One Year Later: Online Discourse in Moldova about Ukrainian Refugees

This report presents an analysis of social listening to monitor sentiments and perspectives shared by Moldovan social media users about Ukrainian refugees and the wider refugee response. The timing of this social listening enabled an assessment of the temperature of the information ecosystem at a critical moment in Moldova, timed to monitor perspectives shared in online spaces over the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the consequent influx of refugees in Moldova.

Monitoring included nine platforms (see methodology) and the collection of 324 examples of online comments that include hate speech, prejudice, spreading of misinformation, and links to known disinformation campaigns in private and open groups pages and discussions. Data was collected in Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian, and English.

The monitoring specifically looked for rumors, mis- and disinformation, and issues of prejudice, hate speech, and social tensions. It also sought to capture harmful discourse that could impact refugee services or pose a risk to refugees or aid workers and volunteers. It is important to note that the scope of this project was to listen and to understand negative sentiments expressed in online spaces at a critical juncture in this conflict.

This report does not aim to assess all sentiments expressed online by Moldovan social media users and equally it does not suggest that the majority of sentiments expressed on social media platforms about Ukrainian refugees are negative. Rather, it is likely that this content represents a vocal minority, but one that contributes to social tensions between the refugee and host communities. As this project aimed to understand harmful discourse, we did not capture the many positive and supportive comments online related to refugees and the refugee response overall. Because of this defined scope, this report could be misinterpreted to be suggesting that harmful content dominates online opinion. This is not the case. Wider research would be required to capture a broader scope of content over time and undertake comprehensive sentiment analysis to determine what percentage of social media posts are indeed negative.

Based on analysis of data posted online between 1st January to 20th March 2023, key findings were:

  • 88% of data linked to social tensions collected in this research was Russian language data, while 11% was Romanian language. Gaps exist in understanding preferred languages for online/social media communication in Moldova, so it is not currently clear to what degree the language split of this research is proportionate to Moldovan’s language use (between Russian and Romanian) online.
  • The data indicate significant uptake and circulation of disinformation campaigns in Moldova about Ukrainian refugees (linked to disinformation more widely about the war and geo-political tensions), with 23% of data collected indicating the presence of disinformation narratives about Ukrainian refugees.
  • 26% of data indicate spread of misinformation, particularly related to a prevailing sentiment amongst some Moldovan groups that Ukrainian refugees are being supported to the detriment of Moldovans. Animosity was particularly targeted toward cash payments available to refugees, especially alongside the dominant perception that Ukrainians are wealthy.
  • Certain situations and media coverage trigger negative sentiments, including Ukrainian refugees’ involvement in protests, rumored terrorist activity and insurgency, use of Ukrainian language, and Ukrainians appearing to flaunt wealth.
  • Narratives counter to the rights of refugees are present amongst some groups, with 15 per cent of data indicating negative sentiments, dismissal, or rejection of refugee rights, including non-refoulement.
  • Overall, there is a strong sense of burden on Moldovans, a tension linked with the tendency to revert to prejudiced and derogatory statements and generalizations about Ukrainian refugees. Fear is evidently driving angry and violent online responses that position Ukrainian refugees as complicit in destabilization efforts and increasing inequality.

This report is designed to complement other recent publications produced by Internews, including an Information Ecosystem Assessment in Moldova, which aims to understand information preferences, gaps and barriers for refugees and host community, and a recent report on digital risks present for Ukrainian refugees in the Moldovan digital information space.

We hope that this research complements wider social listening efforts to form a better understanding of social tensions, misinformation, and disinformation in Moldovan and Ukrainian refugee communities.

WARNING: Content and quotes in this report contain language and sentiments that may offend some readers. This social media data represented in this report is presented for research purposes only and it does not represent the views of Internews, IOM or USAID PRM.