Dozens of photos and videos purporting to show young female victims of sexual assaults in Germany, Sweden and even Finland have been spreading like wildfire across social media. Although the women in the photos have bloodied faces, bruised bodies and petrified expressions, FRANCE 24's Observers discovered that many of these pictures are actually fakes.

More than 600 criminal complaints were filed in Germany after a wave of attacks on New Year’s Eve, almost half of which relate to allegations of sexual violence. According to the German interior minister, those who carried out the assaults were mainly asylum seekers. The Cologne attacks have now escalated into a full-blown crisis for Angela Merkel, whose open-door migrant policy is coming under closer scrutiny. In Sweden, police have also been accused of orchestrating a cover-up. Officers failed to disclose a series of sexual assaults that happened at a music festival in Stockholm in 2014, also blamed on migrants.

The wave of assaults has unleashed a xenophobic backlash on social media, where Internet users have spread dozens of fake photos purporting to show victims of the violence.

A familiar image used by social media users to represent rape victims

With her blond hair, blue eyes, and angelic face splattered with blood, this young woman’s image has been used recently by fringe websites to illustrate what they claim is the rise in rape cases across Europe.

But this photo has been circulating on the Internet for a while. Back in February 2015, the same photo was used by a controversial nationalist site called "Fdesouche" for an article titled "Sweden: Rape capital of the West". 'Fdesouche' had already gone out of its way to establish a link between sexual violence and “foreigners”. But "Fdesouche" wasn't even the first website to use the photo -- it had already been posted online back in 2007 on a conspiracy blog that explored the same theme.

The image of this naked, screaming woman (below), who is supposedly being “sexually assaulted by more than 1,000 Arabs” in Germany, is another photo regularly used to illustrate articles about rape.

Likewise, this photo dates from before the New Year’s Eve assaults. It was used by an Indian news site in an article about rape published back in 2014.

News items taken out of context

This young woman, whose bloodied face was purportedly beaten by migrants, is in fact English model Danielle Lloyd. It shows the aftermath of an assault carried out against her in a London nightclub in 2009.

It’s the same story for this young blue-eyed woman whose mouth is covered with blood. According to some social media users, she was supposedly “raped by immigrants” in Finland, where so far no reports of sexual assaults linked to migrants or refugees have emerged. The photo actually shows Amy Ferris, a young Brit attacked by another woman in a Manchester bar in 2013.

This image, which social media users said showed a bruised victim of “sexual violence in Stuttgart”, whipped up a storm on Twitter and Facebook. But this photo was posted by a person working for "Fdesouche" and it has not been possible to track its true origins.

Videos purporting to show an ‘Arab game', the ‘Taharussh Gamea’

Fake videos have also flooded the Internet in the wake of the assaults in Cologne. One of them shows a crowd of men leading a screaming woman into the entrance of a subway station.

This recently posted clip has been seen more than 100,000 times on YouTube. But this video was uploaded to YouTube back in 2013, when it claimed to show an assault on a Dutch journalist in 2011 at Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt.

Social media users and tabloid papers have been sharing these videos along with captions describing a so-called ‘game’ particular to Arab countries called the "Taharuss Gamea", or "sexual harassment against women in a crowd". How exactly this alleged game is supposed to work remains unclear.

These fake and wrongly attributed images continue to be spread by social media users, who are determined to demonise refugees amid Europe’s contentious debate on migration.

Article written by Chloé Rochereuil