Closed groups in messenger services like Telegram or Whatsapp are seen by many as drivers of disinformation and radicalization. Yet at the same time, migrant social media communities can play an important role in the integration of newcomers. We logged onto the Facebook group "Russian-speaking Moms in Germany" to investigate this contradiction.
When Kateryna Pysarevych was completely at a loss, she went online. In the fall of 2020, she had her first child, a son, who was a source of great happiness. The birth had been exhausting, the little one slept badly, she was tired out and had no strength. Then her husband got Covid-19 very badly and couldn’t even get out of bed. Kateryna was left to care for herself and a newborn in a country that had remained foreign to her even two years after her move from Kiev to Hanau near Frankfurt and whose language she barely knew. Then her son also developed a high fever. Is it this virus? Who can I call? What now?
She searched on Facebook, entered "tips for mothers" in Russian and got a hit: "Russian-speaking Moms in Germany”, a Facebook group with more than 30,000 members. There she described her situation, pressed the send button, and waited.
"We just had that too: stay calm!"
"If the fever doesn't go down after 24 hours, call your family doctor's emergency service."
"Where do you live, Kateryna? Maybe I know someone near you who can shop for you!"
Through the group, the young mother hadn't just gotten a phone number and a few links: "I suddenly understood that I wasn't alone." Almost two years later, she still seems genuinely moved by that moment. Sitting in a cafe in a Hanau business park, she explains in a perfectly understandable 50-50 mix of German and English how relaxing she finds the old town on the River Main. In Ukraine, she used to work as a human resources manager for large corporations like Danone and Real, but today she sees herself as an artist and sells self-designed jewelry online. Despite her digital expertise and professional experience in large European corporations, arriving in Germany was difficult: Is a language course worth it? Which one exactly? How does the health care system work here?
"There are many women in the group who know the differences between Ukraine and Germany from their own experience," Kateryna says. "Interesting people, doctors, teachers, lawyers." To this day, she joins the mothers' group about three times a day, although "I don't really need any more diapering tips”. Through these parents' perspective, her son's medical checks at the pediatrician, the drugstore assortment and daycare policies, she has come to understand Germany. Only one thing bothers her: "Why did I only find the group after two years? It would have made my start in Germany so much easier."
Closed groups on Facebook, WhatsApp or Telegram are currently described in many analyses as echo chambers and drivers of disinformation. This is because people with similar attitudes or interests can reinforce their opinions there without coming into contact with dissenting information. And even if these effects must, of course, be investigated further, groups such as “Russian-speaking Moms in Germany” are not necessarily digital parallel societies that decouple themselves from Germany in 2022. On the contrary.
According to an analysis by the NexSM project, which researches connections between social media, migration and social policy and is supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, "in many migrant communities’ social media spaces, questions of integration are dealt with by the members in self-help processes”. These are exciting questions: How do migrants help each other to find their way in Germany? How can counseling centers or authorities work with these migrant groups in a goal-oriented way? And what factors determine whether a social media group becomes an echo chamber or functions as a kind of outsourced integration counseling center? How does a potential bubble become a bridge?
Digital tools are crucial for the social participation of people with an immigration history. The project "NexSM - Social Media for Migration and Society" examines the migrant communities that have formed on social media platforms in recent years and play an important role in integration in Germany. NexSM networks actors from these new migrant (self-)organizations (MSO) and develops an education and exchange platform to strengthen their participation in scientific and social discourse. The project is carried out by Minor, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
The group's home page is dominated by bright coral red, but the colors of the German flag, black, red and gold, can also be seen along with emojis for lipstick, high heels, and a rose. Men are not allowed in. The group is supposed to be a safe place. Every day, members send between 30 and 60 posts.
“Challenge: Who has the most beautiful balcony flowers?”
“My grandma is stuck in Kharkiv. Can someone take her to Lviv?”
“Since I’ve been using this cream, I don't mind the hard water in Germany."
"How do you send money to Russia these days?"
"What is my education degree worth here?"
"Does anyone know a good hairdresser in Bielefeld?"
A mixture of questions, updates, and life hacks. And perhaps that is the first characteristic that distinguishes a democratic, open social media group: thematic diversity. When the whole of life is covered, it's hard to get sucked in anywhere.
"Russian-speaking Moms in Germany" was founded by Nataliya Kudelya in 2015. The 39-year-old, who works as a regional manager for Eastern Europe at the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt, realized at some point that there was hardly a better place to attract Russian students to her institution than the Facebook groups run by their mothers: "Russian Moms in London," "Spanish RuMamas" ... And because there was no such group in Germany, Nataliya founded one with no further ado. "I didn't give it much thought, I just went with what would appeal to me and my friends," she recalls. That's how many start-up fairy tales begin. After just a few months, the group had several thousand members.
"In Eastern Europe, parents have a say in where their children study," Nataliya says. "Especially the mothers. Whether it's education, health or social life, women are the interface between the family and society."
Nataliya has no children herself, but otherwise has the perfect background to help Russian-speaking mothers arriving in Germany. She herself came to Germany from Ukraine to study, later completed her master's thesis on "Crowdsourcing as a Marketing Instrument" and every day helps foreign students arriving in Germany. She knows the power of the crowd and how people feel in the first weeks and months in a foreign country. "People need friends," she says, and a sense that they're not the only ones wondering why "kindergarten kids in Germany are shooed out when it rains, or it's forbidden to give teachers a gift". It takes time for a sense of normalcy to set in. Normality.
Nataliya hardly puts her smartphone down and is usually in two places at once – in Würzburg and at the clubhouse of the Russian-speaking mothers. She knows very few of the 33,000 women personally "but it's good to know they're by my side".
On normal days, five to ten new members used to sign up to the group. "Since February 2022, it's been more like 30 to 50," Nataliya says. The war in Ukraine and the movement of refugees toward the West shows up in real time in her group's statistics. The number of posts and direct messages on her cell phone are for her "almost a way to feel the pulse of the world". And right now, it's beating frantically and erratically.
In April, for example, a Ukrainian mother who has been living alone in Berlin with her four-year-old for one month posted: "I can't take it anymore!" And the group responded:
"In Germany, daycare places are unfortunately in short supply."
"Why did you have children if they annoy you?"
"Have you ever tried a childminder?"
So many voices: Empathic. Challenging. Pragmatic. But you don't feel lonely (anymore).
Between February and March 2022, the number of Ukrainian social media group members in Germany increased by 120 percent, according to an analysis by the digital streetworking project Fem.OS. 75 percent of the advice questions recorded related to topics such as the right to stay, health insurance or the labor market. What other users with more experience have themselves experienced are a help to new immigrants. Digital street workers also seek out new immigrants on social media and offer information and support in their native language. The "Russian-speaking Moms in Germany" group has also cooperated with Fem.OS, which is run by the Berlin project office "minor," a partner organization of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. In cooperation with the group, for example, an "Ask me anything" session was organized with a Russian-speaking health expert. Low-threshold formats are the most important criterion for success, along with language, Nataliya says. An idea she would like to implement someday: produce annotated videos that use simple explanations and examples in the native language to help people fill out the complex forms in Germany.
30-year-old Iryna, who came to Munich from Dnipro in Ukraine in 2019, also suffered from the loneliness shock. Through the group, she not only found contacts in the new city, but even a woman who had sat in the same lecture hall as she had at Dnipro University. The mother of two is now studying electrical engineering at the University of Applied Sciences and meets group members regularly – online and offline. She is particularly interested in educational topics. But since the war began, "even the most banal topics like men's birthdays have become highly political,” she says. “The mood can tip quite radically!"
More women from Moscow are active in the Facebook group than from Kiev or Hamburg. There are users with the blue-and-yellow avatars you see all over the European web, but also those with Russian flags or USSR icons. Perhaps that is the second characteristic that makes the group so open: people of different origins are active there and no one group holds the interpretive sovereignty. And a third one, of course, is that Nataliya Kudelya and her co-moderators rigorously delete all posts and block users who violate the group's rules. "Currently, we sanction members who spread Russian propaganda every day," she says. But Ukrainians are also muted when they attack Russians just because they are from Russia. "First I mute them for a few days, hoping they'll calm down. Anyone who repeatedly stands out is removed." She does this not only because it affects her personally, but because she doesn't want Facebook to block her group. "We have worked for our space for so long and radical voices make us vulnerable."
In June 2022, the Facebook group "Russian-speaking Moms in Germany" has existed for exactly seven years. Between 30 and 60 posts appear each day. Roughly speaking, that adds up to about 120,000 posts about health insurance and parenting methods, the German education system and children's fashions, about the employment office, pets and recipes – in other words, all of normal life. "I use the group as a kind of search engine," Iryna says. Except that it's not the whole web with its billions of pages that is being searched, but the wealth of knowledge and experience of at least 33,000 women. "I’m meanwhile providing more answers than asking questions," Iryna says.
She doesn't put it that way, but maybe that means she’s arrived.