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How disinformation exploited the Afghan crisis

How disinformation exploited the Afghan crisis

An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: AFP, Correctiv, Demagog, Dpa, Les Surligneurs, Maldita, Newtral, PagellaPolitica/Facta, VerificaRTVE

After the withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan, and the return to power of the Talibans, a huge number of related articles and content have been shared online. Among them, many were false or misleading. We gathered fact-checking articles about Afghanistan from nine different European organizations* and we analyzed the recurring narratives and what are the main targets of the disinformation.

This is what we found out:

  1. the vast majority of false or misleading content does not have a specific target and appears to be just click-baiting

  2. a small but significant quantity of false or misleading content targets Western politicians or governments

  3. a small but significant number of false or misleading articles targets migrants

Let’s take a closer look at these categories, with a particular focus on the last one. In the opinion of many of the participating fact-checking organizations of the EDMO network, this is the one that can turn out as the most damaging and with the highest potential for growth in the next months.

1) Generic disinformation about Afghanistan

Aside from the initial confusion and usual misinformation about specific situations related to the evacuation (false comparisons with the past, for example), the majority of disinformation related to the situation in Afghanistan, verified by the organizations participating in this investigation, does not have a specific target or it exploits in general the existing negative reputation of the Talibans. It aims to draw the attention of the general audience with highly emotional or attention-grabbing content (click-baiting), such as photos, videos or stories.

  • Violence against women and Christians
    The first kind of highly emotional content we found among false or misleading content is the one about Talibans’ violence, in particular against women.

    True and horrible stories about Talibans’ violence against women most likely created an interest in the public for this kind of episodes, and soon enough false ones started circulating.

    For example, in different European countries, a video of the execution of a woman circulated in August and September. It was actually from 2015 and it was recorded in Syria (a similar video involving the killing of many men is also from Syria). Another similar content – spread particularly in Spain – is the story about the female army pilot Safia Pirouzi stoned to death by the Talibans, that has currently without any confirmation, or the video of a woman burned alive by an angry mob, that was actually recorded in South America in 2015.

    Also the story – old and without any factual support – about the Talibans ready to kill more than two hundred Christian missionaries circulated widely in Europe in the last few weeks (for example in France, Italy, and Poland).

  • Incredible stories
    Other false stories concerning Afghanistan that circulated in the past weeks are, for example, the one claiming that a US plane departing from Kabul – the one that some Afghani citizens tried to climb on in a desperate attempt to leave the country – was not a real plane but an inflatable one, or the video of a dead man hanged to a helicopter and flown over Kabul: the man was actually alive and he was trying – without success – to put the Talibans’ flag on the top of a building.False stories about Afghanistan are not always negative. For example, different social media accounts spread a story about a philanthropist that supposedly bought three airplanes to evacuate refugees from Afghanistan.
  • False content related to real events
    A third and well exploited type of disinformation content with the primary goal of attracting traffic on social media is based on real events, through the distortion of the details or the reuse of old material associated with false context.For example, after the terrorist attack at Kabul airport on August 26, many false videos and photos of the attack circulated in Europe. Most of them are related to different and previous terrorist attacks, happened in Afghanistan or in the Middle East, but sometimes they are related to completely different situations. For example, a picture of a river red with blood was associated with Kabul’s attack. The picture was real, but it was actually from a protest that happened in Afghanistan in 2017 against the civil victims of the war.

2) Disinformation that targets western governments or politicians

The Afghanistan crisis was also used to attack politicians and governments in Europe. The United States are often the target: a false story circulating online accused them of leaving behind their military dogs and exposing the animals to violence by the Talibans,. The U.S. have also been accused of charging the Afghani citizens that wanted to flee the country up to 2.000 dollars, even if they had the right to do so (this story is also not true).

European governments have been the target of disinformation too, especially in Germany. For example, an old photo of a mostly empty airplane departing from Kabul was used to attack the German government for not doing its part in evacuating the Afghani refugees. The photo is actually from 2017. The German Army has been accused of being more concerned about bringing back to Germany alcoholic beverages than refugees, but the story spread online was baseless.

It was reported on social media that the German Foreign Ministry Heiko Maas (Spd) said in an interview to Zdf that «We will offer Afghan refugees in Germany a better Afghanistan they’ve ever had». The claim has been completely made up.

A similar story occurred in Spain. A message that went viral on social media claimed that Yolanda Diaz (Mp of Unidos Podemos, the Spanish leftist alliance, and Ministry of Labour and Social Economy) asked for the immediate acceptance in Spain of 40 thousands Afghani refugees. The claim was completely invented.

In Italy a satiric content claiming that the leader of the nationalist party Fratelli d’Italia Giorgia Meloni asked for a sea blockade around Afghanistan (that has no sea borders) was misinterpreted as true and became viral.

This kind of disinformation has a clear target – the government, the majority, the opposition parties etc. – but up to now it doesn’t seem to have a strong impact. It is possible though that in the future, if large numbers of refugees will arrive from Afghanistan, false statements that never occurred could be attributed to different politicians to hurt their credibility and public profile.

3) Disinformation that targets migrants

An especially worrisome line of disinformation about Afghanistan that emerged from our analysis concerns migrants.

We highlighted three main messages that are conveyed by disinformation:

  • migrants are all male and adults, there are no (or very few) woman and children

  • female migrants are mistreated by the male ones

  • there is an invasion looming over Europe, of people often without the right to asylum, with high chance of terrorists among the refugees

The first message is, based on the materials we gathered, the most viral in Europe and fits into an already existing prejudice. In this report we will focus on this one.

It is true that Afghani migrants, and migrants in general, are in the majority male adults, but women and children represent significant percentages. For example, out of 530.000 Afghani asylum applicants that arrived in Europe in the last ten years, almost one third were women and more than one fourth were children under 14 years of age.

But why spread the exaggerated message that Afghani migrants are all male adults?

Judging by the comments to the false or misleading content, it appears that depicting migrants as male adults is scarier for an audience with pre-existing xenophobic sensibilities. Furthermore, it is instrumental in supporting the accusation that those migrants are “cowards” leaving women behind, in the hands of the Talibans, and finally it sustains the idea that these are not “real” refugees (because only women and children should be).

It is possible that this narrative is already preparing the ground for a disinformation campaign against an eventual arrival of a significant number of refugees from Afghanistan.

But how was this narrative spread?

The organizations that participated in this investigation found different photos, usually old and decontextualized or falsified, depicting airplanes full of male adults allegedly departing from Afghanistan. The messages that accompany these pictures were of the kind described above: the departing males are “cowards”, or “not real refugees”; if there are no women and children among the refugees, this supposedly means that the country is not actually a dangerous place, and so on.

We selected in particular one picture of a plane full of Afghani male adults, that circulated in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Belgium, Austria, Greece and Croatia. The photo is actually portraying Afghani citizens sent back to Afghanistan from Turkey in 2018.

We tried to understand who is responsible for its spreading.

The answer is not univocal but it appears that far-right and anti-immigrantion groups are among the ones that gave a significant boost to this story. For example, in Germany the AfD politician Jonas Dünzel shared the image on his social media. In Croatia it circulated particularly in anti-immigrantion Facebook groups. In Greece it was shared on Twitter by Kyriakos Velopoulos, leader of the nationalist party Hellenic Solution. In Poland it was shared by fan pages focused on engaging and polarizing political content.


In the past few weeks, the vast majority of false or misleading content concerning Afghanistan did not have a specific target or it exploited in general the existing negative reputation of the Talibans. It appears to be mainly attention-grabbing or exploiting the high levels of attention on the issue by the general public (click-baiting). Still, a significant number of false news targeted governments, politicians and migrants. This last case is, in our opinion, the most relevant.

The messages that are conveyed through these false news concerning Afghani migrants are, in particular, that they are all (or almost all) male adults abandoning their women and children to the Talibans, so they are “cowards” and/or “not real refugees”.

Tommaso Canetta, deputy director of Pagella Politica

*Fact-checking organizations that contributed to this analysis: AFP, Correctiv, Demagog, Dpa, Les Surligneurs, Maldita, Newtral, PagellaPolitica/Facta, VerificaRTVE

Photo: Flickr, I Postcross