Anti-refugee propagandists target economic concerns and fears of cultural “Ukrainization”

Anti-Ukrainian refugee disinformation mainly targets people’s financial concerns in Latvia and Lithuania, while it focuses more on cultural and political issues in Estonia and Poland. The need to fight against “Ukrainization” is a common trope featured across all targeted countries and connects the anti-refugee narrative with the use of Ukrainian flags in host countries.


Estonia is impacted by the largest amount of content (articles, blogs, etc.), while Poland holds the highest number of interactions with disinformation. Latvia and Lithuania are less targeted by this disinformation narrative, but when they are, more generic anti-refugee messaging seems to be preferred, rather than specifically anti-Ukrainian rhetoric.


The following overview summarises the development of disinformation narratives related to the theme of Ukrainian refugees across Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The analysed content refers to the countries’ respective local languages and does not take into consideration disinformation content targeted at these countries’ Russian-speaking minorities.


These findings are extracted from twelve weekly Ukraine War Disinfo Working Group reports, which cover a timeframe from June 27, 2022, to September 18, 2022. The disinformation data associated with Poland has been provided by Fakenews.pl.


The narratives about refugee-related disinformation mainly relate to the following themes, shown in order of prominence (calculated based on available content interactions):


  • Ukrainian refugees are spoiled/ungrateful

  • Ukrainian refugees are prioritized over the host country citizens/inhabitants

  • Ukrainian refugees undermine host countries- internal stability

  • Ukrainian refugees are no longer welcome

  • Ukrainians are Nazis

  • Ukrainian refugees pose an epidemiological threat


Trends across observed countries


In the following section, we will present a few tables showing the trends in Ukrainian refugee-related disinformation in our target countries. The tables show the available content interactions paired with the number of individual pieces of content (newspaper articles, social media posts, blog posts or videos) for each week and for each country.


We chose to show the available interactions as they were the most consistently available metric throughout our data set. However, as they do not take into consideration the interactions when the original content is shared across social media, nor the potential view count of each piece of content, they represent a very conservative estimation of the analysed content’s reach.


Considering how a single piece of disinformation can accrue considerable interactions by gaining traction on social media –such as one Polish TikTok video on August 10, representing about two-thirds of the total interactions of the “Ukrainian refugees are spoiled/ungrateful” sub-narrative – we decided to include the tally of individual pieces of content as well, in order to show a clearer picture of where the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts are directed.



Anti-Ukrainian refugee narratives


A distribution of content and interactions across all sub-narratives, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, from June 27 to September 18, 2022


The first table presents a distribution of content and interactions across all sub-narratives, thus, accounting for the totality of our dataset. The main observable feature is how the interaction numbers for Poland dwarf those recorded in the Baltic states, yet this element is consistent with the Polish population being larger. In addition to the fact that most of the disinformation targeting the Baltics is aimed at Russian speakers and is therefore not considered in this analysis, the larger number of interactions observed in the Polish data does not lead us to conclude that Poland is uniquely targeted by anti-Ukrainian refugee disinformation.


A more indicative element shown in this table is the number of content pieces, which is arguably a better indication of the intentions of disinformation agents, as it is directly related to their output, rather than to its reception, which can be more unpredictable. Content numbers indicate that Estonia is disproportionately targeted by refugee-related narratives, yet this is not enough to definitively establish which country is the main target, at least among Estonia and Poland.


On the other hand, we can confidently assert that among the analysed countries, Lithuania and, to a lesser extent, Latvia, seem to be targeted less by refugee-related disinformation, as the amount of relevant content is clearly lower in these two countries as well as less consistent. Refugee-related disinformation is completely absent during several weeks of the analysed time frame: four weeks out of twelve in the case of Latvia and six out of twelve weeks in the case of Lithuania. These elements will become more apparent as we move on to the sub-narrative-specific tables.



Ukrainian refugees are spoiled/ungrateful


A distribution of content and interactions for the "Ukrainian refugees are spoiled/ungrateful" sub-narrative, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, from June 27 to September 18, 2022


This sub-narrative appears as the most far-reaching, in terms of available interactions, among all those observed. Yet, this feature, when juxtaposed to the relatively low content numbers, indicates that this is more likely to be a product of a few viral pieces of content, namely the abovementioned Polish TikTok video, rather than a consistent push by Kremlin-aligned disinformation actors. A detailed description of this content piece can be found below in its dedicated vignette, in the section dedicated to Poland.


It is also notable that this sub-narrative is comparatively absent from the Estonian context, with only a few unsuccessful attempts at pushing it at the beginning and end of the analysed timeframe.



Ukrainian refugees are prioritized over the host country citizens/inhabitants


A distribution of content and interactions for the "Ukrainian refugees are prioritized over the host country citizens/inhabitants" sub-narrative, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, from June 27 to September 18, 2022


The sub-narrative presented in this table, while showing a comparable amount of interactions to the “Ukrainian refugees are spoiled/ungrateful” sub-narrative, presents a substantially higher content number, which potentially indicates it was a higher priority for disinformation agents.


The most consistent sub-narrative for Latvia and Lithuania was “Ukrainian refugees are prioritized over the host country citizens/inhabitants,” suggesting that economic and domestic issues are used as the main drivers of refugee-related disinformation efforts in these countries.


This sub-narrative was largely absent in Estonia, with a few instances concentrated from late August to the end of the sampling period. The concentration of disinformation publications at the end of the sampling period could indicate the beginning of an increasing trend, as the sub-narrative has been newly introduced in the country.



Ukrainian refugees undermine host countries' internal stability


A distribution of content and interactions for the "Ukrainian refugees undermine host countries' internal stability" sub-narrative, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, from June 27 to September 18, 2022.


This sub-narrative, while not being the most successful in terms of interactions, has seen the largest amount of overall content produced. The content related to this sub-narrative has been overwhelmingly aimed at the Estonian context, making it the main anti-Ukrainian refugee sub-narrative in the country.


In contrast, the sub-narrative has been very scattered both in Latvia and Lithuania, with the few instances of content gaining traction being spurred by one single disinformation event.


These events were, respectively, one Facebook post on August 13, 2022, complaining that Ukrainian flags were deleting Latvian culture in the case of Latvia and a blog post on August 1, 2022, tying Ukrainian immigration to the genocide of the local population in the case of Lithuania.



Ukrainian refugees are no longer welcome


A distribution of content and interactions for the "Ukrainian refugees are no longer welcome" sub-narrative, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, from June 27 to September 18, 2022


We chose to dedicate a table to this minor-sub narrative in order to show the concentration in terms of publication date – from mid-July to the end of August – which might suggest how attempts to promote it have been made, at least in Poland and Estonia, but were abandoned afterwards.



Minor sub-narratives



We won’t dedicate much more space to the remaining minor sub-narratives (“Ukrainians are Nazis” and “Ukrainian refugees pose an epidemiological threat”), as they are tied to single instances of disinformation with few content pieces dedicated to them and because they barely reach 1000 interactions, if they do.


They are still included in the overview to faithfully reflect the findings of the original reports.


A special mention is in order for the case of “Ukrainian refugees pose an epidemiological threat” as under this label only COVID-19-related disinformation has been considered, whereas the theme of associating Ukrainian refugees with disease spread has been fairly recurring as part of the major sub-narrative “Ukrainian refugees undermine host countries' internal stability”, where refugees were accused of being carriers of HIV and tuberculosis.



Country-by-country analysis


In this section, after a brief country-specific overview, we present a few of the most salient disinformation cases. Potential inconsistencies, between the numbers found in the tables and case narratives, can be explained by the more up-to-date sources for the tables.


ESTONIA


OVERVIEW:


Of the countries analyzed, Estonia is second to last when it comes to available interactions, yet, with the highest content numbers and a consistent presence of disinformation content throughout all monitored weeks, we consider it to be one of the most targeted countries for anti-Ukrainian refugee disinformation, at least on par with Poland.


Important through-lines in the spread of anti-refugee rhetoric in Estonia are: the major contributions to disinformation by the EKRE party (Conservative People's Party of Estonia), which is mentioned in six of the twelve reports; and the tendency to conflate Ukrainian immigrants with Russian ex-pats, carrying over the perceived negative connotation of the latter onto the former, this theme is mentioned in four of the twelve reports, concentrated between July 18 and August 14, 2022.


REFUGEE NARRATIVES IN ESTONIA




LATVIA


OVERVIEW:


Latvia is the second most impacted country in terms of available interactions, yet the low content numbers and the inconsistency of anti-Ukrainian refugee narratives throughout the analyzed period suggest a lower disinformation effort in the country, at least in regard to our examined narrative.


In addition, the focus of Latvian disinformation on economic issues (“Ukrainian refugees are prioritized over the host country citizens/inhabitants”) and general xenophobic messaging (“Ukrainian refugees are spoiled/ungrateful”) rather than content specifically referring to the Ukrainian context, places Latvia closer to Lithuania, the least targeted country, rather than our main victims, Estonia and Poland.


Another interpretation of this messaging is that it could be a move to more established anti-refugee rhetoric, already perfected during previous refugee crises, as specific anti-Ukrainian tactics prove to be less effective.



REFUGEE NARRATIVES IN LATVIA



LITHUANIA


OVERVIEW:


Lithuania is undoubtedly the least impacted country when it comes to anti-Ukrainian refugee narratives. It received the lowest interactions, the smallest content numbers and the least consistent production of content throughout the analyzed weeks.


The prevalence of the “Ukrainian refugees are prioritized over the host country citizens/inhabitants” sub-narrative in Lithuania was similar to Latvia, whilst the remaining sub-narratives were not substantially represented.


REFUGEE NARRATIVES IN LITHUANIA


POLAND


OVERVIEW:


Undoubtedly, Poland received the largest number of content interactions in the analysis, but as previously stated, this is consistent with its population size and, therefore, is not necessarily indicative of the country being specifically targeted.


Although we observed a lower number of disinformation content in Poland, compared to Estonia, it is the only country for which content from all of the major sub-narratives was recorded during the analysis, suggesting a targeted effort to disseminate anti-Ukrainian refugee disinformation in the country.


The main recurring themes in the Polish anti-refugee rhetoric were: the “Stop Ukrainization Campaign,” mentioned in five of the twelve reports; and opposition to the Polish government launching a fund, aimed at helping Ukrainian war orphans and women freed from captivity, on August 17, 2022, which, despite only being mentioned in two reports, spurred some of the most interacted with disinformation events of our dataset, especially if relative video views are considered.


REFUGEE NARRATIVES IN POLAND


 

The Ukraine War Disinfo Working Group unites 10 think tanks and research groups, which are working non-stop to monitor Kremlin propaganda in 11 countries.

 

Report prepared and first time published on the DebunkEU.org web page.



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