Online security

Russian bioweapons conspiracy theory finds support in US

Despite rebuttals from independent scientists, Ukrainian leaders, and White House and Pentagon officials, the online popularity of the claims suggests some Americans are willing to trust Kremlin propaganda over the US media and government. .

Like any effective conspiracy theory, the Russian claim rests on certain truths: Ukraine maintains a network of biological labs dedicated to pathogen research, and these labs have received funding and research support from the United States. United.

But the labs are Ukrainian-owned and operated, and the work is not secret. This is part of an initiative called the Biological Threat Reduction Program which aims to reduce the likelihood of deadly disease outbreaks, whether natural or man-made. American efforts date back to the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction program.

“The labs are not secret,” Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, said in an email to The Associated Press. “They are not used in connection with biological weapons. This is all misinformation.

That hasn’t stopped the claim from being embraced by some on the far right, by Fox News hosts, and by groups pushing debunked claims that COVID-19 is a bioweapon created by the United States. .

On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an early version appeared on Twitter – in a thread espousing the idea that the Russian offensive was targeting “American biological labs in Ukraine” – and was quickly amplified by the Infowars conspiracy theory website. It has spread across mainstream and low-key social platforms, including Telegram and Gab, which are popular with far-right Americans, COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and followers of QAnon, the baseless hoax that Satan-worshipping pedophiles secretly shape world events.

Many accounts posting this allegation cite Russian propaganda outlets as sources. When Kremlin officials repeated the conspiracy theory on Thursday, saying the United States was developing bioweapons targeting specific ethnicities, it took minutes for their quotes to appear on American social media.

Several Telegram users who quoted the comments said they trusted Russian propaganda rather than independent American journalists or their own democratically elected officials.

“I can’t believe everything our government says!” a poster wrote.

Others quoted the claim while repeating Russia’s talking points about the invasion.

“This is not ‘war,’ this is a much needed cleanup,” wrote a member of a Telegram group called “Patriot Voices” that is popular with Trump supporters. “Ukraine has a ton of US government-funded bioweapons labs that have created deadly pathogens and viruses.”

Leading television pundits and political figures have helped spread this claim even further. Fox News host Tucker Carlson devoted segments of his shows Wednesday and Thursday to promoting the conspiracy theory. On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr. said conspiracy theories around the labs turned out to be “fact” in a tweet to his 7.3 million followers.

Both Carlson and Trump misrepresented congressional testimony from a State Department official claiming that the United States was working with Ukraine to secure material in biological labs, suggesting this indicated that the labs were being used at improper purposes.

However, it is not surprising that a biological research facility contains potentially hazardous materials. The World Health Organization said on Thursday it had asked Ukraine to destroy any samples that could pose a threat if released, intentionally or accidentally.

While misinformation poses a threat in itself, the White House warned this week that the Kremlin’s latest conspiracy theory could be the prelude to a chemical or biological attack that Russia blames on the United States or Ukraine.

“Frankly, this influence campaign is entirely consistent with Russia’s longstanding efforts to accuse the United States of sponsoring biological weapons work in the former Soviet Union,” the director said Thursday. US National Intelligence Agency Avril Haines in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “So it’s a classic Russian gesture.”

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.

Milton Leitenberg, arms control expert and senior research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, noted that Russia has a long history of disinformation. In the 1980s, Russian intelligence spread the conspiracy theory that the United States created HIV in a lab.

Leitenberg said many Russian scientists had visited a similar public health laboratory in the Republic of Georgia, but Russia continued to spread false claims about the facility.

“There’s nothing they don’t know about what’s going on there, and they know nothing they’re claiming is true,” Leitenberg said. “The important thing is that they know it, without a doubt.”

While gaining traction in the United States, the bioweapons claims are likely aimed at a domestic Russian audience, as a way to build support for the invasion, according to Andy Carvin, senior researcher and editor of the Digital Atlantic Council’s Forensic Research Lab, which tracks Russian disinformation.

Carvin noted that the Kremlin also spread hoaxes about Ukrainian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.

“It’s a rinse and repeat cycle to hammer out those narratives, especially for domestic audiences,” Carvin said.

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Klepper reported from Providence, RI Fichera reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press reporter Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Washington.