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How Russian fake news paints 'the Germans'

Ilya Koval
January 22, 2023

If you believe Russian state media, then Germans back President Putin and mock Chancellor Scholz. But where do these stories claim to get their information from?

An RT studio in Moscow
A Moscow studio for RT, the state broadcaster formerly known as Russia TodayImage: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Germans are purportedly making fun of their Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Meanwhile, Chancellor Olaf Scholz faces constant criticism for his stance on Russia, along with demands to "call off" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. At least that's what Russian state media like news agency RIA Novosti reported last year, prompting other media outlets around the country to spread similar headlines.

But how do these false reports come about? To understand this, it's worth taking a closer look at some of the actual pieces.

For example, RIA Novosti published a text in August 2022 entitled, "Enough! Germans react harshly to Zelenskyy's appeal to Russians." This seemed intended to create the impression of anti-Ukrainian sentiment spreading in Germany.

Anonymous accounts

On closer inspection, however, it wasn't "the Germans" who were reacting "harshly" to Zelenskyy's appeal, but rather alleged readers of the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Under handles such as "zw9s," "nzjdMFpV," "rrnsne2Nr," and "GvbR72," they posted comments on the news site that were then turned into articles by RIA Novosti. 

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy during a video address
Russian media claim Germans want their chancellor to 'call off' the Ukrainian presidentImage: Ukraine Presidency/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

But handles comprised of random characters naturally raise doubts about whether they are attached to genuine users. Some RIA Novosti articles don't even provide the user names of these supposed commenters.

In another article, titled "Germans attack Scholz for 'absurd' statements on Russia," quotations are sourced to vague figures such as "a user," "another commentator," "another reader" and "a fourth user."

'Pro-Kremlin trolling' 

Comments like these on articles in leading European media are intended to ensure that "systematic and wide-ranging infiltration of a large number of high-profile Western media sources by pro-Kremlin trolling" permeate public discourse, according to the Security, Crime and Intelligence Innovation Institute at Cardiff University in Wales.

How to see through Russia's war propaganda

A 2021 study by the institute examined comments on 32 European media outlets, including major German conservative daily Die Welt and news weekly Der Spiegel, concluding that: "Accounts are using the 'reader comments' function on the media outlets' websites to post provocative pro-Russian/anti-Western statements in reaction to stories of relevance to Russia."

Analysis of the accounts from which such comments are posted seems to confirm this, with the users repeatedly changing locations and personas. One "account of interest had 69 location changes and 549 changes of name since its creation," the report said.

Comments by 'the Germans'

The study of reader comments in the foreign media emerged as a news genre in Russia in the 2000s on the website inosmi.ru, which published articles from abroad in Russian translation. It covered comments about articles on Russia as well as other topics.

At the time, comments from professional trolls paid by the Kremlin were less common, Russian journalist and translator Alexey Kovalev, who served as editor-in-chief at inosmi.ru from 2012 to 2013, told Meduza. The independent Russian-language news site has been on Russia's "foreign agents" list since April 2021 and now reports from exile in Riga. 

Inosmi.ru and RIA Novosti were integrated into state-owned media holding company Russia Today as part of restructuring in December 2013. Since then, there has been no real analysis of readers' comments at RIA Novosti. The authors at the news agency now only pick the quotes that represent the same opinion instead.

Comments about "the Germans" have frequently appeared at RIA Novosti, "criticizing" a too harsh choice of words for Moscow or expressing that readers were "outraged” by German politicians' statements about Russia.

False outrage

Headlines like "Absurd — Germans appalled by Foreign Minister Baerbock's comments on Russia," or "Germans sharply criticize EU Commission President von der Leyen for her words about 'punishing' Russia," are based on comments by "trolls."

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks in Brussels in April 2022
Nearly half of Germans are happy with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's workImage: Olivier Matthys/AP/dpa/picture alliance

They often contradict what Germans really think about Russia, Ukraine, and sanctions against Moscow. This is evidenced by a poll conducted by German public broadcaster ARD at the end of 2022, which found that 86% of Germans see Russia as a global security threat.

Only 10% of respondents to the Deutschlandtrend poll described Russia as a country with which Germany could build a trusting partnership, in stark contrast with 47% who said this was true of Ukraine.

Some 37% said they did not consider the sanctions against Moscow to be tough enough, while 31% considered them to be proportionate and only 23% percent found them too strict.

This article originally appeared in Russian.