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Disinformers use similar arguments and techniques to steer hate against migrants from Ukraine or the Global South

Disinformers use similar arguments and techniques to steer hate against migrants from Ukraine or the Global South

An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Pagella Politica/Facta news; AFP; Correctiv; Delfi;;;; Ellinika Hoaxes; Factcheck Vlaanderen; Factual; Knack; Lakmusz; Maldita; Oštro; Polígrafo; Pravda; Freedom House Romania; Re:Baltica; The Journal Fact-Check, Verificat, VRTNWS.

Disinformation about migrants* arriving in Europe has been a constant phenomenon in recent years. Especially since the surge of migration flows in 2014, disinformation has exploited certain characteristics such as skin color, religion and cultural diversity to target groups of people coming in particular from the Global South. Since February 2022, a new influx of migrants has interested Europe: Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. They too became the subject of disinformation campaigns.

By the end of last year, disinformation targeting migrants seemed to be on the rise. With increased arrivals over the summer of 2023 and a new centrality in the European debate in recent months, the immigration issue has been the subject of a number of stories that have been proven false by the independent fact-checking organizations forming the EDMO fact-checking network.

Therefore, we compared the disinformation targeting two groups: migrants from the Global South and Ukrainians, and we observed similarities and differences. The comparison was made by analyzing a collection of fact-checking articles from nearly two dozen European fact-checking organizations, covering over twenty European countries. The time span considered is from the beginning of 2023 to the present, but older false stories were sometimes considered when relevant to the disinformation narratives.

FALSE NARRATIVE #1 – Migrants are violent or criminal

One of the most common and well-known disinformation narratives about migrants arriving in the EU from all over the world is the one that depicts them as a danger for European societies.

Migrants are the target of false news that portray them as violent, dangerous, criminal, or explicitly opposed to Western ways of living and values. These falsehoods are designed to misrepresent all migrants as inherently prone to violence, or even terrorism, falsely labeling them as naturally inclined to illegal activities and resistant to democratic and social norms, thus reinforcing prejudices against them.

A – Migrants from the Global South

In order to portray migrants from North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and other diverse parts of the world as violent or criminal, the majority of false stories emphasize cultural and ethnic diversity, and often religion, to promote xenophobic sentiment. As we will see, to spread this kind of message disinformers use many techniques.

The most common technique is the publication of old and unrelated content (e.g. videos and images), re-captioned in a misleading way in order to link it to current events. For example, among the many false stories of this kind, in July 2023, a video of football supporters in France was deceptively subtitled in Greece, suggesting that the people in the footage were saying “we will rape all the white women in Europe and behead all the men”, while in other counties videos or even film footage were used to falsely claim that migrants are cannibals or child traffickers.

A widespread false story exploited the arrival of thousands of people on the Italian island of Lampedusa in September 2023: an old and unrelated video was shared on social media platforms with claims that some people attacking the police in the footage were migrants who had just arrived in Italy. As highlighted in a previous EDMO fact-checking brief, this false information was spread in several EU countries, including France, Spain, Austria, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Germany. Here another false story claimed that migrants in Lampedusa had even set fire to an entire building.

Aside from publishing old and unrelated content, sometimes stories are simply made up and presented as real news, or crimes are attributed to migrants without any evidence. These techniques are used by various public actors. The resulting sense of fear or even panic is often exploited by accounts that promote extremist messages. In many countries, some politicians have spread unfounded information about alleged aggressions perpetrated by migrants. They often cite statistics that do not exist or don’t actually mention or refer to specific ethnic groups, thus misleadingly suggesting their propensity for violence.

Other relevant news stories exploited to convey false content consistent with this narrative were the protests in France following the killing of a 17-year-old boy by police in July, which were used to spread xenophobia and racism in many EU countries, and the destructive wildfires in Greece in August, which were blamed on migrants through false stories circulated in Greece, Germany, Bulgaria, and Croatia and even led to some physical attacks against asylum seekers.

B – Ukrainian migrants

Although the number of false stories detected within this narrative about Ukrainian migrants is smaller, general messages conveyed are very similar and similarly spread throughout Europe. Ukrainians are described as dangerous to European societies as well as violent. Disinformation techniques are the same as those used in the case of migrants of other nationalities: old content that is decontextualized, completely fabricated news stories, or real incidents of violence that are arbitrarily attributed to Ukrainians.

As in the case of migrants in general, one of the most widely circulated false stories in the EU used the video of a street brawl, claiming that it showed a group of Ukrainians beating Polish citizens because they refused to say “Slava Ukraini”, the national salute and battle cry of the Ukrainian army. Even though authorities in Warsaw said that no Ukrainians were involved in the fight, this specific false story circulated in Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Spain, Greece, and Finland.

In the case of Ukrainians, religion is not a significant differentiating characteristic with many Europeans. Therefore, false stories about Ukrainian citizens sometimes depict them as people whose values are ultra-nationalist and anti-democratic, echoing the Russian propaganda narrative that portrays them as chauvinists or Nazis.

As with other migrants, alleged increases in crime are arbitrarily attributed to war exiles by false or misinterpreted statistics on social media, and sometimes are echoed also by politicians. In Latvia a politician – exploiting a news case – blamed Ukrainians also for being responsible for the bedbug problem in Paris (spreading fear about migrants and diseases using false or misleading news is another well-known technique of disinformation).

To weaken the public support for the acceptance of migrants from Ukraine, other major stories have presented alleged initiatives against it, and even claimed that mercenaries from the Wagner company were hiding among them, associating their presence with security issues.

FALSE NARRATIVE #2 – Migrants are profiteers and waste our resources

In addition to portraying them as dangerous to European societies, another major disinformation narrative describes migrants – both Ukrainians and from the Global South – as profiteers or parasites who exploit the European countries receiving them. According to this narrative, even if they were harmless, their acceptance would be an unaffordable cost for the host countries as well as a disadvantage for their citizens. This exacerbates resentment against these people with false or unfounded stories that often try to portray them as if they actually do not need help, instead exploiting the resources of their host country to make a comfortable living.

It is interesting to note that the vast majority of false stories in this narrative are based on unsubstantiated and simply invented statements on social media platforms. In the remaining cases, decontextualized images or videos are used to send false and misleading information, and unexisting or temporary measures are presented as real and already in force.

This narrative has three interconnected main strands:

a) Migrants are draining our resources

Global South – The false rhetoric that has portrayed migrants (from North Africa, the Middle East, etc.) as profiteers in recent years has made extensive use of false stories about them receiving substantial sums of money from host countries (usually higher than minimum pensions and other social measures available for local citizens). Several false stories in line with this narrative have also been identified in recent months. For example, unsubstantiated stories claim that they live on social assistance, that they cheat to get it, and that the money transfers are so conspicuous that they can afford luxurious vacations.

Depending on the case, it is sometimes claimed that they steal jobs from local citizens, and sometimes it is claimed – even by politicians – that they are unemployable in the labor market, thus exposing the host countries to serious economic consequences. The effects of migrations on the social fabric are often taken to extremes by citing alleged experiences in other countries: in Greece, for example, it has been claimed that New York City is forcing its citizens to accept migrants into their homes, and in France and Italy that Japan is completely excluding them from citizenship and public life, although none of these circumstances has occurred.

Ukraine – Even though the tone is more nuanced in the case of Ukrainian migrants, given they are fleeing an invaded country, the previous narrative is present with very similar features. The cost of hosting war exiles is exaggerated – through stories or false statistics spread by social media accounts and influencers, or even by politicians – to the point of claiming that state assets of great historical or symbolic value are allegedly being sold to cover the expenses. False stories about Ukrainians claim that they are entitled to various benefits – such as houses, employment, loans, healthcare and medicines, or exclusive summer camps for their children – at the expense of citizens. In some cases, they are portrayed as being particularly wealthy even if they supposedly ask for more money.

b) Migrants receive better treatment than local citizens

Global South – The alleged economic unaffordability of hosting migrants is further exaggerated by false stories claiming that many benefits and allowances are guaranteed or extended based on foreign nationality, thus spreading feelings of rage by exploiting reactions to the alleged injustice. The territorial distribution inside Europe of this type of false stories is different between the two categories of migrants considered.

Regarding non-Ukrainian migrants, one country particularly susceptible to this rhetoric in the near past is Spain, where economic and social issues related to immigration are especially felt. Several false stories claim that the government provides migrants with guaranteed income, universal inheritance, various types of economic assistance, or even high-end smartphones. In addition, it is falsely claimed that it only takes two years for foreigners to receive a pension or that a number of them receive non-contributory pensions. In Italy, where this type of false stories has been common in recent years, it was claimed that these subsidies were given to migrants even before they arrived.

Unsubstantiated information suggests that this favoritism is based precisely on cultural differences. For example, in Spain it has been claimed that there is special economic aid for women who wear the veil commonly associated with Islam; in Ireland that migrants receive a higher rate of jobseeker’s allowance; and in Germany the false story of a thirty thousand euro monthly allowance guaranteed to a Syrian with four wives and 23 children has been circulating since 2017. A similar unsubstantiated story has been widely spread in Italy, even by prominent politicians, claiming without evidence that a migrant could get a universal basic income for each wife he had.

This rhetoric is taken to the extreme by false stories in various countries claiming that different states are expropriating homes and property from local citizens in order to host migrants. In Greece, it has been falsely claimed that the deaths of migrants at sea are honored with national mournings, while those of Greek citizens in local disasters are not, suggesting preferential treatment even after death.

Ukraine – About Ukrainian migrants, false stories are very similar, but the EU member States where they circulate the most are those in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany: countries that host a high number of Ukrainians who left their country after the Russian invasion.

Housing is one of the main arguments to suggest alleged injustices. False stories claim expropriations, subsidies for home purchases, and special constructions intended exclusively for Ukrainians. Other alleged benefits they would receive are many and varied: unlimited ATM withdrawals, grants and scholarships reserved to their nationality, child allowances and priority access to kindergartens, no entrance exams for students, no road tolls, and unconditional insurance coverage.

To emphasize the comparison between these alleged benefits and the conditions of local citizens, some unfounded stories have suggested that Ukrainians receive more money than pensioners, veterans, or the homeless, or that it takes only one day for them to receive a pension. One particularly significant false story circulating in Poland claimed that hospitals were discharging children with cancer to make room for Ukrainian children.

c) The majority of them are men and/or cannot be refugees

Global South – Beyond the socio-economic issues, migrants are blamed on the “moral” level. «Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country», according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On social media and even by some politicians, it has been claimed that migrants from the Global South cannot be actual refugees, because allegedly they are not fleeing the war and are mostly healthy men who don’t deserve asylum, and/or they pretend to be minors.

Ukraine – This moral blame is even stronger in the case of the Ukrainian displaced people. A particularly widespread false narrative is that they are mostly male as well, so much so that Ukraine is demanding their extradition from host countries in order to put them on the battlefield. This false story accusing them of cowardice has been identified in Poland, Ireland, France, and Italy.

Other false stories claim that they are not or are no longer refugees, allegedly because they want to go home, went on vacation in their homeland, or want to enter the Russian-occupied territories.

This second narrative conveys an insidious message. Spreading false news that leverages on the real economic needs of citizens to point to migrants as the cause of their situation appears to be very effective in fueling racist and xenophobic sentiments.

Enzo Panizio, journalist at Pagella Politica/Facta News and EDMO

Tommaso Canetta, deputy director of Pagella Politica/Facta News and coordinator of EDMO fact-checking activities

Photo: Flickr, Mari Dallavara

*  in this article we adopt the International Organization for Migration (IOM) definition of “migrant”, that includes refugees and other kind of migrants