From images of fake anti-Ukraine billboards to posts showing bogus graffiti against Ukraine’s leader, pro-Russian online disinformation is targeting Western backing after two years of war.
Fact-checkers from Agence France-Presse (AFP) have debunked false content that is intended to support or encourage the idea of a growing public fatigue in Europe and the US.
These campaigns can often take aim at already combustible topics such as migration or political affiliations — topics that could further heat up as June’s EU elections approach.
The disinformation efforts “create the idea that European and American money is being sent unnecessarily,” said Valentin Chatelet, research associate for Atlantic Council’s Digital Analysis Laboratory (DFRLab).
“There is always a desire to torpedo negotiations ... especially with Western players, because they are the main financial backers and arms suppliers,” Chatelet said.
EU leaders early this month overcame months of opposition from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to agree on 50 billion euros (US$53.9 billion) of aid for Ukraine, in a move they hailed as a strong message to Russia.
Across the Atlantic, fresh funding for Ukraine from its biggest backer has become snared in domestic US politics in an election year.
The disinformation aims to “erode European support for Ukraine ... maligning and scapegoating Ukrainian refugees,” US-based political researcher Elina Treyger said.
Specifically, the campaigns highlight the economic and energy fallout on Europeans of the war sanctions against Russia, Treyger added.
Pro-Russian disinformation is most effective when it builds on existing and divisive issues such as immigration and purchasing power, experts say.
“The most successful narratives are the ones that tap into something that’s already an issue, it’s much harder to build from scratch,” Treyger said.
“By multiplying the content so much, you’ll inevitably hit your target,” said Jakub Kalensky, a deputy director at the European Centre of Excellence for Combating Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE).
When the war in Ukraine began, for example, the Middle East and Africa were targeted with tailor-made narratives based on anti-US, anti-Western and anti-colonial sentiments, IAE Paris associate professor Christine Dugoin-Clement said.
Another tactic is to divert journalists with information overload. One campaign, the so-called “Operation Matryoshka,” has aimed to keep journalists busy by spreading fake anti-Ukraine news and then challenging Western media to verify it.
Another extensive operation, the “Doppelganger” operation, which was attributed to Russia by French intelligence, uses visuals that mimic Western media.
The widespread use of pro-Russian disinformation has also affected elections in Europe, with fear mounting ahead of the European Parliament’s June elections.
“There will be disinformation operations on Ukraine [and] on a whole host of current European issues to promote a conservative or nationalist agenda,” Chatelet said.
From December last year onward, a vast “pro-Russian disinformation campaign” in Germany created more than 50,000 fake X accounts (formerly Twitter) to stir up anger about the country’s support for Ukraine, Der Spiegel reported.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed it has “eliminated” about 60 fighters, mainly “French mercenaries,” in a strike in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv last month.
In the wake of these accusations, several lists, including one claiming to reveal the identity of about 30 “dead French mercenaries,” were broadcast by Telegram channels and pro-Kremlin activists. French volunteers in Ukraine denied the allegations, three of them directly to AFP.
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