West News Wire: Russia’s accusations concerning hidden American biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine are gaining traction in the United States, bringing together Covid-19 conspiracy theorists, QAnon devotees, and some Trump supporters.
Despite denials from independent scientists, Ukrainian leaders, and White House and Pentagon officials, the accusations’ internet popularity demonstrates that some Americans prefer Kremlin propaganda to that of the US media and government.
The Russian assertion, like any good conspiracy theory, is based on some facts: Ukraine does have a network of biological labs specialized to pathogen research, and those labs have received US financing and research support.
But the labs are owned and operated by Ukraine, and the work is not secret. It is part of an initiative called the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which aims to reduce the likelihood of deadly outbreaks, whether natural or man made.
The US efforts date back to work in the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s programme for weapons of mass destruction.
“The labs are not secret,” said Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London. “They are not being used in relation to bioweapons. This is all disinformation.”
But that has not stopped the claim from being embraced by some on the far-right, by Fox News hosts, and by groups that push debunked claims that COVID-19 is a bioweapon created by the US.
The day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an early version appeared on Twitter in a thread espousing the idea that Russia’s offensive was targeting “US biolabs in Ukraine” and was soon amplified by the conspiracy theory website Infowars.
It has spread across mainstream and lower-profile social platforms, including Telegram and Gab, that are popular with far-right Americans, COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, and adherents of QAnon, the baseless hoax that Satan worshipping paedophiles secretly shape world events.
Many of the accounts posting the claim are citing Russian propaganda outlets as sources. When Kremlin officials repeated the accusation on Thursday, saying the US was developing bioweapons that target specific ethnicities, it took a few minutes for their quotes to show up on American social media.
Several Telegram users who cited the comments said they trusted Russian propaganda over independent American journalists, or their own democratically elected officials.
“Can’t believe anything our government says!” one poster wrote. Others cited the claim while parroting Russia’s talking points about the invasion. “It’s not a “war,” it’s a much needed cleansing,” wrote a member of a Telegram group called Patriot Voices that is popular with supporters of Trump.
“Ukraine has a ton of US govt funded Bioweapons Labs that created deathly pathogens and viruses.”
Television pundits and high-profile political figures have helped spread the claim even further. Fox News host Tucker Carlson devoted segments on his shows on Wednesday and Thursday to promoting the conspiracy theory.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr said conspiracy theories around the labs were proven to be a “fact” in a tweet to his 7.3 million followers.
Both Carlson and Trump misrepresented congressional testimony from a State Department official saying the US was working with Ukraine to secure material in the biological labs, suggesting that indicated the labs were being used for illegitimate purposes.
It is not surprising that a biological research centre would contain potentially hazardous material, however.
The World Health Organization said on Thursday that it has asked Ukraine to destroy any samples that could pose a threat if released, either intentionally or accidentally.
While the disinformation poses a threat on its own, the White House warned this week the Kremlin’s latest conspiracy theory could be a prelude to a chemical or biological attack that Russia would blame on the US or Ukraine.
The conspiracy theory has also been picked up by Chinese state media, and was further amplified this week by China’s foreign ministry, which repeated Russia’s claim and called for an investigation.