Russia Knows Just Who to Blame for the Coronavirus: America

Conspiracy theories are all over state media, following past patterns of disinformation.

A municipal worker wearing a medical face mask in Moscow
A municipal worker wearing a medical face mask cleans the snow in front of a model of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow on Feb. 7. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Wednesday marked the deadliest day yet in the battle with coronavirus, with 242 deaths reported in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak. As the virus has spread around the world, so to have conspiracy theories cropping up everywhere from India to Australia.

But in Russia the misinformation has been particularly pointed. Russia’s spin doctors have capitalized on the fear and confusion of the epidemic to point the blame at the United States, following a well-established pattern of previous Russian disinformation campaigns and evoking a Cold War-era plot by the KGB to paint HIV as a U.S. biological weapon.

Russia is certainly not alone in promulgating conspiracy theories about the virus. “At the WHO we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But in Russia these theories are appearing on prominent mainstream news discussion shows such as Big Game and Time Will Tell on Channel 1, rather than just being confined to squalid corners of the internet. In late January, the firebrand leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia party told a Moscow radio station that he thought coronavirus was an American bioweapon or a big plot by pharmaceutical companies to get richer.

Russian efforts to undermine Western countries long predates the outbreak of coronavirus. The nature of the messaging and their singling out of the United States are typical of the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook, which loyal editors and producers are well familiar with—and know the political necessity of sticking to.

The overarching theme of the stories that appear across the Russian media, from fringe websites to prime-time television, is that the virus is the product of U.S. labs, intended to kneecap China’s economic development. Some articles have flirted with the idea that Bill Gates or Kremlin nemesis George Soros might have had a hand in the outbreak. In one of the more bizarre turns, a host on Russia’s state-funded Channel 1 floated the idea that the name “coronavirus,” is a veiled reference to its American origins, because U.S. President Donald Trump once handed out crowns at beauty pageants, and corona means crown in Latin. (Coronaviruses are, in fact, a well-established group of viruses whose name is a reference to their shape.) 

There is, however, no agreement between Russia’s propagandists about who foretold the virus, with some claiming it was Nostradamus, others say it was the blind Bulgarian mystic Baba Vanga, or maybe even Stephen Hawking.

The Russian messaging fits a now well-established pattern in that it doesn’t look to persuade audiences of a single alternative truth. That would take effort, planning, and persuasion. Modern-day Russian propaganda has instead been described by the Rand Corp. as a “firehose of falsehood,” a steady stream of underdeveloped, sometimes contradictory conspiracy theories intended to exhaust and confuse viewers, making them question the very notion of objective truth itself. 

Right now, the main audience is largely domestic, with a sprinkling of conspiratorial reports across the different language services of Sputnik, the more tabloid of Russia’s international broadcasters. The conspiracy theories haven’t featured prominently on English-language Russian government-backed international broadcasters such as RT and Sputnik, however, according to Bret Schafer, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy who studies disinformation. While these channels have historically played around the edges of conspiracy theories, “they still want that veneer of being a legit international broadcaster,” Schafer said. 

Russian efforts to point a finger at the United States recall memories of one of the Soviet Union’s most audacious and destructive disinformation campaigns of the Cold War. 

As HIV infection rates began to rise in the 1980s, the KGB began a whisper campaign code-named Operation Infektion to portray the virus as a U.S. biological weapon in a bid to undermine Washington’s standing in the world. “The goal of these measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad that this disease is the result of secret experiments with a new type of biological weapon by the secret services of the USA and the Pentagon that spun out of control,” a KGB colonel wrote in a top-secret telegram to the intelligence services of Bulgaria, a Soviet ally. 

The story was first planted in Patriot, an obscure pro-Soviet newspaper in India that had been established with the help of the KGB. In 1983, the newspaper ran an anonymous letter that claimed to be from an American scientist under the headline, “AIDS may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments.” Despite the shocking headline, the letter went unnoticed in India, where the first case of HIV wasn’t discovered for another two years. 

After a false start in India, Operation Infektion lay dormant until 1985, when it was revisited by an extensive article melting together fact, fiction, and fear in a Soviet cultural newspaper known to have ties with the KGB. It cited the original Patriot article as a source. A Soviet-East German scientist was then recruited to write a paper that “proved” that HIV was a U.S. concoction. From there, the story rapidly picked up speed and by 1987 had spread to the media of over 80 countries and appeared in established newspapers in the United Kingdom. As with the coronavirus disinformation, Soviet propaganda alleged that HIV was an “ethnic weapon” that could only affect members of certain racial groups. 

Modern-day Russian disinformation campaigns follow a similar model, said Schafer of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. But while it took years for Operation Infektion to make it into the world’s media, the internet has allowed disinformation campaigns to go global in just a matter of weeks. Stories are often seeded on obscure news sites before being picked up and re-reported by outlets of increasing magnitude until the original source is lost. “Each outlet is just responding to the last story,” Schafer said. 

Russia’s disinformation campaigns often rely on a kernel of truth that is then blown up and distorted beyond recognition. Soviet and Russian fearmongering around viruses capitalizes on genuine U.S. experiments with bioweapons in the 1950s and ‘60s that saw researchers spray unsuspecting cities with chemicals, release bacteria into the New York City subway, and experiment with mosquitos as a way to intentionally spread disease. 

A more obscure but no less potent Russian disinformation campaign in recent years has taken aim at the Lugar Lab, a U.S.-backed public health research center in Tbilisi, Georgia, which pro-Kremlin outlets have sought to portray as a U.S. bioweapons factory on Russia’s doorstep. Undermining trust in the lab serves to drive a wedge between the United States and closely allied Georgia, which Russia fought a short but bitter war with in 2008. 

Disinformation about the facility intensifies during periods of heightened tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi, or when Georgia looks set to move closer to Western institutions, said Eto Buziashvili, a Caucasus research assistant for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. 

Yet while the Russian media has speculated wildly about the virus, the Russian government has taken the threat seriously, closing its land borders with China and checking the temperatures of reporters and officials at events attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Two people in Russia were diagnosed with the virus, having contracted it on trips to China, but they are reported to have since recovered. While disinformation doesn’t appear to have hamstrung Russia’s response to the virus, the lasting danger may be in its continued erosion of trust in the notion of truth itself. 

“Where I do think is it’s unhelpful is that it flies in the face of facts and science,” said Schafer. “The real danger is more the impact it has on trust in information”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Tag: Russia

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