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Fact check: How propaganda denigrates Ukrainian refugees

February 19, 2023

Ukrainian refugees are portrayed in some media and social media channels as ungrateful, dangerous and parasitic. DW explains why such propagandist tactics often work — and how to recognize them for what they are.

Refugees from Ukraine rest in the main train station of Krakow
Ukrainian refugees have fled war in their country only to be often targeted by disinformationImage: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Since Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine began almost a year ago, other European countries have received and registered more than 8 million people from Ukraine as refugees, according to UN figures.

In many places, they have been received with widespread compassion. But false news, hate and disinformation campaigns have also been waged against them, said Julia Smirnova of the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. "These were false reports about alleged crimes or attacks attributed to the refugees," she said.

According to an analysis by the institute in October that examined Russian-language discussions about refugees on Telegram in particular, the narratives differ depending on the target group. Audiences in Russia are primarily told that people from Ukraine are fleeing from supposed "Nazis" who allegedly rule the country.

Audiences in the rest of Europe, on the other hand, are led to believe that refugees are ungrateful, prone to violence and dangerous, Smirnova explained. Numerous examples of this have also been collected by the fact-checking community of the European Digital Media Observatory, a European association of fact checkers and media experts, to which DW's fact-checking team also belongs.

Examples such as these can be used to show how certain narratives are disseminated and seemingly substantiated — and how to check whether they are true or not.

A screenshot of a Russian article about Ukrainians allegedly fleeing a Nazi regime in Kyiv
'NYT: Residents of Ukraine flee Kyiv regime to Russia,' said the headline of this story, which later mentions 'Ukronazis'Image: news-front.info

Fleeing Nazi regime in Kyiv?

Claim: Ukrainians are fleeing Nazis

Even before the attack on Ukraine, Russian propagandist media repeatedly claimed that Ukraine was run by Nazis who wanted to banish everything Russian from Ukraine. According to this narrative, it would be a logical conclusion that Ukrainians — especially Russian speakers — would flee to Russia; according to the UNHCR, about 3 million Ukrainians have left the country for Russia since the war began.

In this report from the news site NewsFront (screenshot above), a Ukrainian soldier is quoted as telling The New York Times: "We are liberating land, but without people on it." It is then suggested that Ukrainians had fled the recaptured land to escape the "Nazi regime."

DW fact check: Misleading.

The quote itself, which The New York Times uses in two articles, is correctly reproduced. However, in neither of them is there mention of Nazis as a reason for fleeing.

One of them states that Ukrainians who had lived under Russian occupation fled to Russia for fear of being mistaken for collaborators. The other article states that even before the Russian army arrived, 80% of the population from the eastern Donbas region had fled from the Russians to western Ukraine or other countries in Europe. In addition, it said, the Russian army had killed an unknown number of Ukrainian civilians in fighting or extrajudicial execution-style murders.

Of course, it is conceivable that there are indeed Ukrainians who believe the Russian propaganda and want to escape to safety from the alleged Nazi regime. But this is unlikely to apply to the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees, or to the 3 million who are now in Russia, either. That is because the story that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis is simply made-up. DW already proved this in a fact check on Putin's "reasons" for the war.

A picture showing a Nazi slogan scrawled next to a picture of the World Cup mascot in Qatar, a picture showing a swastika on an illuminated staircase in a Kyiv shopping center, and a photoshopped picture of a Ukrainian soldier with a Nazi slogan on his helmet, all used by Russian propagandists as supposed evidence of widespread Nazism in Ukraine.
Three alleged proofs of Nazis in Ukraine were refuted by the DW fact-checking team

In addition, human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that many Ukrainian refugees — the US government speaks of hundreds of thousands — have gone to Russia against their will. According to the reports, Russian or pro-Russian soldiers have brought busloads of Ukrainian civilians to Russia from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine without their prior knowledge or even under duress. In addition, an unknown number has used Russia as a transit country to the West.

DW showed in another fact check at the end of November how there are efforts in some social media to substantiate the fictitious narrative about Ukrainian Nazis.

Fake news with media spoofing

Citing media outlets that enjoy a high reputation in the West is a recurring pattern. Smirnova of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue said established media are even copied outright to deceive the audience and make disinformation campaigns credible. This technique, called media spoofing, has also been used to defame Ukrainian refugees.

Claim: Ukrainians blackmail people in host countries.

Among others, an alleged DW video claimed that a young Ukrainian man had blackmailed numerous German women.

DW fact check: False.

Since DW reported on this in detail in an earlier fact check, we'll keep it short here: The Federal Criminal Police Office is not aware of any such case. And we were able to prove, by identifying small deviations in font and layout, that the video is not from DW but a fake.

Are Ukrainian refugees treated better than the host country's population?

Fake news expert Tommaso Canetta of European Digital Media Observatory said "[Ukrainian refugees] are the target of disinformation on many levels. [They are portrayed as] Nazis, violent, parasites. So they basically exploit the countries that host them." To push this narrative, stories are sometimes freely invented and brought to public attention in various ways.

Claim: Polish children with cancer must give up places to Ukrainian refugees

A tweet claimed: "Polish children are thrown out of oncology clinics. Today my neighbor called me; they threw her 4-year-old son out of the oncology clinic because Ukrainian children needed a place. She asked me to arrange treatment for her son because she knows I have doctors in my family." 

DW fact check: Unproven.

A tweet in Polish making the claim that children with cancer were sent home from hospital to make room for Ukrainian refugees
According to this tweet, children with cancer were sent home from hospital to make room for Ukrainian refugees Image: archive.ph/sJFYy/twitter.com/Aga34686913

The Polish fact-checking platforms "FakeHunter" and "Demagog" investigated this claim. They say the Polish Health Ministry and the Polish Society of Pediatric Oncology and Hematology had denied the allegation. Apart from the tweet, there were no references to the alleged incident in Polish media. It is therefore possible that the story is completely fictitious.

The source is also fishy: The Twitter profile @aga34686913 has a bio saying "Catholic. Conservative." It was created in March 2021 and has since been blocked for policy violations. However, the web archive shows that nearly 100 tweets were sent or retweeted via this profile between March 21 and March 28, 2022, alone — a large portion with nationalist and anti-Ukrainian content. 

Many tweets originated from the account @Michali49393358, which has similar characteristics. All these are indications that it could be a troll, i.e. a social media account that is only used to anonymously spread certain content. Often, such accounts are controlled by bots, computer programs that automatically identify and redistribute relevant content. In this fact check, the DW team showed how to detect bots, fake accounts and trolls.

Polish fact checkers found out that the profile photo first appeared on the Instagram account @annikaboron in 2017. The account, which has 139,000 followers, belongs to Annika Boron, who works as a real estate agent in Toronto. Asked about the Polish Twitter profile with her photo, she replied to DW: "I definitely have nothing to do with this account! My photo is often used for fake profiles."

Are Ukrainian refugees ungrateful and uncivilized?

Another fake news technique uses authentic images placed in a new context. A video of a firefighting operation in Krakow shows how easily this can be done.

Claim: A Ukrainian refugee family is forcibly removed by police from their unpaid apartment.

DW fact check: Misleading.

A video that circulated on Russian, Polish and German social media accounts in early December 2022 purportedly shows how a refugee family from Ukraine had to be forcibly removed from an illegally occupied and vandalized apartment in Krakow by police with the assistance of firefighters after they allegedly failed to pay their rent. All that can be seen is two firefighters in a ladder truck trying to break through a window on the second floor of an old building under the gaze of onlookers. Voices in Polish and Spanish can be heard in the background.

Research by the Kyiv-based journalism platform Stop Fake has revealed that the full video was uploaded to YouTube in early October 2021, a good four months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So this incident has nothing to do with Ukrainian war refugees.

The German account may seem quite authentic at first glance. However, it is noticeable that the Twitter address @Stadler05922751 has the same pattern as the two previously mentioned profiles: a name with a long sequence of digits. On closer inspection, the photo also looks rather too posed for a private social media account. It's a frequently used image on the internet; its trail can be traced back to an advertisement for a haircut. The GETTR account of the alleged "Max Stadler" given in the Twitter profile shows a completely different man in the profile picture.

Are Ukrainian refugees particularly criminal or violent?

To further this type of narrative, made-up stories are spread in which Ukrainians allegedly commit crimes against locals. These may perhaps use "old images of what might be an actual Ukrainian citizen beating up someone in Rome, Paris or Berlin, only this time with the note: This is a Ukrainian war refugee," Canetta explained. Such propaganda looks especially authentic when carelessly spread by accounts of real people out of genuine outrage or even fear.

Claim: Ukrainians beat Russian-born refugee helper to death.

In a TikTok video, a woman reported in Russian that a 16-year-old Russian speaker who was helping refugees was beaten up by Ukrainian refugees in Euskirchen near the western German city of Cologne and later succumbed to his injuries.

DW fact check: False.

DW picked up and analyzed this story in an earlier fact check as well. It turned out to be a fake. The woman had heard it from an acquaintance and spread it on TikTok. The police denied that there had been such an assault, and the surrounding hospitals were also unable to confirm any such case. Shortly thereafter, the woman apologized in another video, saying she had apparently been the victim of misinformation.

This article was translated from German.

DW-Redakteur Jan D. Walter Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Jan D. Walter Editor and reporter for national and international politics and member of DW's fact-checking team.
DW Mitarbeiterportrait | Tetyana Klug
Tetyana Klug Factchecker, Editor und AuthorKlugTetyana