Fake News About Refugee Aid: What to Watch Out For

Parallel to the development of military actions in Ukraine, the Internet is flooded with a wave of fake news. According to researchers of the phenomenon, the main objectives of spreading disinformation online are the polarization of society and the creation of informational chaos. Manipulating information about aid is also used for this purpose. Dishonest groups also falsify various announcements, taking advantage of the difficult situation of refugees for profit.

Ways of disinformation about aid

Broadly speaking, fake news about aid to the citizens of Ukraine can be divided into the following groups:

  • Profit-driven: Impersonating aid organizations or diplomatic establishments with the intention of obtaining personal information or money fraudulently.
  • Politically motivated: Created by bots, groups, or entities aiming to hinder relief efforts and weaken mutual trust.

In this article, you will find examples of both phenomena as well as tips on how to identify fake news.

How scammers exploit the war in Ukraine

Data phishing

StratCom, the EU team of the European External Action Service, published a report in February 2023 on the threats associated with the manipulation of information about the war in Ukraine. The document highlights, among other things, that techniques of impersonating international and trusted organizations or individuals have become increasingly sophisticated. Scammers impersonate official institutions, banks, and create websites that closely resemble well-established foundations.

Photo: The Facebook portal of the Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of Poland

It is increasingly difficult to defend against data phishing. However, it is not impossible. The most important measures include:

  • Using only official sources of information: Every email, flyer, or online post with an official logo from a trusted institution that encourages clicking on a link or providing personal information should be verified directly from the source.
  • Avoiding sharing sensitive personal data unless we are 100% certain about the recipient’s identity.
  • Not opening suspicious links.
  • Conducting thorough data verification: Scammers often utilize slightly altered website names or email addresses.
  • Refraining from sharing personal information such as passport numbers or bank card numbers over the phone or internet.

Every now and then, announcements appear online about the collection of personal data of Ukrainian citizens. Supposedly, this is to help state institutions organize assistance for refugees. Scammers impersonated institutions such as the Polish Office for Foreigners and the Ukrainian Embassy. Using publicly available logos, they sent emails and distributed leaflets with QR codes. Opening attachments or scanning the code could result in the theft of personal data.

Source: Wprost Ukrainie, Attention, Fraud! Disinformation about the Collection of Personal Data of Ukrainians [accessed: 10.05.2023].

Non-existent privileges

Fake news concerning assistance is primarily targeted at societies that show support for refugees and aims to foster mutual animosity. Disinformation propagated in Polish media, which undermines aid for refugees, primarily seeks to erode trust between Polish society and Ukrainian citizens (and vice versa), create information chaos, and instill a sense of confusion among refugees.

An example is the narrative surrounding the alleged “retirement tourism.” Media outlets disseminated information claiming that the Polish government applies preferential standards for refugees, enabling them to enrich themselves through pensions. As reported by Keyboard Warriors:

The media frenzy was sparked by Olena Dechtiar, an expert from the Center for Women’s Rights, who shared information on her TikTok profile (conducted in the Ukrainian language) about how Ukrainian citizens can easily obtain a pension based on Polish conditions. In the video, Dechtiar misled viewers by stating that Ukrainians would receive a Polish pension regardless of their place of residence. The comments section under the video quickly became heated, filled with anti-Ukrainian hate speech.

Source: Keyboard Warriors, Manipulations about the “pension tourism” of Ukrainian seniors [accessed: 9.05.2023]

Later, this news was replicated by Polish internet users and politicians. A post referring to this information by a member of the Confederation party was viewed by 2 million people.

The report of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Geremek Foundation provides other examples. Published in 2023, the document highlighted narratives in which:

Fot.: Freepik
  • “Citizens of Ukraine are not subject to eviction, even from the homes of individuals who provided them with assistance in Poland.
  • They have faster, preferential access to public housing.
  • They receive higher benefits than Polish citizens.
  • Children from Ukraine have priority in admission to Polish kindergartens and schools.
  • There is a large group of Ukrainian citizens who come to Poland solely for social assistance.”

Source: Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Report They Will Come and Take: Anti-Ukrainian Hate Speech on Polish Twitter, April 2023.

Alleged deportations, conscription, and refusals of aid

One example concerns the alleged repatriation of refugees residing in Poland to their home country. “Ukraine requests Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the deportation of men staying in Poland,” reported a newspaper in June 2022, with a layout mimicking a popular news website. The “news” quickly spread on Twitter and Telegram. Although government officials promptly debunked the information, it had already spread.

Source: CEDMO, False letters disseminate misinformation that Poland is planning to deport Ukrainian men aged 18-60 [accessed: 9.05.2023].

In April 2023, scammers impersonating the Ministry of National Defense encouraged individuals through SMS messages to join the alleged Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Corps. Although the false call was quickly debunked, many people believed the message and unknowingly spread disinformation.

Source: Association Demagog, MoD encourages enlistment via SMS? Fake news! [accessed: 5.05.2023].

The same happened with the “news” that Poland refuses to help secure Ukraine’s cultural heritage from the consequences of war. Such completely untrue information appeared on social media in February and March 2023. Around the same time, false information circulated in the media claiming that obtaining a Polish PESEL number would prevent Ukrainian citizens from leaving Poland. These are just a few examples of distorting facts about aid directed towards refugees.

Source: CEDMO, Polish Ministry of Culture “categorically refused” aid to Ukraine? Ministry denies [accessed: 9.05.2023]; Bieluk and Partners, Law Firm, Stop false information [accessed: 10.05.2023].

How do we know it’s fake: typical mistakes of fake news forgers

Verification is crucial. Disinformation spreads so quickly because we fail to check the content we read or share.

Badania dowodzą, że fake news ma średnio 70 proc. więcej szans na bycie podanym dalej i rozchodzi się nawet sześć razy szybciej niż prawdziwa wiadomość – Piotr Mieczkowski, dyrektor zarządzający Fundacji Digital Poland.

Source: Digital Poland Foundation, Young Poles Helpless in the Face of Disinformation Chaos [accessed: 10.05.2023].

Institutions such as the Central European Digital Media Observatory (CEDMO) and the European External Action Service’s StratCom highlight several typical errors that appear in fake news, including those related to “aid.” These errors can make verification easier. They include:

  • Grammatical and spelling mistakes in the transmitted content.
  • Lack of recipient in supposedly official documents.
  • Lack of author or an author whose identity cannot be confirmed.
  • Unfortunate phrases that may indicate translation from a foreign language.
  • Originating from official Russian sources (as indicated in the StratCom report, Russian embassies in the UK, Australia, Mexico, and South Africa, as well as Russian representations to the OSCE in Vienna and the UN in Geneva, actively participate in disinformation campaigns. Their posts are shared by Russian embassy accounts from other countries, including Poland. Russian Ministry of Defense also spreads fake news).
  • Reliance on images or video materials that strongly impact the emotions of the audience.
  • Numerous shares by accounts that appear to be managed by individuals strongly engaged in one topic.
  • Lack of information sources.
  • Citing “heard” information (from acquaintances).
Photo: Freepik

Source: Konkret24, Kremlin Embassies in the Disinformation Machine [accessed: 10.05.2023].

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