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4th Feb 2023

China's echo of Kremlin disinfo over Ukraine raises EU concerns

  • The bombarding of the hospital in Mariupol, for example, was blamed on Ukrainian troops in dozens of posts by Russian official social media accounts (Photo: Ukrainian foreign ministry)
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Russian disinformation and propaganda narratives over the war continue to spread in a bid to distort Moscow's military intervention and atrocities in Ukraine.

But China's endorsement of the Kremlin narrative raises a new challenge for the West.

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After a month of brutal fighting, new disinformation trends on the Russia-Ukraine conflict have emerged — especially given the all-encompassing astronomical level of censorship enforced by Moscow in the country.

More and more Russian channels are migrating to the encrypted messaging app Telegram because bigger social media platforms are getting better at detecting and shutting down disinformation accounts, EU senior officials told reporters on Tuesday (29 March).

This trend has intensified since a Russian court banned Facebook and Instagram for carrying out "extremist activities" last week.

But disinfo narratives have also been carried out directly by official accounts of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, and embassies across the world, which EU officials say are now "playing the role of Russian-state media."

Disinformation refers to the spread of false or misleading information deliberately, while misinformation is unwittingly shared.

The bombarding of the hospital in Mariupol in early March, for example, was blamed on Ukrainian troops in dozens of posts by Russian official social media accounts.

But EU officials said they have recently identified "more and more [disinformation] narratives focusing on alleged atrocities committed by the Ukrainian side" — seen as an attempt to "hide" what is happening on the ground.

Nevertheless, China's endorsement of Russian disinformation has raised fresh concerns for the West.

Chinese officials have criticised "Western approaches" regarding sanctions and amplified Russian claims that Ukraine is developing biological weapons with US support, EU officials said.

But the EU is now scrambling to make sure Beijing will not support Moscow's aggression in Ukraine with high-level talks scheduled for this Friday at the EU-China summit.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations also blame the current conflict on Russian propaganda, dating back to before it seized Crimea in 2014.

"These include baseless claims about Kyiv being overrun by 'Nazis' and existential threats to ethnic Russians … [which] have played a crucial role in escalating tensions in Ukraine and fanning the flames of the conflict since it started in 2014," Frederike Kaltheuner, a campaigner at Human Rights Watch, told EUobserver.

In a separate report, the EU-funded Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis project warned that disinformation about Ukrainian refugees is spreading, from the countries of first arrivals to central and western Europe.

The observatory said refugees fleeing Ukraine are portrayed on social media as dangerous fascists, who are allegedly receiving better treatment than nationals.

Ukraine has denounced a large-scale disinformation campaign since the war started.

The Security Service of Ukraine said on Monday that it had eliminated five bot farms, using over 100,000 fake accounts to spread disinformation about the invasion and frontline response.

Russian fake news "tried to inspire panic among Ukrainian citizens and destabilise the social and political situation in various regions," it said in a statement.

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