A misleading headline about Ukrainian refugees helped build a false narrative


A recent opinion piece in Estonia’s Postimees newspaper was picked up by Russian media outlets to give a distorted perception of Ukrainian refugees in Estonia. It highlights two propaganda trends that are worth understanding.

The original article was published on 14 November and was written by Arto Aas, the CEO of the Estonian Central Union of Employers. It was titled by the subeditors, ‘Besides the 6,000 Ukrainian unemployed, we have a much more acute concern’. Based on the headline alone, it may have given the impression that Estonia and its employers are not concerned by Ukrainians unable to find jobs in Estonia. In actual fact, the article highlighted that there are thousands of unfulfilled jobs in Estonia and discussed some broader challenges that need to be tackled in order to better help Ukrainians fill them. It was primarily about ensuring Ukrainians can settle in the areas where those jobs are, which match their skills.

For context, Estonia has welcomed the second highest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita (after Czechia), many of whom are highly educated and highly skilled.

Weaponising bad headlines

The first trend relevant here is that Russian media outlets and pro-Kremlin sympathisers online have a tendency to take headlines or sections of articles from the western free press and present them wildly out of context. They will sometimes use a screenshot or quote without linking to the original or link to the original when it is behind a paywall. Either way, they want to avoid readers seeing the full context that contradicts the way they have chosen to present it.

The second trend relates to common narratives, one of which is that Ukrainian refugees are treated badly in Estonia and other countries that have welcomed them. This is just one of many, often contradictory narratives that Russian media has sought to promote. For example, there is also a narrative aimed at Russian-speaking communities in Estonia and the Baltics that Ukrainian refugees actually get preferential treatment over them. As ever, Kremlin propagandists will look for any potential wedge issue in society and seek to pry it open using a wide range of narratives aimed at polarising different audiences.

So, two days after Postimees published the opinion piece, a number of Russian publications noticed the bad headline and got to work promoting their own narrative around it, claiming that Estonian employers do not care about Ukrainian refugees. According to the portal Regnum.ru, Aas said nationwide layoffs are a much bigger concern than the unemployment of Ukrainian refugees. However, Aas actually pointed out in his article that layoffs are not taking place on a large scale at the moment and that there is no general increase in unemployment among Estonians.

Similarly, the publication AIF.ru wrote that Aas considered the closure of companies and layoffs across Estonia as more important than the “pseudo-problem”. The article then compared that to reports from Canada where some real estate owners have been reportedly demanding several months advance payment from Ukrainian refugees.

The publication RG.ru chose to connect Aas’ comments with the discussion about the language law circulating in the Estonian media and claimed that Ukrainian refugees have an obligation to learn Estonian in one year. Amendments to the language law are still under discussion and no such requirement presently exists.


Check the source

Always read beyond the headline, especially before sharing an article. And, particularly when the outlet is questionable, it’s often worth reading the original source they refer to as well.

Propagandists will continue to spread false narratives and use headlines out of context as one way to achieve that. At the very least, credible media outlets should avoid making their job easier by publishing headlines that could provide a misleading perception of the article.