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“Russia Germans” as targets of Russian propaganda

Updated: Oct 28, 2023


Having settled in the Russian empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, ethnic Germans were exiled to Central Asia amid World War II. Stalin ordered to put them on cargo trains and bring them to the virgin lands to labour away in the depth of the country. Subsequently, as the USSR dissolved, ethnic Germans were invited to resettle back in the historical motherland. Having faced integration issues, ethnic Germans (often referring to themselves as Russaki) maintained cultural and ideological ties with Russia. Now, amid Russia's global disinformation strategy and influence operations, the so-called Russlanddeutsche “Russia Germans” (sometimes called Russian Germans) are targeted by propaganda.

The impact of influence operations became evident amid the "European refugee crisis" when anti-refugee sentiments reached a tipping point. A "Russia German" girl named Lisa claimed to have been abducted and raped by refugees. Russia used the story to undermine the credibility of the German establishment, stressing that the welcome culture was threatening the security of German citizens. Russia's infamous foreign minister Lavrov even referred to the girl as "our Lisa". While the story turned out to be made up, the "Lisa case" sparked outrage and protests across Germany. Arguably, these sorts of events and anti-refugee/anti-EU narratives led to the popularity of the far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany). Russia Germans tend to be prominent supporters of the party.

Photo: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert—dpa/AFP/Getty Images

Amid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, anti-Ukraine, anti-EU and pro-Russian narratives have flooded both state propaganda outlets and social media. This is especially evident in the thematic social media groups designed for Russophones in Germany. The groups are attractive for practical matters as one can advertise their products and services or inquire about practical questions such as quality schools, visas for relatives, etc., etc. At the same time, the feeds in the groups are flooded with political content. In this regard, group admins turn into queens and kings of their mini-kingdoms where they set the agenda and moderate the discussions. If someone dares challenge the agenda, they are at best removed from the group, losing access to thousands of community members. In severe cases, those who challenge the admin are publically shamed in the group, with respective screenshots and personal information shared.

Russia's alternative to the 'global giants'

Odnoklassniki and VKontakte are poorly regulated and resemble anarchy on the one hand (when it comes to access to unmoderated hate speech, pirated movies/music, pornographic content, etc.), and an authoritarian police state on the other, as Russian security forces closely monitor the domestic platforms for ani-government content.

Odnoklassniki is owned by VKontakte and is a popular platform among Russia Germans. This can be explained by two factors – time and affordances. Time-wise, Odnoklassniki was established in 2006, when those who were repatriated to their historical motherland in the 1990s became nostalgic and embraced the network to find their friends. Amid the scarcity of social media platforms at the time, Odnoklassniki was opted for due to its simple interface in Russian as well as convenient tools for streaming, chatting and event transferring money. Throughout the years, due to the number of people already present on the platform, especially among the older generation, Odnoklassniki became a “go-to” space for finding former neighbours and childhood friends.

Thematic groups for Russia Germans on Odnoklassniki serve as spaces for spreading anti-EU, anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian narratives. Amid Western sanctions and information security strategies, neglecting to address the online domain as a platform for influence operations is an omission.

What is communicated to group members on Odnoklassniki?

Content shared in the selected group tends to demonize Ukrainians, ridicule Volodymyr Zelenskyy and criticize Germany’s political leadership.

Dehumanizing/demonizing Ukrainians

Several posts feature confession-style content where allegedly random and apolitical users share their stories of having been attacked by Ukrainians; the latter are framed as violent and aggressive “Russophobes”. One such video features a Russian female who claims to be living in Sweden. The video is taken as a close-up ‘selfie’ outdoors, which does not demonstrate any recognisable objects that could indicate the author’s precise location. At the same time, claiming to be physically in Sweden, the author emphasises that Europe is becoming unsafe because of refugees, who behave violently even in such a peaceful country as Sweden. The author explains that it is no longer possible to be silent. She was talking on the phone with her father in Russian when suddenly Ukrainian Russophobes attacked her for this deed.

Another example of a post that demonizes Ukrainian refugees demonstrates a trashed apartment of a “shocked European female” who let them in. Refugees are accused of being not only ungrateful but also violent and dangerous. More posts emphasize the high costs that Germany pays per Ukrainian refugee family, tossing in such numbers as 3,600 euros for rent alone. Moreover, with notes of sarcasm, some posts state that the longer Ukrainian refugees are in Europe, the more Europeans are ready to wish Russia success in denazification of the country. The essence of the post is to dehumanize Ukrainians and stress that once Europeans get to know them in person, they are likely to see who they are dealing with. Once again, stressing the dangerous nature of Ukrainian refugees.

Discrediting Volodymyr Zelenskyy

The Ukrainian president is essentially framed as a nazi, a drug user, a homosexual and a puppet of the West. Ignoring his Jewish ancestry, posts featuring Zelenskyy compare him to Hitler, all while making such statements as “we will fight to the last Ukrainian”. The vast majority of the posts are memes, some of which feature short poems where Zelenskyy is ridiculed as a loser who has no money, no army and now no territory. Several posts accuse him of drug abuse and claim that he is having “marijuana withdrawals”.

The theme of homosexuality is omnipresent and intertwined with all other themes. This theme is presented both through the angle of nostalgia for the morally superior past and the perceived promiscuity of the collective West. Zelenskyy is often portrayed with rainbow flags in the background. Some posts feature him hugging and kissing other male political leaders, while he stands still with no physical contact next to a female leader, stressing that he prefers to touch men and not women.

Posts continuously stress that Zelenskyy is nothing but the puppet of the West. One example is an image of Zelenskyy surrounded by Western political leaders and the caption states “puppy exhibition was a success story”, stressing that Zelenskyy is not a mature politician and that there is a power disbalance between him and Western leaders who "really rule over Ukraine".

Discrediting the German leaders

The so-called collective West, the German political establishment in general and Chancellor Olaf Scholz in particular are criticised for their incompetence in handling the conflict and spoiling the relations with Russia. The common “mismanagement” points concern energy security and inflation. Some posts feature memes of Scholz looking for Russian gas in the empty pipes; these posts warn that Germany might close schools due to the inability to heat the buildings. Moreover, the German leadership is accused of wasting money on refugees and causing inflation by default of adopting sanctions against Russia. The work of the government is described as “a complete failure”. Several posts call for Scholz’s immediate resignation.

What does this all mean?

Findings demonstrate that there is an active influence operation taking place in the thematic Odnoklassniki group designed for Russophones living in Germany. The shared content systematically undermines Germany’s national, EU-level and international policies. Given the inflow of Ukrainian refugees into the EU generally and Germany in particular, the demonization of Ukrainians in this thematic group is alarming.

It is worth noting that posts from other publics penetrate the discussion. Some of these groups are openly racist, but due to the moderation anarchy on Odnoklassniki, they can actively generate content and reach audiences in Europe.

Policy recommendations

- Banning RT and Sputnik from broadcasting in Europe will have a minimal effect if news-sharing in the digital domain is not properly addressed.

- Russia’s state propaganda must be countered with a comprehensive media campaign targeting audiences inside and beyond the country.

- Counternarratives must be created in a variety of languages (including Russian) and disseminated across Europe.

- Counternarrative strategies must penetrate a variety of social media platforms, including VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Telegram, and YouTube (while YouTube is still accessible in Russia).

- Thematic publics must be closely monitored and carefully moderated to prevent fake, destructive, hostile and disinforming content from reaching the audiences. Admis and individual users of such groups on EU soil must be kept accountable for their online activities.

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Daimerian Mir Ahmad
Daimerian Mir Ahmad
Oct 20, 2023

A very compelling piece indeed. It was interesting and appealing to me in the following ways:

  1. The contradictory character of these pro-Russian groups. While they demonize Ukrainians for being Nazi, they ,at the same time, depict and incite anti-migrant and racist hatred in Europe. What a disgrace! What an embarrassment. I didn't know that Russian Germans are allies of far-right in Germany.

  2. The method and the use of terms are fantastic. They convey the message in the clearest way. After all, one can learn not about the subject but also the relevant terminology to apply in social media research elsewhere, particularly examining themes such as propaganda, hate speech, and populism.

  3. My only critique to the piece is that recommending restrictions…

Oct 20, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much for reading and for your feedback and reactions, Mir Ahmad. Point #3 is the most puzzling. One needs to fight propaganda without turning into a propagandist. Sometimes one can be oblivious to how they turn into eveyrhting they fight against while fighting against it. A fine line. I am open for discussion.

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