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
Fringe pro-Kremlin outlets have accused the United States of using bioweapons against China, claiming the U.S. is using economic and military tools to pressure its competitor China. The economic version of the narrative, published by Topcor.ru, suggested that the ongoing trade war with China has cost the U.S. billions of dollars, and the latter would benefit from the virus undermining the former’s economy.
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.
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 nationalist Member of Parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky has also picked up these narratives, amplifying stories originating from fringe outlets and amplifying them on other channels. In one case he claimed the virus appeared in China because U.S. pharmaceutical companies want to cash in on the vaccine, while in the other he said the U.S. has allegedly used biological weapons against China. In both instances, Zhirinovsky claimed that the main goal of the U.S. would be to undermine the Chinese economy.
Amplification on social platforms making little progress
In addition to news outlets, small Russian YouTube channels are beginning to share videos which narrators discuss the coronavirus outbreak and link its appearance in China to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as well as U.S. bioweapons research. So far the spread on YouTube appears to be limited to relatively unknown Russian channels with little to no audience.
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.
It is unknown whether these narratives blaming the United States for the coronavirus outbreak will spread alongside the outbreak itself, but it serves as a reminder of Russia’s long history of employing anti-U.S. influence operations during public health crises. While Operation Infektion took years to spread, ultimately it sowed doubt regarding the origins of the AIDS virus. Their current efforts to create disinformation narratives for coronavirus have so far been more successful than their ability to amplify them. The DFRLab will continue to monitor the information environment around coronavirus.