Disinfo campaigns target key Ukraine arm... Western support

FOREIGN COMMENT - Théo Marie-Courtois - Agence France-Presse

From images of fake anti-Ukraine billboards to posts showing false graffiti against Ukraine's leader, pro-Russian disinformation online is targeting Western backing after two years of war.

AFP's fact-checkers have debunked false content that is intended to support or encourage the idea of a growing public fatigue in Europe and the United States.

These campaigns can often take aim at already combustible topics like migration or political affiliations --topics that could further heat up as June's European Union 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 added.

European Union leaders in early February overcame months of opposition from Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to agree on 50 billion euros ($54 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 gotten snared in domestic US politics in an election year.

The disinformation aims to "erode European support for Ukraine... maligning and scapegoating Ukrainian refugees," says US-based political researcher Elina Treyger.

Specifically, the campaigns highlight the economic and energy fallout on Europeans of the war sanctions against Russia, Treyger added.

Existing problems

Pro-Russian disinformation is most effective when it builds on existing and divisive issues like 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," said Treyger.

"By multiplying the content so much, you'll inevitably hit your target", agreed Jakub Kalensky of 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-American, anti-Western and colonial sentiments, explained associate professor Christine Dugoin-Clement from IAE Paris.

Another tactic is to divert journalists with information overload.

One campaign, the so-called "Operation Matryoshka", has aimed to keep journalists busy by spreading anti-Ukraine fake 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.

European elections

The widespread use of pro-Russian disinformation has also impacted 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", said Chatelet.

From December 2023 onwards, 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, according to German daily Der Spiegel.

The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed it "eliminated" around 60 fighters, mainly "French mercenaries", in a strike in northeastern Ukraine's Kharkiv in January.

In the wake of these accusations, several lists, including one claiming to reveal the identity of around 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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