
Overall, the pandemic started as the predominant event exploited by malign actors at the beginning of the year, but it later lost its traction after the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded. Disinformation around the war peaked during the initial months but then started losing momentum as public attention on the matter decreased. In addition to international events, domestic occurrences like the presidential election in France, or regional ones in Germany and Spain were assimilated into the disinformation landscape.
Despite being marginal until now, we will keep under scrutiny the events that will likely make the headlines in the following months, and become targets of false news, from the monkeypox outbreak to climate change and energy-related concerns.
The French disinformation landscape from January to June 2022
- Over the semester, French fact-checkers verified a total of 641 hoaxes.
- The pandemic. Covid-19 disinformation reflected background events, from the new wave of infections to the ‘Pfizer leaks’, allegedly revealing the vaccine’s inefficiency and its dangers for pregnant and breastfeeding women. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there was some cross-fertilisation of topics: e.g., false claims maintained that the WHO was taking advantage of the war to impose vaccinations and that the Ukrainian government would reserve financial aid only to the vaccinated. Health- and war-related narratives overlapped as claims emerged about a cholera epidemic in Mariupol, while raising alarm over the monkeypox epidemic.
- The war in Ukraine. The majority of misinformation about the war in Ukraine took a pro-Russian stance. A number of them contained false accusations of Nazism to support the ‘denazification’ narrative and target President Zelensky. Several hoaxes were aimed at undermining the confidence in the media, e.g., accusing news broadcasters of using decontextualised images to cover the war, the CNN of faking a report, and Le Figaro of forging a video. The unproved claim that Ukraine hosts US-funded biological labs also circulated in France.
Anti-refugee sentiments were fuelled by claims that Ukrainians fleeing their country would receive special refugee status or a quote falsely attributed to Macron saying Russian sanctions would lead 60 million refugees into Europe.
- The French presidential elections were a captivating topic that was highly scrutinised by fact-checkers. As we have written in our recent report, most inaccuracies were uttered by candidates and politicians as a form of political campaigning. They consisted more of heavily biased or misrepresented content rather than entirely fabricated news.
Relevant counter-disinformation actions
- In view of the French elections, we compiled a list of relevant initiatives put in place by various stakeholders to secure information integrity.
- Russian accounts have embarked on an international initiative mimicking fact-checking standards and even amplifying some of the work of fact-checkers, where the conclusions are favourable to them. However, fact-checkers have responded swiftly by debunking these actions.
The German disinformation landscape from January to June 2022
- Fact-checkers in Germany debunked 590 hoaxes from January to June 2022.
- The pandemic. In the first half of the year, pandemic-related disinformation was mainly anti-vax, listing alleged side effects, spreading economic alarm or conspiracy theories. CDU politician Hans-Georg Maaßen was asked to leave the party after sharing a video in which microbiologist Sucharit Bhakdi claimed that vaccination destroys the immune system and kills children. Moreover, disinformation on Covid-19 has taken advantage of the war in Ukraine to exploit cross–narratives. Most of the German Querdenker (‘alternative thinkers’), who opposed vaccines and containment measures, have now embraced pro-Russia positions (with some exceptions). Later on, the monkeypox outbreak provoked conspiracies and denialism, with an added racist and homophobic bias risk compared to the pandemic. Cross-narratives around vaccines appeared, claiming that adenoviruses in the AstraZeneca vaccine are connected to monkeypox infections.
- The war in Ukraine. A war of hoaxes accompanied the event. Pro-Russian disinformation mainly tried to legitimate the invasion by accusing Ukraine of Nazism and blaming the country for the attack in Kramatorsk. Disinformation aimed at delegitimating the Western media, either saying they had staged the Bucha massacres or calling out false cases of Russophobia, as discussed in our recent report. Meanwhile, the pro-Ukrainian narratives tried to encourage the soldiers’ resistance, promote President Zelensky’s image, exaggerate Russian atrocities, and increase the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees in other countries.
Ukraine-related narratives have soon evolved to affect other countries, such as Finland, Poland, Austria, and Germany. The war offered a pretext to trigger political polarisation and institutional distrust in Germany, criticising the assistance given to Ukraine or attacking government members, such as Green party ministers Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock.
Refugees were targeted by numerous hoaxes, portraying them as criminals or exaggerating the benefits they receive compared to other refugees or even nationals. Fear-mongering narratives, Nazism accusations against German politicians, and conspiracy narratives completed the landscape.
- The energy crisis. The international situation exacerbated the energy crisis in Germany and triggered disinformation against the government-led green energy transition. Examples include the false claim that Germans pay the highest electricity prices in the world or scare-mongering images of crowded petrol stations. Green politicians like Anton Hofreiter and climate activist groups such as Fridays for Future became recurrent targets of disinformation. The summer heatwave brought about climate change denialism through misleading or decontextualised historical pictures, newspapers’ cover pages, or weather maps.
- The regional elections. In May, the North Rhine-Westphalia elections were filled with disinformation against the Green Party, its members, and especially against women. Moreover, AfD voters were targeted by voter-suppression narratives inviting them to sign the ballots. Electoral fraud and conspiracy narratives emerged around the French elections in April, supporting Marine Le Pen.
Relevant counter-disinformation actions
- After several plots of criminal offenses on Telegram were uncovered, including attacks on infrastructure and even plans for kidnapping the Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, the German government took action. After Apple and Google helped Berlin to contact the app, Telegram blocked channels based on “local law violations” for the first time in Germany in February. Since then, the platform has delivered user data to the criminal authorities, according to Spiegel.
The Spanish disinformation landscape from January to June 2022
- From January until June, fact-checkers debunked 1,070 items.
- The pandemic. At the beginning of the year, anti-vax content was the most popular topic of disinformation. It ranges from strongly focusing on the alleged side effects (including those for pregnant women) to discouraging parents from inoculating their children. Accessory events, such as the Djokovic case at the Australia Open or the ‘Freedom Convoy’, channelled the proliferation of conspiracy theories about the pandemic. After the topic peaked in early 2022, pandemic-related disinformation almost disappeared only to be revived around child hepatitis and monkeypox cases.
- The war in Ukraine. The beginning of the conflict was met with a giant wave of disinformation in February and March. Hoaxes around the conflict were halved in April and remained residual in May and June. Following an initial proliferation of false content in defence of Ukraine, pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine disinformation were debunked relatively evenly over the months. Pro-Russian stances were conspiratorial, and contained propaganda, media distrust messages, or accusations of violence perpetrated by Ukrainian citizens. Pro-Ukraine hoaxes pushed emotional stories featuring children and the military. Moreover, the conflict was exploited to push secondary narratives and unleash inaccuracies on Covid-19, the energy crisis, and the subsequent strike of carriers in Spain.
- The regional elections. Regarding electoral disinformation, the first months of the year saw numerous claims of electoral fraud that accompanied the regional elections in Castilla y León. Electoral conspiracies resurfaced at the end of the semester around the regional elections in Andalusia: e.g., promoting electoral fraud claims, alleged death threats suffered by politicians, and generally misleading polarising content.
- Gender- and identity-based issues. Disinformation regarding gender and identity issues was abundant and constant throughout the period considered. Anti-feminist falsities emerged around the war, during International Women’s day, and during the Depp v. Heard trial. The use of the word ‘feminazi’ as a misogynistic slur continued to stand out.
Xenophobic and anti-refugee stances tackled the migratory tragedy in Melilla and the Champions’ League. Besides traditional anti-Moroccan sentiments, new animosities proliferated, accusing Ukrainians of misconduct or violent acts. Moreover, the Robb Elementary School shooting in Texas brought back the ’Great Replacement’ conspiracy.
Relevant counter-disinformation actions
- People were arrested for falsifying Covid-19 certificates and negative PCR tests. The police investigated a denialist group that threatened bar owners who asked customers for the Covid-19 certificates and nurses in charge of vaccination.
- Following the war in Ukraine, the Spanish government activated a cell that is part of the Permanent Commission to combat Disinformation.
- Twitter has definitely closed the account of Alvise, a known disinformer, and political troll. Fact-checkers, including Spanish ones, have asked YouTube in an open letter to take action against disinformation. Twitter included Spain in its experimental project to detect disinformation.
After two years in which the Covid-19 pandemic has almost monopolised the information sphere, the past semester has seen a shift of attention towards the next crisis. The war in Ukraine became the most popular event around which to disinform, but it has lost quite soon the interest of the public despite the continuation of the conflict.
In the context of rapidly evolving global crises, common disinformative trends emerged, from anti-vax conspiracies to pro-Russian hoaxes. A remarkable technique that was identified by fact-checkers in France, Germany, and Spain consisted of the Western media to fuel distrust against democratic infrastructures.
Moreover, malign actors across the countries considered displayed a widespread tendency for disinformation cross-fertilisation, i.e., the overlapping of multiple polarising topics. Accordingly, the ongoing war offered an excuse to promote vaccine sceptism, mobilise anti-migration sentiments, and accuse national governments of mismanagement.
Held at the national or regional level, elections triggered electoral fraud and voter suppression conspiracies, often channeling dissatisfaction towards governments and institutions.
Besides the monkeypox outbreak or the summer heatwaves, other topics and events contributed to the information disorder, although we did not mention them in this report. For instance, the Deep v. Heard trial, the Eurovision context, or major sports events were instrumentalised to spread false and inaccurate content – evidencing the interconnectedness of disinformation across Europe.