How ‘Ukrainian bioweapons labs’ myth went from QAnon fringe to Fox News
A feedback loop involving Russia and Tucker Carlson is promoting claims of US funding for biological weapons in Ukraine
Justin Ling, Fri 18 Mar 2022 03.00 EDT
The American rightwing media’s trumpeting of a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biological facilities that masked a clandestine bioweapons programme has now rocketed from a fringe QAnon channel directly to Fox News and Donald Trump Jr.
The Russian propaganda machine is so engaged in sowing disinformation about their invasion of Ukraine that they are even ordering Russian TV to broadcast one of the bioweapon theory’s largest boosters: Tucker Carlson.
The conspiracy theory began in seeming obscurity. In the hours after Russia launched its aerial bombardment of Ukraine, the Twitter account of a longtime follower of the QAnon conspiracy movement remarked that approximately 30 biolabs were dotted across Ukraine.
“China and Russia indirectly (and correctly) blamed the US for the [Covid-19] outbreak,” the user, who goes by the username @WarClandestine, tweeted. “And are fearful that the US/allies have more viruses (bioweapons) to let out.” The invasion, he posited, was truly about destroying those facilities and the viruses they contained.
In effect, this theory was just a remix of an allegation that Moscow has made for years: accusing the United States of running a secret bioweapons program, often in eastern Europe. A close adviser to President Vladimir Putin alleged last year that Washington “deliberately caused” the coronavirus pandemic and pointed his finger at US-funded laboratories near Russian and Chinese borders.
In January, the Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva wrote a sensationalist piece accusing the US of conducting biological experiments on Ukrainian and Georgian soldiers. Gaytandzhieva has previously published overt Russian disinformation, and her reporting was picked up by pro-Russian channels. Gaytandzhieva was even awarded a journalism prize last month by a pro-Russian Latvian politician to “encourage her for new research”, according to a press release.
Around the same time, John Mark Dougan – an American in Moscow, on the lam from wiretapping and extortion charges in Florida – began posting a similar theory, citing a Ukrainian whistleblower. “Washington and its funded laboratories are playing a very dangerous game with these viruses,” he warned in a December 2021 video.
This disinformation laid the groundwork for the QAnon-linked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs in late February. In less than 24 hours, the far-right US conspiracy site Infowars, which played a particularly acute role in promoting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, ran a story based on the allegation. The headline read: Russian Strikes Targeting US-Run Bio-Labs in Ukraine?
From there, the theory percolated through an array of QAnon and conspiracy theory websites, podcasts and video channels.
The very core of the story is true: the Department of Defense funds biological research and laboratories in Ukraine, and elsewhere in Europe and the Caucasus, in order to surveil emerging infectious diseases and to keep secure facilities that housed a Soviet bioweapons program. But Washington insists that it does not fund biological weapons research anywhere, much less in Ukraine – a claim backed up by a bevy of international organisations and non-proliferation advocates.
Despite that, the claim made its way to Tucker Carlson Tonight, which boasts more than 3 million viewers a night on Fox News. On his show, Carlson insisted that the United States was “funding the creation of deadly pathogens” and played clips of spokespeople for the Russian anQAnon conspiracy about biolabsd Chinese regimes, accusing Washington of operating a bioweapons programme in Europe.
Carlson pursued the story on three different episodes of his show over the past week. On 10 March he brought on writer Glenn Greenwald. “When the government comes out and emphatically denies that they have biological weapons,” Greenwald said. “We know they’re not telling the truth.”
These claims have led to an active feedback loop with Russian state propaganda.
Tass, the Russian news agency seen as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, has recently accused “Ukrainian radicals” of planning to use “toxic chemicals” against Russian forces or even Ukrainian civilians. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said publicly that these labs are “deadly threats” to the Russian state. These claims have been promoted widely by an array of Russian social media channels, television stations and commentators.
The interplay between American reporting on these biolabs and the Russian response is no accident.
Mother Jones obtained a missive from the department of information and telecommunications support, instructing Russian media to, per a translation, “use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson”.
Specifically, the department called on its mouthpieces in Russian media to highlight that “activities of military biological laboratories with American participation on the territory of Ukraine carried global threats to Russia and Europe”.
All told, the propaganda effort might be an effort to cover up something much more sinister in its own back yard. In a 2021 report, the US state department took the extraordinary step of accusing Moscow of continuing its Soviet-era bioweapons programme.
While Russia submits annual reports to the United Nations stating it has no active bioweapons programme, Washington believes that “the Russian Federation has revised plans and funding to its national chemical and biological facilities.”
But the effort continues, even when contradictory.
On Thursday, state propaganda outlet Sputnik published new documents which, they claim, show “components of biological weapons were being created in Ukraine with direct US involvement and financing”. The US documents themselves, however, clearly contradict that. The Pentagon’s funding will “help to detect, prevent, and predict disease emergence in the region”, reads a 2019 request for funding, reportedly released from the Russian defense ministry.