In Moldova, a disinformation campaign seeks to discredit Ukrainian refugees

In Moldova, a disinformation campaign seeks to discredit Ukrainian refugees

In Moldova

On TikTok, a twenty-second video shows two men wrestling inside what looks like a shop selling computers and iPhone cases. "Glory to Ukraine!" Shouts one of them, apparently drunk, demanding that the other man also repeat the sentence. The two stagger around. The video was posted on Facebook on March 4, with the caption "This is how Ukrainian migrants behave in Moldova".

The authenticity of TikTok videos that are spreading rapidly on Facebook is not in doubt , though it's unclear where the two men in the center were from the clip, since a sign that might suggest the store's location is hidden by the "Share this video" message. The way in which videos like this are amplified on different platforms, however, indicates the existence of a coordinated campaign, explains Valeriu Pașa, president and director of, a Moldovan think tank that deals with online disinformation and influence campaigns. . Pașa shared a hundred examples of posts on Facebook, mostly videos, which he calls "manipulated content on the war in Ukraine" (of which, as of April 7, twenty-eight were removed from Facebook). Of the seventy-two links still visible on the platform, twenty were videos reposted by TikTok.

The false surrender of the Ukrainian soldiers on Facebook It was a fake news manipulated by groups close to Belarus. Meta in its latest quarterly security report reported an increase in war-related disinformation campaigns in Ukraine on its platforms Since the war began, Moldova - a small nation squeezed between Ukraine and Romania that was part of the Union Soviet - is the subject of what researchers describe as an "explosion" of disinformation. In a kind of smear campaign against Ukrainian refugees, researchers say, authentic videos conveying anti-refugee messages are artificially amplified on both Facebook and TikTok. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 400,000 have arrived in Moldova from Ukraine. Of these, about 100 thousand remained in the country, making Moldova the European nation that currently has the largest number of refugees per capita.

In Moldova, however, people tell of a very different reality from that promoted by this campaign of online manipulation. Iulian Groza, executive director of the think tank Institute for European Policies and Reforms, explains that major efforts are underway in the country to facilitate access to food and shelter for Ukrainian refugees. "The goal of these disinformation activities is to undermine this sense of unity and solidarity and create tensions," he says.

A coordinated campaign The country has become the target of what Moldovan President Maia Sandu calls an "attempt" concerted and organized to divide society on the refugee issue ". On April 7 Meta, the company that controls Facebook, released a report in which it claims to have identified actors linked to the governments of Russia and Belarus engaged in cyber espionage and undercover online manipulation campaigns. Although the report does not explicitly mention Moldova, experts fear that similar campaigns are underway in the country, in an attempt to destabilize one of Europe's poorest nations in view of a possible invasion.

"Russia is trying to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence - explains Peter Stano, spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy at the European Commission, who runs a site dedicated to debunking propaganda messages in favor of the Russian government -. They use disinformation to create confusion in the public sphere and, of course, to promote the country's identity, narratives and model of governance in order to erode support for the European leadership undertaken in Moldova ".

The video of the two men in the store were shared 41,000 times on Facebook, before being removed from the platform on April 7, following a report from UK. The TikTok account that originally posted it was blocked on April 6. Pașa says that for Moldova, a country of just 2.6 million inhabitants, it is unusual for posts to be shared more than 10,000 times. estimates that of the 2.1 million adults living in the government-controlled Moldovan territory, only 1.4 million use Facebook regularly, and 315,000 TikToks.

WiredLeaks, how to send us an anonymous report "I would say that Moldova is in the midst of an information war, "says Vadim Pistrinciuc, executive director of the think tank Institute for Strategic Initiatives, which is based in the country's capital, Chișinău.

Main business of those responsible of this campaign is the search for authentic content, says Pașa. Once identified, generally on TikTok, a piece of content is uploaded to Facebook, where fake profiles spread the video on the platform, he adds.

"[They use tens of thousands of fake profiles and share the contents all within groups or simply on the timelines of these fake accounts ", continues Pașa. In addition to making videos more visible on Facebook, this technique also tricks TikTok's algorithm, leading the platform to circulate it more. "By doing this they artificially make this content, which is usually videos, go viral," adds Pașa.

Meta declined to provide an attributable statement to a company spokesperson in time for this article to be published. "We are evaluating the situation for potential violations of our community guidelines, which prohibit inauthentic conduct," says TikTok spokesperson Sara Mosavi instead.

TikTok user @ hozyayka1997 on March 4, a young woman who appears to be a Ukrainian refugee has posted a new video. Looking straight into the camera, the woman launches into a series of complaints about the treatment of Ukrainian refugees in Germany. She speaks Russian, and her face is framed by a black fur hood. At one point in the video, which lasts a minute, she turns the camera to show where she is sitting: a dirty white curtain strewn with long benches. You say that the German authorities have left the Ukrainians to wait for hours in the cold, without food or water: “Are we people or livestock? ”She asks.

The video, which has been viewed 650,000 times on TikTok, was reposted to Facebook by an account that posts a huge amount of pro-Russian content and has 3,700 friends. Among the comments on Facebook, which criticize the fact that the woman is wearing makeup and a fur coat, one user writes: "Look at the profile of the person who posted the video, it is a provocation".

In another video on TikTok, a woman who claims to come from southern Moldova says that refugees demand "luxuries": they do not like their accommodation or food, which they "throw on the ground", says the woman before intimating migrants to return to their country if they don't appreciate Moldova.

When the video was reposted on Facebook on March 10, a Moldovan flag was hiding the name of the TikTok user who first released it. Before being removed from Facebook on April 7, it was shared 15,000 times.

TikTok and Facebook aren't the only platforms where disinformation is spreading. Pistrinciuc indicates a Telegram channel called Major and General, with 439,000 subscribers. "They post every five minutes: it's clear they have a team behind them," she explains. On April 6 the channel posted 51 times. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

Russian aims in Moldova A country the size of Moldova might seem like an outrageous target for a disinformation campaign. It is one of the poorest nations in Europe, it has no access to the sea and therefore not even strategic ports or trade routes. But according to experts, if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to go deeper into Europe, this small strip of land would presumably be his next target. Like Ukraine, Moldova also has a separatist region within its territory, Transnistria, where approximately 1500 Russian soldiers are stationed.

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Arrow "It seems that the Russians are preparing the ground politically to take power in Moldova - explains Michael Clarke, former director general of the Royal United Services Institute , a defense study center - They are conducting the same kind of [disinformation] campaigns in Moldova that they have carried out in Donbass, south-east Ukraine, since 2014. " >
However, Clarke believes that an imminent invasion of Moldova is less likely now that the war is dragging on and Russian troops turn their attention to the east of Ukraine: "I personally don't think they will succeed at the moment [ to take power in Moldova, ed.], but I think it was part of the initial project ".

The feeling is that the fate of Moldova depends on the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, about fifty kilometers from Transnistria. "If [the Russians, ed.] Had managed to conquer Odessa with relative ease, as they expected, they could have continued on to Moldova, or their troops in Moldova could have moved east to join Odessa's," Clarke explains, adding that these two scenarios seemed plausible until two or three weeks ago - taking Odessa now does not seem to be a priority for the Russians. destabilizing Moldova.

The strategies to instigate the citizens of Moldova against Ukrainian refugees, however, have not worked. Since the beginning of the conflict, many Moldovans have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes. International donors are sending money into the country to help manage integration efforts. Finally, the Moldovan government is trying to regulate more effectively the phenomenon of disinformation on online platforms, and on April 6 it proposed a new law on the matter.

People, however, do not expect new rules to solve the problem of disinformation in the country: "Just think of the Moldovan government: it does not have the necessary influence to exert pressure or impose rules on the platforms - explains Pașa -. Let's face it: this should be a joint action by the big countries" .

This article originally appeared on UK.

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