24.10.23 Propaganda Review

Global Rumour Mill: Pro-Russian narratives in Central and Eastern Europe focus on Ukrainian ‘Nazism’ and the demonisation of Zelensky

In early autumn, against the backdrop of elections in Bavaria, Slovakia, and Poland, there was a surge in the spread of pro-Russian disinformation narratives across European media. A peculiar fake story gained widespread circulation, claiming that the war in Ukraine was almost over, with the Ukrainian army suffering a concealed defeat. Western policymakers and mainstream media, it was alleged, were hiding this information in order to continue collecting aid for Ukraine. The central themes within such narratives revolved around the notions of Nazism/nationalism in Ukraine, the ineffectiveness of Ukrainian authorities, and the demonisation of Zelensky. His image as a 'heroic defender against authoritarian aggression against national sovereignty' was being transformed into that of a 'covert agent of the secret global cabal'.

The rise of social media has significantly transformed the global information landscape. While, in its early stages, it helped to undermine censorship and official propaganda in authoritarian regimes, it has since become a tool for the formation of 'information bubbles' and the expansion of populist narratives. Yellow journalism and social networks have become a sort of global rumour mill, particularly among their less-educated consumers, and are perfectly suited for the dissemination of such narratives, which are now actively moderated by authoritarian governments and right-wing politicians.

The VoxCheck project, which continuously monitors pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation in European media, primarily in Central Europe, recorded an overall increase in the volume of such content in September 2023 – 1,283 cases compared to 1,055 in August. The highest amount of disinformation was detected in Polish (254), German (245), and Slovak (220) media. This surge may be related to the wave of elections to national and regional legislatures, particularly in Poland, Bavaria, and Slovakia (with right-wing forces achieving electoral success in the latter two cases).

Although the basic thematic repertoire of these narratives remains largely unchanged, focusing on 'Nazism' in Ukraine, to which the West purportedly turns a blind eye, the manipulative use of Ukraine by the West to attack Russia, the ineffectiveness of Ukrainian authorities, and so on, the emphasis and phrasing change significantly from month to month. For example, Polish media circulated claims that, in 2014, Russia initiated the war due to constant attacks by Ukrainian nationalists against residents of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and that the 'Azov' unit consists of neo-Nazis. These narratives were supplemented by the familiar propaganda trope that the West deliberately placed the ethnically Jewish Zelensky at the helm of Ukraine in order to conceal the true Nazi nature of Ukrainian politics. In Italy, 'Ukrainian Nazism' was also the main topic of anti-Ukrainian propaganda, with the media spreading stories about President Zelensky actively supporting the neo-Nazis of the 'Azov' group, despite his Jewish heritage, and being a secret admirer of Hitler.

The German media spread the allegation that President Yanukovych was overthrown by neo-Nazis who sought to 'eradicate everything Russian'. The actions of Russia were portrayed as assistance to the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine during a civil war. Hungarian media also echoed this narrative, suggesting that in 2014, Russia sought to protect the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine from 'Ukrainian Nazism' and to prevent NATO expansion, which was seen as a direct threat to Russia's security.

In September 2023, the VoxCheck project reported the widespread circulation of a peculiar fake story that the war had actually already ended, with the Russian army claiming victory. Slovak and German media, for instance, cited a claim by the German journalist Seymour Hersh that the Ukrainian offensive had completely failed, and the Russian army had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Moreover, according to these reports, US and British intelligence agencies were conducting a 'secret disinformation operation' to convince the public and Western allies to continue financing the war.

A video clip was circulated on the Czech Internet where Vladimir Zelensky is booed by the public during his visit to Prague Castle. Although later evidence proved that the audio was doctored, surveys have indicated that at least 40% of Czech residents continued to believe in its authenticity.

As in August 2023, pro-Russian propaganda circulating in Poland last month placed great emphasis on the issue of refugees, which was expected to be a source of instability in the run up to the elections. In September, Polish media circulated a fake story that refugees were the cause of a legionella outbreak in the city of Rzeszów, where, according to the tale, a secret American laboratory was located.

'Exclusive' propaganda stories also found their place in Hungary. They focused on the undemocratic and inhumane nature of the Ukrainian government, which was alleged to have forced soldiers to take drugs and have oppressed the Hungarian minority in Ukraine by denying them the right to education in their native language. The election campaign in Slovakia took place against the backdrop of misinformation that Russia's abduction of Ukrainian children was propaganda by the US State Department to syphon money and arms from NATO allies.

Analysis of the dynamics of populist narratives demonstrates that they have recently focused particularly intensely on the topic of Nazism/nationalism in Ukraine, as well as on highlighting the ineffectiveness of Ukrainian authorities and demonising Zelensky. His image as a 'heroic fighter against authoritarian aggression against national sovereignty' is being transformed into that of a 'covert agent of the secret global cabal’.