1 December 2022
On 18 May 2022 Russian state and pro-Kremlin media began spreading a grotesque claim: that Ukrainian refugees in Germany had decided to burn a Russian flag with a Tesla coil and set fire to a house belonging to their hosts in the town of Wulfen. Russian media, and Russian and German pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, named the German tabloid BILD as the source for the accusations. However, the video was fake: it was neither produced by BILD, nor depicted what it claimed to, instead being constructed from unrelated older clips.
AFP and Correctiv fact checkers found this earlier footage posted on social media and by established media sources, determining the sources from which the final video was put together. ISD has unearthed evidence that this specific video is linked to a recently exposed pro-Kremlin influence operation impersonating a number of legitimate news sources to gain engagement for its content. One of the earliest shares of this video was from the Telegram channel “Deutsche Wahrheit” (“German truth”), which shared numerous videos falsely attributed to established media outlets targeted in this operation. The channel shared a significant number of other disinformation claims targeting Ukrainian refugees. These are explored further below.
- The channel that first shared the video, Deutsche Wahrheit, is likely to be related to a major pro-Kremlin operation that was impersonating legitimate media and spreading disinformation across various platforms. Indications of this connection include:
- An overlap between the videos shared by the channel and those shared by Facebook profiles connected to the operation.
- Metadata of multiple videos published by Deutsche Wahrheit contained the same or similar project names as the metadata of the videos from the larger campaign.
- The titles of many of the videos published by the channel were in Russian.
- Disinformation against Ukrainian refugees in Germany was a major focus of this channel. Of 219 videos posted by Deutsche Wahrheit, 88 mentioned refugees. The channel posted a total of 105 messages mentioning refugees between 15 April and 11 July 2022.
- The channel systematically spread disinformation against Ukrainian refugees and portrayed them as a threat to public health, security or German families, falsely accusing them of committing crimes, of antisemitism and Nazism. A proportion of posts were specifically directed against women and teenagers from Ukraine. This activity could amount to incitement of hatred, and in some cases, sedition.
The fake BILD video about alleged fire in Wulfen was shared by Russian state and pro-Kremlin media including Sputnik, News Front, RIA FAN, Tsargrad, Pravda.ru, Readovka, Moskva 24, and the tabloids MK and Komsomolskaya Pravda. Most of the media stories were published on 19 May and were not deleted or updated after BILD itself and independent fact-checkers published evidence that the video was fake.
Before the story was published by Russian state media, it was shared by Russian-language Telegram channels, beginning on 18 May. These channels included: Russian state media Ukraina.ru, which has more than 134,000 subscribers, by “Operation Z: War correspondents of the Russian spring” (over a million subscribers), the Russian TV host Ruslan Ostashko (more than 288,000 subscribers), a pro-Kremlin channel posing as a media outlet from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv that was set up on 26 February (the day after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine), and many others.
After the fake BILD video was spread by Russian-language sources, fact checkers from StopFake tracked it down to a YouTube channel, “Nachrichten und Gerüchte” (German for “News and Rumours”). It was created on 14 May 2022, and the fake BILD video was uploaded on the same day. It received 1,391 views and 12 likes, and was later deleted. ISD found that on the same day, 14 May at 12:54 UK time, the video was also shared by a Telegram channel, Deutsche Wahrheit (“German truth”).
At the time of writing, Deutsche Wahrheit had 9,268 subscribers on Telegram and was created on 15 April 2022. The word “Deutsch” was misspelled in the channel handle: “deutchtruth”. The channel was active until 11 July 2022 and posted numerous fake videos made to look like they had been produced by established news outlets. These videos were then posted by other assets associated with the large pro-Kremlin influence operation on other social media platforms. There are numerous indicators that the uploaded videos are related to the same operation, including the content and the metadata. As an example on the content side, on 4 July, the channel posted a fake BILD video claiming that the German authorities are going to raise prices for vodka to inflict damage on Russia; and will also legalise drugs, so that Germans will take drugs instead of drinking Russian vodka. The same video was also shared by inauthentic Facebook accounts as a part of the pro-Kremlin campaign.
The metadata of the video uploaded by the Telegram channel showed Russian file and folder names, similar to other videos used in this campaign. The file name was in Russian: “2006OKBGB_Немцам_хотят_разрешить_принимать_наркотики.mp4” (“German authorities want to legalise taking drugs”). Names of the clips that were spliced together to make the video contained several Russian titles such as “Внешняя политика. Новые санкции против РФ. Обращение Зеленского.mp4” (“Foreign policy. New sanctions against Russia. Zelensky’s speech”) and “Премиальная водка Uly Dala из Казахстана..mp4” (“Premium vodka Uly Dala from Kazakhstan”). The project name “МСК Ф-Коротыши.prproj” (“MSK F-Shorties”) and the folder name “ЧЕРНУХА_СТРАННАЯ” (“CHERNUKHA_WEIRD”) were the same as those listed in the metadata of another video previously analysed by ISD. The metadata of several other videos published by Deutsche Wahrheit contained the same folder and project names, had Russian titles or were made from clips with Russian titles.
The design and the metadata of the fake BILD video about the fire in Wulfen differ from that of other fake BILD videos published by Deutsche Wahrheit, so there is a chance that this video was produced by a different actor, or that actors producing fake videos for the pro-Kremlin campaign were experimenting with different video formats. Regardless, the video accusing refugees of burning a house fits in with the broader effort by Deutsche Wahrheit to discredit Ukrainian refugees. While it is impossible to prove with certainty that the Wulfen video was produced by the same actors as other fake videos, it was distributed very early on by a related actor.
Other content posted by the Deutsche Wahrheit channel primarily focused on Ukrainian refugees and the negative effects of sanctions against Russia and Western arms supplies to Ukraine on Germany. The channel posted 105 messages about refugees, all of them portraying Ukrainians in a drastically negative light or making severe and absurd false accusations against them.
Of 219 videos posted by the channel, 88 mentioned Ukrainian refugees. While the text posts, memes, and videos did not openly call for violence against Ukrainians, they repeatedly depicted Ukrainians as a threat to Germany and other host countries. The posts and videos contained numerous false and unproven claims and appealed to emotions such as fear, anger, and disgust, and frequently contained graphic depictions of blood, sickness, and violence.
This content targeted Ukrainians as a group, though in some cases aimed specifically at women and teenagers. The channel leveraged common anti-migration tropes, such as accusing refugees of spreading disease and committing crimes; they also included more specific claims about Ukrainian refugees common in Russian state media, such as portraying them as Nazis.
Portraying refugees as a threat to public health
Several posts by Deutsche Wahrheit portrayed Ukrainian refugees as a threat to public health, accusing them of spreading infectious diseases. One video utilised the long-standing Russian disinformation narrative about an alleged US bioweapons programme in Ukraine spawning viruses, in this case claiming that the monkeypox virus was developed in “biolabs in Ukraine” and that refugees had brought it to Europe. Other posts, including a fake BILD video, accused Ukrainian refugees of spreading diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, without supplying evidence. The fake BILD video further claimed that “tolerant Europeans are not educated about the threat of infection coming from Ukrainian refugees.”
Portraying refugees as a threat to public security
Refugee-related content posted by Deutsche Warheit commonly accused Ukrainian refugees of committing crimes. Some allegations were generalised, such as claiming that Ukrainian refugees are bringing drugs to Europe and selling them via Telegram, or that they are stealing from supermarkets and hiding the goods under their clothes. In the latter case the metadata from the video contained Russian-language names of the clips that constituted the video, and appear to be depictions of people allegedly stealing from shops in Russia. These include titles such as “Екатеринбурженка украла колбасу, спрятав её под платье.mp4” (“A woman from Yekaterinburg stole sausage by hiding it under her dress”), and “В Сочи девушка украла термос, спрятав его под платьем.mp4” (“A woman from Sochi stole a thermos hiding it under her dress”). There is no evidence that this footage depicts or relates to Ukrainians in Germany.
Other posts made accusations of fictitious plots, such as a video misusing the Deutsche Welle (DW) logo claiming that a group of Ukrainian refugees were planning a “terrorist act” against Russian journalists and their families in Berlin. The video claimed that the attack had been planned in a public space and would have killed and injured hundreds of people, but was prevented by German authorities. These claims appear to be completely fictitious; no plots of this kind have been reported by the authorities in Berlin.
An overarching narrative used in content accusing Ukrainians of crimes was that these crimes resulted in no arrests, or that the alleged Ukrainian perpetrators were quickly released. This was, it was claimed, because the police are being prevented from investigating and arresting Ukrainian perpetrators. These claims were made in a fake BILD video accusing Ukrainian men of raping women in refugee shelters, and a video claiming that Ukrainians caused a fire in a kindergarten in Nuremberg. In fact, the police in Nuremberg announced in May 2022 that the fire had not been caused by arson and that they were investigating an incident of suspected incitement to hatred in relation to the video.
Accusing refugees of antisemitism and Nazism
Several posts built upon primary themes of Russian state propaganda accusing Ukrainians of Nazism and claiming that Nazis are now infiltrating Europe disguised as refugees. One of the posts raised a particularly incongruous claim that a Ukrainian refugee in Neapol attacked a Jewish couple and demanded money from them as a “Jewish levy”. No such incident has been reported. Another post featured a fake DW video depicting a man with a swastika tattoo on his back, claiming him to be a Ukrainian refugee who is a “far-right ideologist”. A reverse image search showed, however, that the footage of the man with a tattoo was shared in 2016 by Belarusian police and media, and show a Belarusian citizen who was arrested upon his return from Ukraine.
Portraying Ukrainian women and teenagers as a threat to German families
Deutsche Wahrheit repeatedly targeted women from Ukraine, portraying them in a sexualised manner or claiming that they are seducing German men for money. A fake DW video published by the channel claimed that the divorce rate in Germany had increased because Ukrainian women are destroying German marriages. Another fake DW video claimed that women who fled from Ukraine are working as strippers in the US and Germany, and accused them of a tendency towards theft.
Several posts portrayed Ukrainian children as a threat to their German counterparts. One video claimed that Ukrainian children are aggressive because they are mistreated by their parents. Another claimed that the suicide rate for teenagers in Germany has increased, because they are abused by Ukrainian teenagers while playing video games. A fake Zeit video falsely claimed that Ukrainians teenagers had raped a 12 year-old girl in Rostock.
Numerous posts portrayed Ukrainians as uncivilised and ungrateful to their German hosts, and accused them of abusing the social system or being “Russophobic”. Several posts portrayed refugees as a threat to the financial wellbeing of Germans by asking: “Are you ready to give all your possessions to the refugees?” or “Are you ready to give a half of your loan to refugees”? Some of the videos were posted not only on Telegram, but also on the associated Instagram account for “Deutsche Wahrheit”, which had 9,632 followers. The account was still active as of 2 October, despite Meta removing the assets related to the Russian operation in late September.
Taken as a whole, it is possible that the content published by this one channel amounts to incitement to hatred and possibly sedition under German law. The videos and posts systematically portray Ukrainians as a threat to German public order and health. Moreover, they make false accusations that Ukrainian refugees are dangerous, engaging in crimes including rape and the planning of acts of terrorism.