Antisemitic riots in Russia: How misinformation spread online fueled violence

By: Julia Smirnova

20 December 2023

This briefing analyses the proliferation of misinformation about Jewish refugees and antisemitic content in the lead-up to riots in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan targeting passengers who arrived from Israel on October 29. Contrary to claims by Russia, which accused Ukraine and Western secret services of fomenting tension, the findings suggest that antisemitic content and misinformation had been spread by at least 35 unrelated channels on Telegram with a collective followership of more than 726,000 and a number of accounts on Instagram in the weeks between the October 7 attacks and the riots in Dagestan. The findings therefore shed doubt on the claim that this was a coordinated social media campaign orchestrated by one foreign state actor.

The Israel-Hamas war following the October 7 attack by Hamas has led to a notable rise of antisemitism targeting Jewish communities outside of Israel. In Russia, a particularly violent incident occurred on October 29, when a mob stormed the airport of Makhachkala, the capital city of the republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus in search of Jewish passengers arriving from Israel. Russian authorities swiftly blamed the West and Ukraine for allegedly orchestrating the riots via social media. Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that the riots were inspired “not least from the territory of Ukraine, by the hands of agents of Western special services”.

However, in studying social media posts spread prior to the riots, ISD analysts found no compelling evidence of inauthentic coordination by a foreign state actor in the spread of posts inciting hatred against Jews and mobilising for riots. Rather, antisemitic posts and misinformation about Jews spread by domestic actors on social media very likely played a crucial role in mobilisation for offline violence, with no indication that these posts were orchestrated by a single malicious or foreign actor. In its analysis, ISD identified hateful messages targeting Jews and misinformation spread in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack by many general interest local social media accounts and channels focused on the North Caucasus as well as in Instagram comments and Telegram groups, thus indicating that they were rather a reflection of attitudes of parts of society than a result of a premeditated campaign.

Key findings:

  • Antisemitic messages and misinformation about “Jewish refugees” allegedly arriving in the North Caucasus started spreading on Instagram and Telegram shortly after the Hamas attack on October 7. On Telegram, these messages were spread by at least 35 channels with a collective followership of over 726,000.
  • In the social media posts, Jews were portrayed as a threat to all Muslims in the predominantly Muslim region. Posts and comments on Telegram and Instagram alleged that Jews might be trying to seize the land of Muslims in the North Caucasus and turn it into a second Palestine.
  • Misinformation and antisemitic posts were spread by at least 35 of apparently unrelated channels, including general interest channels and a channel for mothers in one of the republics in the North Caucasus, thus making it unlikely for protests were coordinated by one single actor.

Misinformation about “refugees from Israel”

Antisemitic messages and calls for violence against Jews started spreading online in Dagestan several weeks prior to the riots. Shortly after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, regional Instagram accounts and Telegram channels with focus on the North Caucasus started posting false claims that “refugees from Israel” were arriving in Dagestan. On October 11, several Telegram channels and Instagram accounts posted pictures showing the crowded Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv and claimed that these pictures were showing refugees from Israel arriving in Dagestan.

Figure 1. Telegram post on the left reads “Refugees from Israel arrived in Dagestan. It is said that most of the refugees are Russian citizens, but there are also Israeli citizens among them. Soon they will depart to other Russian regions”. Instagram post on the right reads “Refugees from Israel arrived in Dagestan”.

Most of Instagram and Telegram accounts spreading these false claims were channels posting local news relevant for readers in Dagestan and some other republics in the North Caucasus together with general interest content. After October 7, they increasingly began posting messages about the Israel-Hamas war. These posts included various antisemitic comments and images such as a claim that if Jews were “normal” they wouldn’t have been expelled and persecuted throughout history or a picture showing Israel as a snake strangling the Earth. One of the channels shared a video of an antisemitic speech by Adolf Hitler.

In Instagram comments and Telegram groups, discussions related to posts about false claims that Jews allegedly arrive in Russia included numerous antisemitic messages and calls to “turn them out”, not let them in or kill them. Other comments claimed that Jews would do to Dagestan “what they did to Palestine”, that they would buy land in Dagestan and expel Muslims.

A number of Telegram channels analysed by ISD were spreading a false claim that there is an alleged mass resettlement of Jews to the North Caucasus. One of the channels claimed that Jews in the North Caucasus are “making plans for 75 years ahead” and alleged that they would take the land of Muslims in the North Caucasus and “throw rockets at our women and children”. Another channel falsely claimed that “a minister in Israel said that the North Caucasus will be next after Palestine” and that 10,000 Jews allegedly already arrived in the Noth Caucasus. Several channels supported the false claim about an alleged “mass resettlement” from Israel with a decontextualised video of a rabbi at the ski resort of Dombai in the republic of Karachay-Cherkessiya.

Regional Telegram channels were sharing a link to a Russian-language petition against alleged Jewish refugees. The petition was deleted from the website, but the archived version shows that it had received 27,892 signatures before the removal. The text of the petition falsely claimed that Jews were fleeing to predominantly Muslim countries and that locals will become guests in their own countries if they let Jews in. In addition to this, various regional Telegram channels in the North Caucasus shared a digital flyer against “Jewish refugees” calling on locals not to rent or sell homes to them and alleging that they would treat Muslims in the North Caucasus the way that Israel treats Gaza.

Figure 2. Digital flyer shared by local Telegram channels in the North Caucasus. The text reads: “We’re against Jewish refugees! Appeal to all with a request: Don’t rent flats, don’t sell them homes, don’t drive them in your cars, don’t serve them in restaurants. You are all witnesses to how Palestine has sheltered them and the gratitude it has received. Today Palestinian children are dying at their hands, tomorrow it could affect our people. Maximum repost!”

On Telegram, ISD identified at least 35 channels spreading antisemitic messages and misinformation about alleged Jewish refugees in the North Caucasus. Collectively, these channels have a followership of over 726,000. These numbers likely represent just a small portion of antisemitic misinformation within this specific platform ecosystem because of difficulties researching Telegram in a systematic and comprehensive way. Most of these channels were local channels relevant to the republics of the region, channels about Islam or general interest channels. While some of the channels were critical of Russian authorities, other supported Kremlin policies around the invasion of Ukraine. One voice message published in one of the channels, suggested sending Jews who land in the North Caucasus to fight for Russia in its war in Ukraine. Other channels spreading antisemitic messages were completely non-political, including one channel for mothers in the republic of Ingushetia in the North Caucasus.

Framing Jews as an acute threat to locals

Discussions around alleged refugees from Israel in the North Caucasus were increasingly creating a sense of perceived acute danger to the locals. Immediately prior to the riots in Makhachkala, posts in several Telegram channels claimed without any evidence that Jews were filling up hotels and flats and that local Muslims would have to empty their flats to make space. A screenshot of a text spread on Telegram was calling people in the North Caucasus not to rent out flats to Jews and alleged that Jews might want to “seize” the land in region. Telegram posts referred to Jews as “parasites”, “Najis” (a term from Islamic law meaning “unclean” or “filthy”) and claimed that they are “capable of vilest crimes”. These posts and comments were portraying Jews as a threat and thus promoting outgroup dehumanisation.

The same channels targeting predominantly Muslim population of the North Caucasus were at the same time actively posting about the Israel-Hamas war. In this context, they took pro-Palestine positions and portrayed Jews in a generalised way as a threat to Muslims, referring to them as “children killers” and “terrorists”.

Mobilisation for offline violence

Immediately before the riots at the airports in Makhachkala, several other offline antisemitic incidents happened across the North Caucasus. On October 28, a crowd gathered in front of a hotel in the Dagestan town of Khasavyurt to protest against alleged arrival of “refugees from Israel”. On the same day, participants of a rally in Cherkessk, the capital of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, demanded from local authorities to prohibit alleged refugees from Israel to enter the region. On October 29, the building site of the Jewish cultural centre in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, was set on fire.

These incidents were fuelled by antisemitic misinformation spread on Telegram. Mobilisation in Khasavyurt had been stoked up by a video claiming to show a Jewish person near the targeted hotel. When the mob did not find any Jewish persons in the hotel in Khasavyurt, several Telegram channels falsely claimed they had escaped through the back entrance, thus indirectly encouraging the readers to continue their search for Jews in Dagestan.

On October 28, the day before the riots in the airport of Makhachkala, dozens of Telegram channels shared a screenshot from an online flight booking service claiming that flights from Tel Aviv to Makhachkala are fully booked and refugees from Israel are coming to Dagestan.

Post in a Telegram channel claiming that flights from Tel Aviv to Makhachkala are fully booked. Translation: “Tickets for the next few days of the flight from Tel Aviv to Makhachkala are sold out. That’s it.. now be prepared to fight off these parasites. In no case you should accept them, you should not rent accommodation to them and you should not sell property to them. Get them away from your homes and land. Do not help them at all. By God, there is no pity for them, and these Najis do not deserve any leniency. It will be a shame if they are accepted in the Caucasus and if we turn a blind eye to what they have been doing to our brothers and sisters in Palestine for the last 50 years.”

The spread of the screenshots was followed by an explicit call for gathering in the airport of Makhachkala at the time of the arrival of a flight from Tel Aviv and demanding the plane to turn around.

Figure 4. Telegram post mobilising people to gather in the airport at the time of arrival of a flight from Tel Aviv. Translation “Attention! Let’s meet the uninvited “guests”! We have to be at the airport by 19:00 today! We need to gather as many people as possible at the airport by 19:00 and let the plane with this Najis turn around and go wherever!!!! MAXIMUM REPOST!!! This is a direct flight!!! Let’s give a proper welcome!!!!”

Blaming Ukraine for the riots

After the riots, Russian authorities claimed without any evidence that the attack on the airport of Makhachkala was a result of a “provocation” from Ukraine. State media outlets and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels were focussing on one of the Telegram channels that was spreading antisemitic messages, misinformation and the call the gather in the airport prior to the riots. This channel, called “Utro Dagestan” (“Morning Dagestan”), was suspended by Telegram after the riots. State media outlet RT claimed that the channel “Utro Dagestan” was allegedly “Ukraine-linked” and supported by the former Russian MP Ilya Ponomaryov who currently lives in Ukraine. Ponomaryov, who talked about links to the channel in the past, denies any current ties.

It is difficult to comprehensively assess the process of mobilisation for offline violence without conducting on the ground research and interviews as well assessing non-public communication channels such as WhatsApp groups that are particularly popular in Dagestan. However, an evaluation of publicly available evidence shows that antisemitic messages and misinformation had been spread by at least dozens of unrelated channels and accounts on Telegram and Instagram in the weeks between the October 7 attacks and the riots in Dagestan. There were no clear evidence of activity by state-affiliated or potentially state-directed accounts. This makes the Kremlin’s claim that the riots were a coordinated provocation orchestrated by a foreign actor implausible.