Bioweapons, secret labs, and the CIA: pro-Kremlin actors blame the U.S. for coronavirus outbreak

Multiple narratives begin to emerge on fringe Russian outlets and social media, following a familiar playbook

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@DFRLab
Jan 30 · 5 min read
Infrared cameras monitor the temperature of passengers arriving at Wuhan train station. (Source: China News Service/Wikimedia Commons)

A previously unknown variant of coronavirus that appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019 has already infected thousands of people, with cases confirmed in at least 20 countries. While epidemiologists work to identify the exact source of the outbreak, officially known as 2019-nCov, pro-Kremlin actors are already blaming the United States for supposedly using bioweapons to disseminate the virus. So far, their efforts have gained very little traction.

The practice of spreading disinformation about public health threats is nothing new. During the Cold War, a Soviet disinformation campaign blamed the United States for the AIDS virus. Known as Operation Infektion, the campaign began in 1983 when a little-known Indian newspaper — later exposed to be financed by the Soviet leadership — published an anonymous letter with the headline, “AIDS May Invade India: Mystery Disease Caused by U.S. Experiments.” The column pushed a conspiracy theory that the virus causing AIDS was developed in an underground U.S. biological weapons lab. Over several years, the false narrative was picked up by other media, before eventually making its way to the United States, including CBS Evening News. In 1992, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service admitted that Operation Infektion had been backed by the KGB.

A similar pattern of spreading disinformation appears to be evolving alongside the current outbreak. Narratives blaming the United States for the coronavirus outbreak first appeared on fringe pro-Kremlin outlets, and are spreading to well-established Kremlin media, Russian politicians, and social media platforms including YouTube and VKontakte (VK). While it is not as far along as Operation Infektion, the mechanisms available to spread narratives quickly are much larger and faster in today’s media environment than they were during the Cold War.

Multiple narratives get things rolling

An alternate version of the narrative, disseminated by Katushya.org, states that the Chinese military is claiming the virus was artificially produced in U.S. laboratories with the goal of breaking China from within. The fringe outlet suggested that the outbreak is essentially a U.S. bioweaponry reconnaissance operation with the goal of testing the capabilities of Chinese biological weapons defenses.

Additional outlets referred to statements by pro-Kremlin military expert Igor Nikulin on TV Zvezda, who claimed that the appearance of the virus looked like sabotage. According to Nikulin, the United States actively researches lethal disease vectors to test them within a population while simultaneously developing cures for them. Similar narratives have begun to appear on more mainstream pro-Kremlin outlets, including Pravda TV and Izvestia.

Pro-Kremlin outlets claimed the United States was behind the spread of coronavirus in China. (Source: tsargrad.tv/archive, top left; topcor.ru/archive, top center; iz.ru/archive, top right; tvzvezda.ru/archive, bottom left; pravda-tv.ru/archive, bottom center; katyusha.org/archive, bottom right)

Another narrative being peddled attempted to make a connection to the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, a U.S.-supported research lab based in Tbilisi. In this version of the story, which Mythdetector.ge attributed to the outlet REN TV, the lab is one of many U.S. bases around the world for bioweapons manufacturing, implying it could be doing so again in the current outbreak. It is not the first time that the Lugar Center has been targeted by disinformation campaigns. As previously reported by EUvsDisinfo, the lab has also been blamed for an accidental hepatitis C outbreak and the processing of blood transported by U.S. diplomats to create bioweapons against Russia.

Zhirinovsky Weighs In

Russian MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky claimed the United States had economic motives for allegedly spreading the coronavirus: mostly, to undermine China’s economy. (Source: gazeta.ru/archive, left; obozrevatel.com/archive, right)

Amplification on social platforms making little progress

Screenshots of YouTube videos claiming the CIA is behind the coronavirus and that it is a bioweapon of the United States.

The Russian social network VK has is also being employed to spread the same disinformation narratives blaming the United States for the outbreak. At the time of publishing, engagement also appears limited, with some stories attracting hundreds or thousands of views and others attracting close to zero.

Accounts on the Russian social network VK spread the same narrative of the United States being behind the coronavirus. (Source: РИА КАТЮША/archive, left; Россия и МЫ/archive, center; Третий Рим. Россия (Новости Политика Юмор)/archive, right)

Conclusion


Eto Buziashvili is a Research Associate, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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