Lies as a tool of power

Conspiracies and false reports about refugees are all the rage on the Internet these days. Pinpointing who initiated them is often a difficult task. Finding out who benefits is easier.

For these people refugees are "invaders", "asylum terrorists" or "Merkel's migrant hordes smuggled illegally into the country". The refugee crisis is not the result of war and suffering in many parts of the world but "part of a hybrid war waged by the US and aimed at destroying Europe." These are just a few excerpts from the profile of the anti-Islam and anti-migrant Anonymous group which, however, has nothing to do with the well-known Anonymous hacktivist movement. It recently switched from Facebook to the Russian social networking service because it felt persecuted by the German State.

Clearly, a substantial number of European Internet users are already convinced that the refugee movement towards Europe is being steered by a secret force – even though there is no proof. This allegation is just one example of the many false reports, smear campaigns and myths about refugees that are circulating on the web. It is often difficult to pinpoint who is behind them. But clarifying who benefits from them is easier.

"We are witnessing the end of Europe on the Internet"

Lithuanian journalist Vytautas Bruveris describes in the daily newspaper Lietuvos rytas the similar lines of argument used by conspiracy theorists and doomsayers in many European countries: "They maintain that Islam is gradually occupying the weakened West and devouring Europe culturally, politically and militarily. Radical criticism of Western Europe's weakness predominates. As the causes of this weakness they see not just political correctness, tolerance and multiculturalism, but liberal democracy as a whole." Writing in the Russian daily Izvestia the pro-Kremlin columnist Eduard Limonov provides further insights into this way of thinking: "On the Internet, on our TV screens and in the newspapers we are witnessing the end of Europe. The chimera of the Islamic State is pitted against a disarmed Christianity that is no longer a religion but a listless human rights charade; a listless moralism."

Refugees as part of an externally-controlled danger that is descending on a debilitated Europe. In order to reinforce this theory Internet users make up fictitious or semi-fictitious stories, a favourite being the rape of local women by migrants. For right-wing circles the fact that the police agencies have been unable to confirm most of the accusations circulating online is simply proof that they, too, are deeply implicated in the web of lies.

The "Lisa case"

The "Lisa case" is one of the most prominent examples of this type of story and even led to diplomatic friction between Russia and Germany. The 13-year-old German-Russian girl disappeared for 30 hours in January, and then reappeared and told her parents that she had been raped by three migrants. The public prosecutors quickly dropped the rape charges, but not before the Russian media had blown up the incident into a huge case that sparked protests by neo-Nazis and German-Russians in several German cities.

They accused the German justice system of trying to cover up the rape out of "political correctness". Even Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov got involved, setting himself up as the girl's public defender. The Russian newspaper Swobodnaja Pressa immediately justified his intervention: "Western politicians are used to interfering in every incident that occurs in Russia and other countries they consider second-rate. But the Europeans see anything that happens in their own countries as their own affair.

In the view of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung it was the Russian leadership that benefitted most from this affair because it enabled the Kremlin "to show the people how dangerous refugees would be for Russia" and to divert attention from domestic problems. So the case was "not just a classic example of Russian propaganda but also an indication of Moscow's active support for right-wing extremists in Europe."

Online rumours help the Kremlin and the far right

But not only Russia's propaganda machine capitalises on this kind of rumour – regardless of how they start. The Internet rumour factory acts like a free campaign booster for far-right movements and parties across Europe, observes the French version of the Huffington Post: "Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National party, has adopted the theory of an elitist conspiracy aimed at flooding the country with migrants. This is supposed to foment fears of impending doom that, albeit unfounded, can pay off in elections because they can be used to manipulate public opinion."

In this way lies and false information about refugees on the web can become a tool of power, Frank Patalong observes on Spiegel Online: "This spreading of lies, false information and baseless claims has always been used as a tool by demagogues and agitators. In the past, to develop full impact and reach the masses they needed willing media." But nowadays, as Patalong points out, Facebook, blogs and "free, independent news websites" do the propaganda work for them.