Rape, paedophilia, incest, and sodomy – Russian media have targeted France and Germany for years with hundreds of fake or distorted stories, many of which were designed to incite sexual revulsion toward asylum seekers and the politicians who gave them shelter.
Conspiracy theories about false-flag terrorist attacks and about Nazism have also featured in Moscow’s propaganda campaign as France and Germany head for elections.
News of Lisa, a 13-year old girl of Russian origin in Germany who was said, last year, to have been raped by migrants, is the best known of its type.
Lisa left home for a few days and told her family that she had been kidnapped and raped by Arabic men. German police said it was not true and she later confessed to having made it up.
But it was reported as fact by every big Russian news agency and personally endorsed by the Russian foreign minister.
It was also circulated, for months, by pro-Russian local language websites all over Europe, for instance in Czech, English, Hungarian, and Slovak, and spread wider still by Russian trolls and bots on social media.
A Russian TV station, Pervyi Kanal, on 17 January last year, even aired a fake interview on YouTube with Lisa’s aunt and uncle.
Part of the Russian line was that German authorities had hushed it up, which meant that official denials reinforced the message and the story stayed alive after it had been debunked.
The Lisa affair was designed to harm German chancellor Angela Merkel, an advocate of EU sanctions on Russia, by indicating that her policy of welcoming refugees had put Germans in peril.
It was also designed to sow ethnic hatred in German society and was accompanied by street protests organised by Russian expat groups.
The story exposed Russia’s modus operandi – how media giants such as RT and Sputnik worked hand-in-glove with fringe websites and with bloggers, trolls, and bots to propagate disinformation. It showed how publications in one EU language end up being translated and cross-posted into other ones.
It was also just one of dozens that used sexual taboos to manipulate people’s feelings.
EUobserver studied the 2,951 examples of Russian fake news collected and published by East Stratcom, a counter-propaganda cell in the EU foreign service, since October 2015.
The bulk of the material was designed to legitimise Russian foreign policy, such as its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine or its military intervention in Syria.
It was also designed to legitimise Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s increasingly totalitarian rule at home by claiming that the West and Nato were trying to encircle Russia, but the Lisa story was just the beginning of a long stream.
Out of 189 stories identified by East Stratcom as having directly targeted France and Germany, 28 of them (15 percent) were based on sexual slurs against migrants or LGBTI people in those countries.
Dozens more used sexual content that targeted other EU states, especially in the Nordic region, to paint a misleading picture of a Europe-wide emergency caused by Merkel, as well as by French president Francois Hollande and by EU institutions.
East Stratcom relies on journalists and NGOs around Europe to send alerts on Russian fake news.
The real number of fake stories on France and Germany was far higher than 200, but the EU cell has more correspondents in former Soviet states and in central and eastern European countries than it does in the west and in the north of Europe, creating blind spots in its research.
A European diplomat, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver that sex was deliberately used as a propaganda weapon.
“Sex sticks to memory,” the diplomat said.
“It creates a lot of emotions and when your objective isn’t to inform people, but to divide them, destabilise them, make them more fragmented, more afraid, more angry, this is precisely the kind of message you’re looking for,” he said.
Jakub Janda, a Czech expert at the European Values think tank in Prague who works with East Stratcom, added: “Sex is used because it’s emotionally mobilising and supports the narrative that Western/German mainstream political leadership is soft or unable or unwilling to defend our own people”.
The Lisa story came out in conjunction with distorted reports about sexual assaults by Arabs against German women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2016.
Assaults did take place, but Russian media falsely claimed that Merkel refused to condemn them and that German police did not intervene out of political correctness.
In June last year, Russian TV reported that a migrant had pushed a young German woman under a train. The attack was real, but the attacker was not a migrant.
In September, Russian media claimed, without giving any evidence, that women in many German cities were afraid to go out at night for fear of being raped by migrants.
They also claimed, without evidence, that German courts were “inundated” by migrant sex crimes and that German police could not keep up with migrant crime statistics.
In February of this year, Russian bloggers circulated false reports that migrants had sexually assaulted women on New Year’s Eve in Frankfurt.
The dirty tricks were similar in France.
In May last year, Russia’s flagship TV show, Vesti nedeli, quoted Raphaelle Tourne, a French woman, as saying that migrants had verbally abused her and that she was scared to go out in her own neighbourhood, but the quotes were made up.
In November last year, a Czech pro-Russian blogger planted a fake story that the French government had agreed with Islamic radicals to create zones governed by Islamic “sharia” laws, which oppressed women, in parts of France.
Turning the rape motif on its head, Russian media in February this year falsely reported that a German soldier in a Nato unit in Lithuania had raped a local girl.
Varying the motif again, a pro-Russian Facebook account in February said migrants had attacked a Catholic priest in Avignon, France, even though the assault in question had taken place four years ago.
Russian sources also replicated migrant sex stories in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway, and Sweden.
They reported that migrants had raped schoolgirls in Finland without giving any evidence.
They claimed Austria had acquitted a migrant who raped a 10-year old boy even though the alleged rapist had not been acquitted.
They said falsely that migrants had made five nuns pregnant at a monastery in Milan, Italy, and said that a migrant had sexually assaulted a 17-year old girl in Denmark in a story that used photos from an incident years ago.
They made hollow claims of mass rapes by migrants in Belgium and in Sweden, which hosts the most refugees per capita in Europe, and which, Russian reports said, had, due to this, become “the rape capital of Europe”.
The campaign to provoke sexual-political revulsion also used more exotic content.
Last January, pro-Russian media said Germany had hired Czech prostitutes to have sex with migrants so that they would spread sexually transmitted diseases in the Czech Republic in revenge for Prague’s refusal to join EU migrant-relocation quotas.
Last February, they made the unsubstantiated claim that bestiality was on the rise in Germany due to African immigrants.
In November 2015, a pro-Russian Czech website said that Germany planned to legalise paedophilia in the EU.
In April last year, a Russian blogger reported that Western countries were to legalise incest, cannibalism, and necrophilia.
Last May, Russian newspaper Pravda said Merkel was a lesbian who wanted to legalise paedophilia, while in October, Russia’s Ren TV claimed that European men wanted to practice polygamy because they were jealous of Muslim migrants who had more than one wife.
In another variation of the theme, in January, a Russian social media user planted a fake allegation that Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstroem was such an extreme feminist that she advocated mass-scale castration of white men.
No one has carried out detailed polling on the impact of such stories on French or German public opinion.
But a survey by American pollster Pew last year indicated that Russian propaganda had carved out a sizeable constituency in Europe.
It said that between 25 to 30 percent of people in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain believed, for instance, that there were no Russian troops fighting in east Ukraine, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.
There is also no detailed study of how big Russian media work with fringe websites and bloggers, which ones of the small publishers are Kremlin agents and which ones replicate fake content because they believe it.
“This huge [media] ecosystem has different parts with different aims … and our knowledge about it is still very small. It’s quite scary and it’s obvious they know our audiences much better than we know them,” the European diplomat said.
“We need to know how many disinformation-oriented multipliers there are, who is there more for planting the story, who is there for providing material for disinformation-oriented outlets in other languages, who is there for reaching out to the general audience and who is reaching out to opinion makers”, he said.
He said “some parts of it [the ecosystem] definitely work independently from Russia’s central brain”.
But he added that if European media or bloggers echoed the “central brain” in good faith then that would be “the ideal result of this incredible information carpet bombing”.
“These cases are actually even more dangerous, when a non-Kremlin outlet spreads pro-Kremlin disinformation, the disinformation receives more credibility”, he said.
He also said that the small readership of some pro-Russian outlets did not mean that they were harmless because they targeted “opinion makers”.
“Look at it like an advertising campaign”, he said.
“You might have some doubts whether a printed ad in a magazine read by 500 people was worth the money, especially when the same company has ads in TV and radio and internet … But if the company knows that those 500 readers are important for them, and that they might have influence on other audiences, it was money well spent”.
The migrant rape stories were part of a wider narrative that portrayed Putin and pro-Putin far-right parties in Europe as guardians of orthodox values.
They ran alongside homophobic fake news designed to incite revulsion against the LGBTI community in Europe and against liberal politicians, such as Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, a French presidential candidate, or against EU institutions who defend the rights of minorities.
In one direct attack on the French presidential campaign, Russian TV, in March, spread unsubstantiated rumours that Macron, a Russia-critical and pro-EU politician, had had a gay love affair.
Russian TV last February also said the European Parliament was promoting homosexuality in France in order to erase the difference between genders.
Russian media said last summer that French people were shocked by Russian football hooligans because their ideas of masculinity had been degraded by watching men take part in Gay Pride marches.
The homophobic content also had a pan-EU dimension.
In one example, a pro-Russian newspaper in Georgia last May said EU elites had been “captured” by LGBTI activists. A Russian website in June said people in Europe were being “forced” to become gay.
As with the story on the priest attack in Avignon, the homophobic theme worked in conjunction with fake news on religion.
In January last year, Igor Druz, an expert at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, told a Russian website that EU leaders were trying to “eradicate Christianity”.
Pro-Russian media last year also said the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg was planning to ban baptism and that people in EU countries were being fined for wearing jewellery with Christian crosses while walking down the street.
The Kremlin’s foreign influence operations often lacked coherence.
Russia has portrayed itself as a bulwark against the purported rise of fascism in Europe while supporting neo-Nazi parties such as the NPD or the extreme-right Pegida movement in Germany.
It has backed mainly far-right parties, such as the National Front in France or the AfD in Germany, but it has also backed far-left anti-EU parties such as the Communist Party and Left Party in France and Die Linke in Germany.
In this context, the central place of homophobia in the Kremlin’s anti-EU ideology was made clear by its non-cooperation with Geert Wilders, the leading anti-EU politician in the Netherlands.
Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Russia at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, told EUobserver that Wilders did not fit the bill due to his sexual politics.
“Russian actors who are engaged in building relations with the European far right are homophobic – that could damage Wilders, who positions himself as pro-LGBTI,” Shekhovtsov said.
Sex aside, the Russian campaign against France and Germany also exploited the hot-button issue of terrorism and the historical trauma of Nazism.
The Russian propaganda in this area also lacked coherence.
In one line, EU leaders were accused of being too weak to protect their citizens from terrorists of migrant origin.
In another line, seen time and again in individual reports on France and Germany, EU and US leaders were accused of secretly organising false-flag jihadist attacks because they served as a pretext to impose supranational rule.
The stream began with reports in German and in Czech that French authorities had “staged” the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, in Paris in January 2015 to justify a crackdown on the anti-EU National Front party.
In March 2016, Russian sources said Merkel had organised the Brussels bombings and published what they said was a “selfie” of the chancellor with one of the attackers, but which was, in fact, a photo of an unrelated Syrian refugee.
They said the US staged the truck assault in Nice, France, last July, to punish French people for protesting against an EU-US free-trade pact.
At a lower level, they accused Merkel’s intelligence services of having organised the Cologne New Year’s Eve sex attacks.
They also made the unsubstantiated claim that German intelligence services had carried out an arson attack against Frauke Petry, the leader of Germany’s main anti-EU party, the AfD.
Another propaganda theme said Merkel was a crypto-Nazi who wanted to impose German rule on Europe.
It was designed to foment Germanophobia among EU nations, many of which suffered huge losses in World War II, and to legitimise Putin’s authoritarianism and revanchism by allusion to Stalin, whose totalitarian regime defeated Hitler’s forces.
It was also designed to promote anti-EU parties in Europe by presenting the EU as a vehicle for Merkel’s imputed Nazi agenda.
Russia’s Ren TV broadcaster in December 2015 made the unsubstantiated claim that Nazism was on the rise in Germany because it publishers had printed copies of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf.
A story planted in Georgian media in April last year said Merkel was Hitler’s daughter.
Several articles in June last year and in February this year claimed that German soldiers posted to Lithuania as part of a Nato battalion designed to deter Russian aggression were occupation forces modelled on Operation Barbarossa – Hitler’s plan to conquer the Soviet Union.
A story in Czech media in February also claimed that Poland has been co-opted into Merkel’s “Fourth Reich”.
Anti-EU articles in February last year said the European Commission was founded on Nazi ideas by reference to Walter Hallstein, its first president, who had served in the German army in occupied France, but who had, in fact, rejected Nazi ideology.
Another stream of stories in Czech, English, and Russian-language media last May described the EU as a continuation of Nazi plans.
They said the EU was a totalitarian regime that enforced loyalty to Merkel and that European children were being made to cuddle dolls of Hitler at bedtime.
Some fake stories ventured even further into the realms of nutty conspiracy theories.
Sputnik reported that the design of a new Nato building in Brussels was modelled on the insignia of Nazi “SS” brigades.
Infowars.com, a US blog, cited David Icke, an English former TV presenter who believes the world is ruled by alien lizards, as saying the EU and US had organised the migration crisis to impose a new world order.
A pro-Russian newspaper in Georgia also said last June that EU leaders had taken part in a Satanic ritual in a rail tunnel in Switzerland.
The European diplomat told EUobserver that conspiracy theories were a “smaller” but “essential” part of Russia’s disinformation campaign, which targeted disenfranchised minorities in European society.
“Look at how anti-Jewish conspiracies worked for Hitler. For a destabilised society, conspiracies are a very pleasant message, they tell them that it is not their fault, that they have someone else to blame”, he said.
“They do find their audiences and they help the general messaging: ‘Trust no-one. Nothing is sure. Be afraid’,” he said.
Janda, from the think tank in Prague, said the Kremlin’s conspiracy theories were designed to recruit EU-native fringe writers by using ideological instead of financial means.
He said the conspiracies appealed to the EU natives’ own thinking, making them more likely to trust in and replicate Russia’s less outlandish stories “for free”.
“Russia captures [Western] conspiracy theorists and extremists in an ideological sense by providing narratives that make sense to them … these people then do it [repeat Russia’s other stories] for free because they believe in it”, he said.
Breitbart and UK tabloids
East Stratcom’s mandate, as stated by the EU foreign service, is to counter “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”.
Its so-called Disinformation Review has also included a handful of stories by the US far-right publication Breitbart and by British eurosceptic tabloids, however.
Breitbart’s stories mirrored Russia’s anti-migrant messages to a striking extent.
One article by the US publication’s London office in January 2016 ran the same story as two pro-Russian Czech media saying that the leader of Pegida, a German far-right movement, was being prosecuted by the German “establishment” for wearing a T-shirt that said “Rapefugees Not Welcome”.
The lawsuit in question was in fact filed by Juergen Kasek, a minor opposition figure with no links to mainstream parties.
Another Breitbart story in January this year said that a mob which chanted “Allahu Akhbar!” had set fire to Germany’s “oldest church”, St. Reindold’s in Dortmund.
The small fire was in fact started by a stray firework that had landed on scaffolding amid New Year’s Eve celebrations and the church in question was not Germany’s oldest, diminishing its symbolic value.
An article in Britain’s top-selling tabloid, The Sun, in October last year, made the equally hollow claim that German authorities were paying one Syrian refugee, who had four wives and 23 children, €360,000 a year in welfare.
There is no evidence linking Breitbart to the Kremlin, but the FBI is looking into this possibility as part of a wider probe into last year’s US elections, the European diplomat said.
Breitbart was run by Steve Bannon, who is now US president Donald Trump’s chief strategist.
The diplomat said British tabloids, such as The Sun, the Daily Mail, and The Express, which have published hundreds of distorted anti-EU and anti-immigrant stories, were also doing it for “domestic political purposes” to justify the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
The diplomat warned that if EU institutions complained about disinformation in British, French, or German media they risked feeding anti-EU feeling on grounds of interference in matters of national sovereignty.
Janda, from the Czech think tank, predicted that Russian propaganda would increasingly target Macron in the run-up to the French elections in April and May.
“The Russian goal is clear – anybody but Macron”, he said.
He added that Moscow’s success in swaying the French result would depend on “how much will they be able to damage Macron”.
Hot on the heels of the gay affair slur in February, a fake website modelled on Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper also said his campaign had been funded by Saudi Arabia.
The fake news was tweeted by Marion Marechal-Le Pen, an MP.
The European diplomat predicted that Russia’s German campaign would focus on migrants in the run-up to the German vote in autumn “with more false victims, fake stories, and by developing the narrative that Germany is collapsing because of Merkel’s [immigration] policies”.
Mainstream French and German media have launched their own East Stratcom-type debunking efforts and German authorities are taking regulatory steps to crack down on fake news.
It remains to be seen whether Russia can achieve in Europe what it helped to achieve in the US with the shock election of the populist Trump.
But Russia’s media campaign, which began well before East Stratcom was launched, is unlikely to end after the French and German votes, even if these do not go Moscow’s way.
US far-right media, such as Breitbart, and British tabloids were also active for years prior to Trump’s election and to the Brexit referendum to help create anti-establishment or anti-EU feeling with ever-deeper roots and wider-spreading branches.
Their actions bore fruit at a moment when other political and economic factors converged to create the right environment.
Russia’s propaganda “ecosystem”, with its mix of Kremlin-funded media, useful-idiot proxies, and its focus on highly emotive issues is now creating fertile ground in Europe for political shocks either in the short or longer-term.
“Sex sticks to memory,” as the European diplomat said.