Soon after the start of the massive human displacement to the European Union caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rumors and hoaxes about Ukrainian refugees began to spread online. In Czechia and Romania, social media and suspicious websites, some purporting to be genuine news outlets, were flooded with messages claiming that arriving Ukrainians were wealthy yet receiving significant social and financial support, while needy locals were left without help. In Poland, Ukrainians were falsely accused of committing violent crimes against residents. Resulting comments were resentful against refugees, aid groups, and governments alike.

This is just the latest instance of how disinformation about refugees, other migrants, and minority groups adapts to the shifting news cycle—while also appealing to people’s pre-existing convictions and tapping into current worries, in this case about generalized violence and household incomes struggling to keep up with rising prices. Salient events such as the war in Ukraine act as catalysts, enabling coordinated disinformation-producing activist groups and extremists to grab people’s attention and stoke fears, in some cases even setting the tone of the political discourse surrounding the management of migratory phenomena and the policies governing them.

To take another prominent example, a few days after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021 it was falsely claimed that hundreds of thousands of Afghans were heading to Europe. Right-wing activists promoted mistruths that Afghan men were the only ones to escape, leaving their families behind, and that their lives were not in danger. Doctored images and sensationalist articles fanned fears about an imminent “invasion” of Afghans, turning European countries’ migration policy agenda into a discussion focused on security, neglecting humanitarian considerations.

From Afghanistan to Ukraine and beyond, each development concerning global migrant flows or the management of cultural diversity can give rise to a new stream of disinformation, with significant consequences for policymaking, public discourse, and social relations. Conspiracy theories are also frequently used as a rhetorical tool by far-right movements and nativist politicians to advocate for hardline anti-immigration policies and mobilize their voters. In the 2022 French presidential elections, right-wing candidates Valérie Pécresse and Éric Zemmour purposefully cited the White-nationalist “Great Replacement” theory in their campaigns, claiming that global elites were engaged in a conspiracy to “replace” White European populations with foreigners.

Read the full article about misinformation about migration by Alberto-Horst Neidhardt and Paul Butcher at Migration Policy Institute.