On October 10, the head of the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII) Didier Leschi announced that around 10,000 Ukrainian refugees had left the French territory by the end of September 2022.
This is the first estimation of this departure movement, almost eight months after the start of the war in Ukraine. This figure has been reported in many national media outlets as the first significant wave of refugees from Ukraine returning to their country since the beginning of the war. The big titles have been accompanied by a great number of publications on social media, especially on Facebook and Twitter, targeting Ukrainian refugees and promoting anti-Ukraine narratives at the same time. These numerous posts appear as a resurgence of an online anti-Ukraine movement, often considered as part of a Russian-orchestrated influence operation, that has variated since February 2022.
1. General Overview
The war in Ukraine is an amplifier and catalyst for influence operations by both the Russians and Ukrainians.
Russia has both strategic and tactical influence objectives, at the international and domestic levels. Each purpose is divided by the target audience it desires to reach, generally promoting dedicated narratives, aligned with their accuracy at the time of dissemination.
– Limit the expansion and influence of NATO
– Facilitate the access of pro-Russian political sympathizers to power
– Stir popular hatred against Ukraine (and Ukrainians)
– Divide the Western coalition and the public opinion to foster polarization in society
– Trigger popular dissatisfaction and political shifts
In the framework of our monitoring activities of Russian influence operations, we have been identifying Russian-led campaigns attacking Ukraine and advancing Russian interests in France.
– Undermining and dividing the French political scene, and de facto polarizing public opinion within member countries of the Western coalition by reducing public support for pro-Ukrainian government policies
– Promoting negative narratives related to refugees together with existing local narratives, amplified by a network of unattributed inauthentic social media assets
– Exploiting already existing political and social divisions
2. Targeting the French audience
Several influence narratives were observed across Russian influence networks targeting the French masses:
– Narratives on the French support to Ukraine (ex: France is racist, and the help given to refugees is greater for white asylum seekers)
– Narratives on Western media (ex: French media is not free, practicing Russophobia, controlled by the State, impartial, influenced by the Ukrainian propaganda, show only one side)
– Narratives on Ukrainian combatants (ex: Azov battalion is Nazi and committing war crimes in Ukraine; ultra-nationalist Azov is representative of Ukraine)
Through the research on how pro-Russia narratives were disseminated in France, a clear modus operandi can be identified — In some cases, the order of the steps may change.
3. A case study: Ukrainian refugees in France
Since the beginning of the war, narratives against Ukrainian refugees emerged, intensified, and translated into physical action.
Viral narratives targeting the Ukrainian refugees (ex: France is a racist state) joined other narratives promoted by two main politicized groups, both very critical of President Macron’s policy and the current government’s decisions:
– Radical right militants: individuals who identify with Eric Zemmour and/or Marine Le Pen’s discourses, sensitive to the anti-vaccine narratives, conspiracies, corruption of the political class and the media, and historically more favorable of supporting Russia
– Radical left militants: individuals who identify with anti-racist movements, anti-liberalism, very critical of Macron’s social policy
Many accounts both on Twitter and Facebook promoted narratives against Ukrainian refugees in France and condemned French policies related to the War in Ukraine.
They spread narratives depicting Ukrainian refugees as “neo-Nazis”, violent with locals, privileged compared to refugees originating from other countries, etc. The content shared by these profiles is often aggressive, if not directly calling for action against the refugees.
The eco-system of profiles is diverse: from politicized individuals (radical left or radical right local militants, most of them very critical of Macron’s policies) to unattributed accounts (pro-Russian assets, avatars, or bots, taking part in the Russian influence operations in Western countries, in French and English languages).
For example, a Twitter account (@spriteer_774400) that depicted itself as a news outlet covering the Donbas region which opened in May 2022, was likely to be a sock puppet, an additional digital asset used in the framework of Russian disinformation. The account was unattributed and was having inauthentic behaviors (massively publishing, suspicious interactions showing probable purchase of likes, etc.).
The account’s post on the protest for “equal rights for refugees” was retweeted by several unattributed accounts in multiple languages — including bots — and most of them are supporting pro-Russia narratives.
The account published anti-Ukrainian content, pro-Russian content, and content stirring chaos — from diverse pro-Russia sources including news agencies such as Ria Novosti. It was later restricted by Twitter.
In the end, the amplification of the narratives’ coverage operated by unattributed pro-Russia accounts has been successful over time: the topic was reported in the national press, and politicians were invited to comment on the phenomenon.
The analyzed modus operandi is not limited to the case presented and can be observed on many occasions. It belongs to all information actors to alert the public and sensitize it to these manipulation techniques in order to minimize the impact of these operations.