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Double Check: Are U.S.-Funded Biolabs Building Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Double Check: Are U.S.-Funded Biolabs Building Weapons of Mass Destruction?

On March 6, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the Pentagon of financing a "military-biological program" in Ukraine, falsely claiming the U.S. is funding biological research facilities or "biolabs." The U.S. and Ukraine vehemently denied the claims, which are meritless. Regardless, China has amplified the Russian narrative, and U.S. right-wing media, including Fox News, has also repeated the biolab conspiracy theory. What started as a false claim soon became coordinated propaganda.

Ukraine is not the only country to have been targeted by a biolab conspiracy theory. The same conspiracy theory about the U.S. funding biological research facilities has appeared in countries such as Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Taiwan. The Kremlin's disinformation campaign, which has also formed part of COVID-19 misinformation, has been long-running and well documented. In addition, China has been notorious for amplifying Russian disinformation. According to a U.S.  report, there was a three-fold increase in Chinese diplomats retweeting Russian sources on Twitter in 2022.

We decided to trace the narrative's origin and analyze why the idea of "biolabs" has been so effective in the conspiracy world.

Biolab conspiracies and why they work

During World War I, Germany used biological weapons and attempted to spread the bubonic plague in St. Petersburg, Russia. In World War II, Japanese forces experimented on more than 3,000 people and used bioweapons in China. 

It took another 30 years to attempt to limit biological warfare. The U.S. and USSR ratified a multilateral disarmament treaty in 1972 called the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). This international treaty banned biological warfare and prohibited the use, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons of mass destruction. However, the Soviet Union violated the treaty by engaging in a biological weapons program the same year it signed the treaty. The U.S. Department of Defense has also been reluctant to strengthen the treaty's verification compliance, meaning that violations can go unpunished. 

Russian propaganda in former Soviet Republics

Years before the U.S.-funds-biolabs-in-Ukraine conspiracy theory emerged, Russia employed similar disinformation campaigns in several former Soviet republics, including Georgia and Kazakhstan.

The Richard Lugar Laboratory in Tbilisi, part of Georgia's National Center for Disease Control and Public Health, has been the target of Russian disinformation since 2012. David Naroushvili from Georgia's Reforms Associates (GRASS) said that pro-Kremlin propaganda "got a large-scale impetus in 2016 when Russian high officials accused Georgia and Lugar Laboratory of spreading infectious diseases in Russia." But the claim that received the most public attention, Naroushvili revealed, was the lab's alleged role in the origins of COVID-19. As GRASS reported, Georgian far-right and pro-Russian groups amplified false claims that Lugar Lab, in partnership with U.S. non-governmental organization EcoHeath Alliance, purposefully created COVID-19.  

Around the same time, a similar narrative appeared in Kazakhstan. The Central Reference Laboratory in Almaty, which studies infectious diseases, was blamed for the outbreak of COVID-19. Kazakh fact-checking organization Factcheck.kz debunked the claim. Editor-in-chief Pavel Bannikov told Logically that another prominent narrative leveled against the Central Reference Laboratory is that it is a "secret American military lab." 

The program's aim was not to build biological weapons, but to do precisely the opposite: dismantle weapons of mass destruction.

While it's true that in 1991, as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the U.S. funded laboratories in some former Soviet republics, including Georgia and Kazakhstan, the program's aim was not to build biological weapons, but to do precisely the opposite: dismantle weapons of mass destruction. With the rise in Russian propaganda against the labs, both Georgia and Kazakhstan have issued official statements denying the allegations. The countries' official reports clarified that the Central Reference Laboratory and Lugar Lab were "fully owned" and financed by the respective governments.  

Paul Stronksi, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has explained that the "disease-control labs" in "former fiefs of the Soviet empire" are prominent examples of the successful diplomacy program the U.S. "has ever undertaken." According to Stronksi, this is one of the primary reasons the labs constantly face Russian propaganda. 

Xi and Putin's Collaboration

When it comes to pushing disinformation narratives about the U.S. and its alleged "secret bioweapons" programs, Russia and China are united. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Geng Shuang of the Chinese Foreign Ministry repeated Russia's conspiracy theories about U.S. laboratories in former Soviet countries. 

More recently, a false narrative about the Central Reference Laboratory was seized upon and promoted by Chinese state media. The narrative stated that, in the unrest of January 2022, rioters attacked the "U.S. military biological laboratory" in Almaty. This narrative, which first appeared in Russian-language media outlet NewsFrol, made its way to Russia, China, Taiwan, and Kazakhstan. 

Factcheck.kz's editor-in-chief Pavel Bannikov told Logically that he first saw the NewsFrol link on WhatsApp. When Chinese state media echoed and translated the rhetoric into Chinese, Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFCC) debunked the claim. According to TFCC, Chinese media Duowei News and Global Times spread the propaganda by directly boosting quotes from Russia's state newspaper, Izvestia.

But it's not just China amplifying Russian disinformation. Indeed, their relationship is a combined effort to spread burgeoning conspiracy theories that serve both countries' interests. 

The "co-creation of narratives" between Russia and China is possible due to state-controlled media outlets, which selectively amplify content beneficial to national and allied interests.

Maria Repnikova, assistant professor at Georgia State University, and an expert in Chinese Political communication, unpacked the evolving Russia-China disinformation nexus in a talk. She pointed out that the "co-creation of narratives" between the two countries is possible due to state-controlled media outlets, which selectively amplify content beneficial to national and allied interests. 

A Doublethink Labs report highlights state-media relations and content sharing agreements between China and Russia. In 2015, Russia Today (RT) signed a "cooperation agreement" with China Central Radio and Television. The report suggests that such agreements allow both nations to further each other's propaganda and significantly shape local public opinion. Repnikova agrees, "It's more about appealing to domestic publics, nationalistic publics, versus appealing to external audiences." 

While disinformation may initially target one type of audience, the online sphere makes it easy for bad actors to cast a wider net, influencing citizens in different nations. Influential, verified social media accounts amplifying disinformation can determine its speed and reach. This means that when Russia and China's official foreign ministry accounts spread propaganda, the consequences can be far-reaching.

The virality of conspiracy theories portraying research facilities as "biolabs" reflects a deep mistrust within the international community. The fact that these facilities work with several pathogens to carry out routine disease monitoring is misrepresented as a threat. The complicated history of biological warfare only makes things murkier. For this reason, fact-checking organizations such as Taiwan FactCheck Center, Factcheck.kz, and GRASS are more critical than ever to help contextualize the narratives and counter the spread of dis/misinformation. 

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