As the European parliamentary elections in June move ever closer, experts warn that pro-Russian players are flooding social media with false claims about the war in Ukraine to boost support for far-right and nationalist parties.

Pro-Russian accounts have been pumping out posts on Facebook, X and TikTok that depict Ukrainian refugees as violent criminals or claim that Kyiv's government officials siphon off financial aid sent by the West to buy luxury yachts and villas for themselves.

Another theme with particular potency in countries closest to the conflict is that refugees receive higher state benefits than locals.

The aim of such propaganda is to weaken the EU's resolve and benefit anti-immigration parties like Germany's AfD, France's National Rally or the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, said Jakub Kalensky, an analyst at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) in Helsinki, Finland.

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Such disinformation will "definitely play a role" in the June 6-9 vote, when more than 400 million Europeans choose a new five-year parliament, he said.

"When you exaggerate the risk of Ukrainian immigrants, you boost anti-immigration parties," Kalensky said.

"I'm convinced that if it weren't for the Russian propaganda, movements led by leaders like Marine Le Pen (in France), Geert Wilders (in the Netherlands) or Robert Fico (in Slovakia) would have significantly lower election results."

Dietmar Pichler, disinformation analyst at the Center for Digital Media Literacy in Vienna, Austria, believes that anti-Ukraine disinformation is likely to intensify ahead of the June vote as Russia tries to promote Kremlin-friendly European parties.

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Moscow has been accused of forcibly taking Ukrainian children into Russian territory during its full-scale offensive, with Lvova-Belova wanted by the ICC on charges related to those allegations.

He has identified two main topics that have already surfaced in EU campaigns -- the sanctions against Russia and financial aid to Ukraine.

"Actors aiming to halt this support for Ukraine are employing disinformation and Russian propaganda narratives to 'justify' this anti-Ukrainian position," Pichler told AFP.

But pro-Russian narratives also affect the policies of mainstream parties, sometimes silencing those who might otherwise throw their support behind Ukraine, according to the analyst.

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"Some politicians are now afraid to address topics like Ukraine or Russia altogether because they fear attacks by Russian trolls, bots, and pro-Russian actors on the domestic level," he said.

Fertile ground

The pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign may find particularly fertile ground in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia, whose governments actively stoke anti-immigration sentiment and urge Brussels to make peace with Russia, according to Kalensky.

On the second anniversary of the Russian invasion on February 24, Slovak premier Fico -- who has repeatedly compared Ukrainians to Nazis, echoing Moscow's justification for the assault -- accused the EU of "hating the Russian Federation" and urged it to "come up with a peace plan for both countries."

Hungarian state media often suggest that the Ukraine conflict could lead to World War III or make unsubstantiated claims about the forcible recruitment of Ukrainian men for the battlefield.

Even Kyiv's staunchest allies, such as Poland, are not immune to the propaganda flooding the internet since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

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Angry Polish farmers have protested about cheaper Ukrainian grain imports and claims are rife on Polish social media that refugees flood the labor markets, undercut wages, or receive welfare payouts that locals can only dream about.

"The message is 'this is the Ukrainian gratitude for your help', 'they are using us' and 'they don't respect us'," said Andrzej Kozlowski, cybersecurity and disinformation expert at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation in Warsaw, Poland.

Farmers' protests across Europe in early 2024 have been weaponized by Russian propagandists and far-right parties in many European countries.

These protests "have become a top priority for the Russian disinformation machine" ahead of upcoming elections in Poland in April and the EU vote in June, Kozlowski told AFP.

According to an Ipsos poll from February 2024, the far-right Confederation -- the only party in the Polish parliament not to unequivocally condemn the Russian invasion -- is gaining support the fastest and could get 12 percent at local elections on April 7.

"At the beginning, we were laughing at Russian disinformation, but statistics show that support for Ukrainian refugees and immigrants in Poland is getting lower, and so is support for sending ammunition and weapons to Ukraine," Kozlowski said.

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free speech is not only hearing the speech you want to hear, but what you don't want also.

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