Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. Different variations of this idea, mostly and perhaps falsely attributed to Goebbels[1], the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, have become a sort of a go-to way of describing “post-truth” society and its relation to the media ecosystem. Anyone reading the phrase intuitively understands that it makes sense, and most of us have seen cases of obvious falsehoods and conspiracy theories being trusted in.

While building up credibility for a false claim is not the only technique used in manipulating information, it is one of the easiest to employ. Thus, it frequently supports propaganda[2] efforts, because it builds upon the importance of storytelling in creating meaning.

Pattern-Seeking, Storytelling Animals

Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic Magazine, once described humans as pattern seeking, storytelling animals”. His point is still valid – humans have an innate ability to recognize patterns, though sometimes they invent patterns that just seem to be there, like seeing an animal in a cloud, or a face in a tree. Humans also put all their understanding into stories, allowing them to transmit knowledge effortlessly through generations. Though imperfect, this process is constantly being improved, and our collective stories get better in time.

However, humans also found quite quickly they can invent or alter stories for their own benefit. One of the oldest known disinformation campaigns is considered to have happened in Ancient Rome, around 44 B.C.E. In a power struggle to rule Rome, Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, promoted false stories about Mark Antony. Octavian spread poems and printed short slogans on coins, painting Antony as a drunk and a philanderer, whose love affair with Cleopatra made him a liability.

In the information age, building false narratives has become a favorite technique of malicious actors that discovered they can get more people to believe them, if they keep saying the same thing for a long time, using different mediums and different words.

This is what we call a disinformation narrative – a set of distinct messages that all point to the same false conclusion, that someone wants us to believe.

“Nazi Ukraine” - The Fundamental False Narrative of The War

The idea that Ukraine is a country dominated by Nazis is a textbook example of a disinformation narrative, its development more complex and spread out over a longer period than one might think.

Russia has been trying to increase its influence in the region for some time: it created the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community, has constantly pressured Moldova to stay in its orbit, found an ally in Belarus. When “soft power” started fading, they turned to military action, invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

Both Georgia and Ukraine want to join the European Union, both have had revolutions aiming to put them on that path, only to end up with so-called separatists provoking unrest. While the political leadership in Georgia is today split between Russia and the West, Ukraine is adamant about its future as a full democracy, integrated into the European Union, which presents a significant danger to the Kremlin autocracy.

After failing to control Ukraine through puppets like Viktor Yanukovych, Russia decided to take control by force. But not even the Kremlin can get out and tell the international community they want to submit an independent country, so a reason for the war was needed.

This reason was the “denazification” of Ukraine. Choosing it as the fundamental pretext (others would soon follow) had several advantages. Firstly, Nazism is widely seen as the most horrific ideology / political system in recent history. Then, the USSR fighting against Nazis in World War II is an important motif of Russian nationalism, being constantly used by propaganda. Thirdly, Ukraine did have episodes of collaboration with the Nazis, even though those were stemming from nation building efforts against the USSR.

It’s worth mentioning that present-day Ukraine is far from those times, and ultranationalist movements have been successfully suppressed – radical right-wing political parties got little traction in elections, and Ukraine even officially banned Nazi and communist propaganda. It’s likely there are more neo-Nazis and swastika flags being flown in the US or in Russia, than in Ukraine. In 2022, hundreds of historians from all over the world, who studied genocide, Nazism and World War II, have signed a letter clearly stating Putin’s claim about Nazi Ukraine is “propaganda”.

The narrative equating Ukraine to the new Nazi presence in Europe aims to undermine Western support for Ukraine, and feeds the illusion that Russia is, again, saving all of us, thus offering a moral pretext for Russian citizens to support the invasion.

The story became visible in 2014, through social media posts, and articles in Russian media outlets. A page from an official Russian account posted in September 2014 an image of a house flying a Swastika flag on one side, and the Ukrainian flag on the other. The post was deleted after it had become clear that it was an old image, from a movie shot in Kharkiv.

The media outlets, influencers, public officials, and official social media pages belonging to the Russian Federation all promoted the message. In 2017, the BBC discovered that a Russian group was working with the “separatists” in Donetsk to produce videos that were aiming to discredit Ukraine. They pretended to be Russian anti-government nationalists, helping Ukrainians to fight "Putin's bloody regime" in Eastern Ukraine, and sometimes draped themselves in swastika flags.

The New York Times analysis from 2022 found some interesting patterns – the narrative had a relatively constant visibility, “a constant regurgitation and repackaging of the same stuff over and over again” but presented spikes from time to time. For example, media references to “Nazi Ukraine” increased on May 9th, a day Russia celebrates its victory in World War II.

Source: New York Time

The narrative truly exploded immediately after the start of the war, on February 24th, 2022, with over 2000 articles mentioning “Nazi Ukraine” that week. It is difficult for the Western audience to even imagine this level of propaganda, with thousands of articles produced every week; the chart above doesn’t even include talk-shows and special reports on TV.

The building of the narrative wasn’t limited to the media and public speeches[3], but had been spread far and wide in society. A German historian that took part in an alleged academic conference in Russia, in 2014, wrote an article explaining his shock at the way in which Russian academics were parroting the ideas of the regime, with no context or critical analysis. One said that Nazism is back in Europe; another, that the “brotherly nation” of Ukraine was “infected by the bacilli of Nazism”. All Russian participants ended up having presentations that struggled to find a thread binding present-day Ukraine to The Third Reich.

Even blunders from other countries have been used by Russia to promote the narrative against Ukraine. In September 2023, a Ukrainian delegation was in an official visit to Canada’s House of Commons. Unbeknownst to them the Canadian House Speaker invited and recognized 98-year-old veteran Yaroslav Hunka, himself a Canadian citizen. However, Hunka was a former member of the “Galicia division” – a Ukrainian group that had fought alongside Nazis in World War II. Though the Speaker apologized and resigned, Russian media and officials had new ammunition to use. A few days later, an official Russian account on X (former Twitter) claimed the Ukrainian National Post had issued a stamp honoring Hunka, though such a stamp has never existed.

These are just examples of the countless ways in which this false narrative was enforced, using different voices, different messages, over almost a decade. It’s no wonder some people end up believing it, it does sound extremely familiar.

[1] There are convincing arguments that Goebbels never actually said it.

[2] Propaganda is an overt manipulation technique that uses manipulated information to emotionally engage audiences, in order to influence their opinions or behavior.

[3] Putin and other officials have made countless speeches promoting the false narrative: source 1, source 2, source 3.

Background illustration: yumeyume

💡 Want to learning how to be resilient to disinformation? Enroll in our free, self-paced course on Countering Disinformation today!