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Foreign Policy

False Claims of U.S. Biowarfare Labs in Ukraine Grip QAnon

Protesters display QAnon flags showing Russian President Vladimir Putin in Dresden, Germany, on Oct. 17, 2021. Matthias Rietschel/Getty Images

Pro-Russian channels and QAnon conspiracy theorists think Moscow is launching airstrikes on Ukraine to destroy bioweapon-manufacturing labs in order to prevent the American infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci from creating a sequel to the COVID-19 virus.

This theory hangs on the entirely discredited idea that the coronavirus was designed as a bioweapon, perhaps by the U.S. government itself. And yet, the theory is being shared thousands of times, faster than regulated social media networks can yank the conspiracy theory down. On unregulated platforms, such as Telegram and 8chan, the conspiracy theory has become incredibly popular, racking up hundreds of thousands of hits each day.

The theory is now being actively contributed to, and promoted, by one Russian embassy, an official Russian state propaganda outlet, and media channels in Serbia and China.

The Russian government has laid the groundwork for this conspiracy for some time. In January, a Russian-language Telegram account warned that a “full-fledged network of biological laboratories has been deployed,” studying deadly viruses that are already making people sick in Kazakhstan with “American grants.” The Russian newspaper Izvestia ran a story in May 2020 making similar claims, and they have been repeated in pro-Russian Ukrainian news sites. A close advisor of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has accused the United States of developing “more and more biological laboratories … mainly by the Russian and Chinese borders.”

The conspiracy has received past support in Chinese propaganda, after Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying said last May, in response to claims in Australian media about China’s own supposed biowarfare programs, that the United States had been secretly working on biolabs and had 16 in Ukraine alone. Chinese state media has repeatedly spread the false claim that the coronavirus originated from the U.S. Army base at Fort Detrick. The conspiracy theory even pushed the Security Service of Ukraine to debunk the allegation of American-run bioweapons facilities in 2020.

Yet the conspiracy theory emerged with new purpose this week. The most recent incarnation of this conspiracy theory seems to have begun with the moderately prominent—and now suspended—Twitter account @WarClandestine, which posted two maps comparing Russian airstrikes and “US biolabs in Ukraine.”

“It certainly appears Putin is targeting the cities and locations with #USBiolabs present,” the account tweeted. “He is 100% going after the alleged bioweapons.”

The @WarClandestine account, and others linked to it, do seem to legitimately belong to an American, whose first name is Jacob and who has occasionally posted images and video of himself—in one TikTok video, he says he served in the U.S. Army. Over the past two years, the account has frequently shared QAnon conspiracy theories, often racking up thousands of retweets on Twitter before being suspended from the platform for spreading misinformation.

In December 2020, the account earned mockery after sharing an overwrought story of a date that went badly due to his support for Donald Trump. In recent weeks, the account was closely following the anti-vaccine occupation in Canada, at one point tweeting at Ottawa’s police force: “We got enough rope for your fascist asses too. When all is said and done, you’ll be swinging with the rest of them.”

The supporting evidence for @WarClandestine’s Ukrainian bioweapons idea is flimsy, even by conspiracy theory standards: The account rests on little more than the assumption that all laboratories that accept American funding are responsible for creating bioweapons. It also uses the nebulous term “biolabs” to describe a wide swath of facilities, which are numerous and common in every European country.

But even a lazy conspiracy theory can take hold if it is promoted enough.

Within hours of the initial tweet, the conspiracy site Infowars published a story largely regurgitating the conspiracy theory. Not long after, the right-wing media site OpIndia ran a similar story. While Infowars’ social media reach is stunted by bans from most major websites, OpIndia’s version of the story was shared more than 2,500 times to Facebook. A constellation of other anti-vaccine and QAnon websites picked up the story from there. A write-up on one minor conspiracy site was shared widely among Bulgarian speakers.

Through all this, the hashtag #usbiolabs began trending. TikTok videos promoting the theory racked up tens of thousands of hits. “If you believe those U.S.-funded biolabs in Ukraine aren’t making biological weapons, please sit all the way down,” one TikTok user said. A YouTube video, regurgitating the Infowars shared, was viewed some 350,000 times by Tuesday afternoon. After Twitter suspended @WarClandestine, screencaps of his theory were posted on Reddit, on a part of the site notorious for disinformation known as “r/conspiracy,” where it hit nearly 2,000 upvotes. On the QAnon sections of the fringe message board 8chan, users linked a series of unconnected data points to flesh out the sensational tale.

The baseless nature of the conspiracy theory was picked up by such debunkers as Snopes and @PatriotTakes.

With Russia’s war effort struggling against fierce Ukrainian resistance, the Russians gave the story a boost.

On Feb. 27, the Russian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina came out endorsing the theory, posting on Facebook, according to Serbian broadcaster N1, that the United States was “filling Ukraine with biolabs, which were—very possibly—used to study methods for destroying the Russian people at the genetic level.”

Requests for comment sent to the Russian embassies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada went unanswered.

@WarClandestine, after being suspended by Twitter, reappeared under a new account not-so-subtly labeled “Definitely Not Clandestine” to share the Serbian news item. “My hypothesis was correct!” he wrote, in a tweet that garnered more than a thousand retweets in a matter of hours. He has also popped up on the unregulated social media sites Gettr and Telegram.

By Tuesday morning, an official channel for Sputnik, a Kremlin-owned propaganda outlet, posted to Telegram: “Here are some of the documents on US biolabs in Ukraine,” posting documents from the U.S. government. (While they do not show anything nefarious or unusual, the documents appear to be offline as of Tuesday afternoon.) The idea has also returned to the fringes of Chinese state media, not heavily promoted but present in coverage.

Mention of these biolabs and the missing documents were seen hundreds of thousands of times across an array of Russian-language Telegram accounts, including several that have had a particularly large role in spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda since the war began and that were, immediately prior, sharing information complimentary of anti-vaccine convoys in the United States and Canada. One concluded that “the United States was engaged in the creation of a deadly virus in a biolaboratory in Kharkov”—the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv has been subject to a particularly brutal bombing campaign, with at least nine civilians dying in airstrikes on Monday.

The premise of the theory is baseless. Ukraine has no labs labeled as “BSL-4,” the highest grade that allows them to work on the most dangerous pathogens, and only one BSL-3 lab. American support for the facility is not secret and has funded science on a number of zoonotic diseases in Ukraine: Washington also funds facilities in Georgia and even Russia-friendly Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The United States has been engaged in a program known as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which cooperates on reducing epidemiological risk in Ukraine and elsewhere: Some of the Russian reporting has mistranslated this as the “Special Defense Weapons Agency.”

We also know, from a U.S. intelligence community assessment and a preponderance of scientific evidence from around the world, that the COVID-19 virus was not a bioweapon. Just this week, new research bolstered the idea that the coronavirus spilled over from an animal host in a live animal market in Wuhan, China—further decreasing the likelihood it spread into the world after a lab leak.

This would not be the first time that a conspiracy theory was posted to Twitter and moved through the pipeline of QAnon and Infowars – ideas that sometimes emerge as dogma for the right wing of the Republican Party. Allegations that the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and World Economic Forum head Klaus Schwab are secretly plotting a global socialist takeover has become an increasingly common take—seen everywhere from the streets of Ottawa in recent weeks, to Trump’s official speeches, to government policy in authoritarian-leaning Hungary.

On Saturday, @WarClandestine, using the name Jacob, called in to the major QAnon-peddling RedPill78 podcast, which featured a special guest: Republican congressional candidate J.R. Majewski—whom host Zak Paine introduced as “fresh off the boat, having lunch with POTUS [Trump] today.” Majewski is seeking the Republican nomination in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, a toss-up district where he has netted an impressive fundraising haul. He attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida last month, where he took a selfie in the front row of Trump’s speech. He claimed on the livestream that he had lunch with Trump at Mar-a-Lago afterward, where they discussed Trump’s planned presidential campaign and the war in Ukraine.

The podcast host and guests expounded on the idea that the U.S. government had created the coronavirus— as well as HIV and other viral infections. “That truly does give us an avenue for military tribunals,” Jacob said.

At the end of the call, Jacob said he was keen to run for a congressional seat in Virginia in 2024.