Russia’s early struggles to push disinformation and propaganda about Ukraine have picked up momentum in recent days, thanks to a variety of debunked conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine. Much of the false information is flourishing in Russian social media, far-right online spaces and US conservative media, including Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News.
The theories, which have been boosted by Russian and Chinese officials, come as US officials warn that Russia could be preparing a chemical or biological weapons attack of its own in Ukraine.
Most of the conspiracy theories claim that the US was developing and plotting to release a bioweapon or potentially another coronavirus from “biolabs” throughout Ukraine and that Russia invaded to take over the labs. Many of the theories involve people who are often the targets of far-right conspiracy thinking – including Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden – as being behind creating the weaponized diseases in the biolabs.
Disinformation experts said the biolabs theory echoes other Russian propaganda meant to justify its military efforts, which often makes allegations against other countries and populations that reflect similar attacks it plans to make.
PolitiFact has debunked the theories, and no evidence of US-run bioweapons labs in Ukraine has been put forward. Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee the US has no evidence that Ukraine has pursued bioweapons and that the only assistance provided by the US was “in the context of biosafety.”
“The ‘biolabs’ are serving as a false justification for why Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s defensive, ”said Clint Watts, an MSNBC contributor who is a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. “They create a situation where they go to a populist audience, push out talking points, get the audience primed and make it true later.”
Gavin Wilde, a managing consultant at the Krebs Stamos Group, a security consulting company, who previously was director for Russia, Baltic, and Caucasus affairs at the White House National Security Council, said the theories appeared to focus on the US Cooperative Threat Reduction Program , which was created to decommission Soviet-era chemical and biological weapons.
He said the program “has long provided fodder for Russian propaganda campaigns” and can be particularly effective on Russian residents.
“In a media environment almost completely dominated by Kremlin narratives – with few independent or Western outlets remaining – creating a pretext for escalation that the Russian public will access to using these well-worn narratives is an easy task,” Wilde said.
The “biolabs” conspiracy theories were almost unheard of until the day of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Pyrra Technologies, a cybersecurity and threat intelligence company, said the first mention of biolabs came on the far-right social network Gab on Feb. 14, 10 days before the invasion. The user included an awkwardly worded graphic, titled “Exclusive US biolabs in Ukraine, and they are financed at the expense of the US Department of Defense.”
The post largely sat idle for days. Welton Chang, the CEO of Pyrra, said posts about biolabs on the top 15 far-right social networks numbered in the single digits in the days before Russia’s invasion. But on Feb. 24, the day Russia began its invasion, the number of posts about biolabs on English-language far-right websites skyrocketed into the hundreds and only grew in the days after.
Boosted by far-right influencers on the day of the invasion, an anonymous QAnon Twitter account titled @WarClandestine pushed the “biolabs” theory to new heights, using the same “US biolabs” graphic initially included on the Gab post that went largely unshared the week before.
Twitter said the account and others that pushed the biolabs theory were banned for “multiple violations of our abusive behavior policy.”
The biolab conspiracy theory has taken over as the prevailing narrative on pro-Trump and QAnon websites like The Great Awakening and Patriots.Win.
Chang said the rhetoric on pro-Trump sites, which had largely been anti-Putin in the first days of the war, has shifted because of the biolab conspiracy theory.
“These communities already know what the rhythm and cadence of Covid conspiracies should be like to get people to buy it,” Chang said. “They had a lot of practice with QAnon. The kinds of things that get people excited, like any time you say ‘secret biolab,’ it gets people’s emotions up. ”
Russian and Chinese officials have also boosted the theory. On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry began pushing the conspiracy theory, asking for a “full account” of Ukraine’s “biological military activities at home and abroad.”
By Wednesday, almost two weeks after the invasion, the conspiracy theory had reached Carlson, who led his show claiming that the “Biden administration was funding secret biolabs in Ukraine.”
On Thursday, Russia requested a meeting at the UN Security Council about “military biological activities” in the US
The Kremlin has a long history of planting false reports that the US was developing chemical or biological warfare to distract from its own use of such weapons, said Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of a history of Soviet and US disinformation tactics.
In the early 1980s, as Soviet forces deployed chemical agents in Afghanistan and Laos, the Kremlin tried to distract from such attacks by publishing false tales, such as one that the CIA was developing weaponized mosquitoes in Pakistan to spread encephalitis in Afghanistan.
“There were multiple incidents of Soviet disinformation that involved claims of American bioweapons, including the big one, HIV / AIDS,” Rid said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another attempt at accusing the other side of the thing they’re actually doing,” Rid said.
Zignal Labs, which analyzes social media, broadcast, traditional media and online conversations, found that English-language influencers helped create the talking point for Russian propaganda.
“Mentions of the bioweapon lab narrative in Russian doubled on March 6th,” Zignal Labs said in a report about 10 days after the start of the invasion. From Wednesday to Friday, Russian mentions of the biolab conspiracy theory on social media have outpaced posts about the same propaganda in English, the report said.
Rid said he sees the theories as playing on some Americans’ fears about Covid.
“For the far right, I think it’s also about China and Covid,” Rid said. “It’s all mixed up in this mesh of fear and conspiracy theory about where Covid really came from. It’s just something that a lot of people can emotionally relate to, because the pandemic affected them so brutally for the past two years. ”