The comedian and social commentator Russell Brand recently weighed in on claims made by the Russian government regarding "biolabs" in Ukraine. On March 6, the Russian government's Twitter account alleged that during Putin's invasion of Ukraine, evidence of an emergency clean-up operation "aimed at eradicating traces of the military-biological program" was found in various research facilities in the country. Along with Brand, right-wing commentators like Fox News' Tucker Carlson have repeated the claims, and many conspiracy communities, including QAnon, have latched onto the idea. This misinformation narrative has conveniently lined up with origin myths of COVID-19, while also providing the Kremlin with additional detail to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Brand's appeal stems from his relatability and entertainment value. He's bolshy, brash, with a vast vocabulary and an Essex accent. He offers his fans a sense of authenticity not dissimilar to Joe Rogan or Nigel Farage, but with his own distinct persona. From his chaotic on-screen career that cemented his "lovable rogue" reputation to his deep involvement in wellness and spirituality, he has followed the unfortunate but well-trodden path into the dubious regurgitation of misinformation couched as "truth." He offers his audience a window into a world of his own brand of forbidden knowledge, straight out of the conspiracy theory ABC.
Russell Brand's career has spanned a range of iterations, including TV presenter, comedian, political and social activist, and wellness guru. Hailing from a working-class background, Brand got his big break hosting his own show on MTV, "The Dancefloor Chart." He was fired due to various hijinks on the show and issues stemming from a vicious crack and heroin addiction. As a stand-up comedian, he has talked frankly about his battles with addiction; since getting clean, he has gone on to work with and support people struggling with addiction as part of a 12-step program. He has been vocal about his commitments to veganism and clean living and has studied spirituality and religions in depth. His public refusal to participate in elections and calls to the public to similarly abstain took a sharp about-turn when he eventually voted Labour in 2015. His fans were outraged and labeled him a "turncoat." He went on to gain recognition as a fledgling commercial actor in Hollywood but was unsatisfied with the artifice that came with the lifestyle.
Brand's activism is rooted in the struggles of working-class people. He has drawn public attention to – and personally supported – grassroots actions such as that of the New Era housing estate, which protested rent hikes by London's Hackney council in 2014. His YouTube career began around the same time, with "The Trews," his take on "true news." His podcast and interview series "Under the Skin" started in 2017, in which a broad array of guests, including quantum physicists, economists, and writers, appear in discussion with him. Brand's content has historically covered all manner of topics, from wellness to politics, and everything in between. Brand reminds his audience that his videos are in fact "a two-way discourse where, admittedly, I do most of the talking," before encouraging them to purchase tickets to his ongoing live tour.
The millions of people who feel disillusioned with the current political landscape and its leaders – perhaps those who may have followed Brand's no voting stance in 2014 – might understably be tempted by an alternative source of hidden "truth," full of holes and backed up by dodgy source material.
Using the idea that governments and institutions are the gatekeepers of secret information, Brand further exploits this space, filling it with a range of blurry assertions. These include the narratives about the World Economic Forum, "The Great Reset," anti-vaccine narratives, the Canadian and U.S. truckers’ convoy, and Justin Trudeau, along with a host of other common misinformation talking points. The millions of people who feel disillusioned with the current political landscape and its leaders – perhaps those who may have followed Brand's no voting stance in 2014 – are tempted by an alternative source of hidden "truth," full of holes and backed up by dodgy source material.
The Conspiracy Pipeline
In a post on March 11, Brand offers the disclaimer that "explaining is not condoning. By explaining something, you're not condoning it. You're trying to understand it, trying to get a better perspective." He then references an article by journalist Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald's trajectory has been remarkable: known for his reporting on U.S. mass surveillance programs, the Operation Car Wash scandal in Brazil, quitting the news organization he helped to found due to claims he was being censored, and then in the last few years, taking a sharp and measurable right turn. Greenwald employs footage from a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting, in which Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland responds to questions from senators. Greenwald's commentary of the footage supports the conspiracy theory motif of hidden knowledge, claiming that Nuland accidentally admits to the presence of U.S.funded "biolabs" in Ukraine. The New York Times commented, "The State Department said Ms. Nuland was referring to Ukrainian diagnostic and biodefense laboratories during her testimony, which are different from biological weapons facilities." Neither Greenwald nor Brand found this convincing and instead weaponized that explanation to fuel a false narrative.
The term "biolab" is, in itself, a misnomer. In the context of Russia's claims, it is supposed to mean a place in which biological weapons are engineered. In reality, U.S.-funded biological research facilities can be found not only in Ukraine, but across Europe and the Caucus, working to counter potential diseases and outbreaks. Biological research facilities – or biolabs – can also be found in educational institutions around the world and are in no way secretive, mysterious, or hidden.
In the 1990s, the U.S. started its "Biological Threat Reduction Program" with partner countries as a way to "counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental, or natural) of the world's most dangerous infectious diseases." The U.S. Department of Defense states: "all member countries of the World Health Organization International Health Regulations must have such capabilities to detect and respond to disease threats." According to the Department of Defense, these research laboratories receive some technical support and funding from the U.S. and are under Ukrainian management. In some circumstances, they are used to stabilize various biological threats created under the USSR's illegal biological weapons program. Essentially, these labs are there to secure and prevent biological risks and "ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats." There is no evidence that biological weapons are being produced on these sites.
The manipulation of Nuland's words by both Greenwald and Brand has provided them with a convenient sub-narrative that, unwittingly or not, justifies Putin's war crimes. In the same Senate hearing, Nuland goes on to speak of concerns regarding Russian troops gaining control of these research laboratories and, presumably, whatever they claim is inside them, stating that U.S. security forces are acting to prevent such a situation. The U.S. government has made no secret of its fears of a textbook false flag scenario, in which Russia throws out accusations of biological warfare threats from Ukraine as a pretext for committing its own atrocities. It wouldn't be the first time.
We can track the propagation of the “biolabs” conspiracy from its inception; a single post from a refurbished QAnon account on the far-right social network, Gab. Journalists Ben Collins and Kevin Collier reported on the growth of this narrative, tracking its growing potency over the 10 days before the invasion of Ukraine. By the first day of the invasion, the idea had bloomed and similar posts were all over social media. Cybersecurity network Pyrra Technologies has the data. A serve from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, followed by volleys from Tucker Carlson and Greenwald, and this misinformation lands precisely where intended.
Brand's claims of "explaining" from another perspective are essentially hot takes on another writer's work aimed at whipping his followers into a frenzy. Brand invites his audience to make assessments "with our own little eyes and our own little minds." The "do your own research" tactic is well-documented in its pitfalls relating to science and medicine. Researching such topics often fuels misconceptions when conducted without a methodology, without proper context, and without using reliable, vetted sources. Brand's chosen road leads his audience to a shadowy doorway to conspiracy theories, misinformation, and Russian propaganda. Brand says he’s “explaining, not condoning” – but he’s boosting a lie, and dodging responsibility for doing so.