Russia’s ongoing information warfare campaign has leveraged state television, as well as social media bots and troll farms run by its intelligence services, to spread fallacies about COVID-19. The EU disinformation monitoring team, formally known as the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force, collected more than 110 coronavirus-related disinformation cases from Russian sources in the January 22–March 19, 2020, timeframe. Publicly available from the EUvsDisinfo database, the disinformation cases covered a wide range of narratives, including claims the coronavirus was a biological weapon deployed by China, the United States, the United Kingdom or even Russia, and that the true origin of the coronavirus is the United States or US-owned laboratories across the world. An updated report in May by the group found pro-Kremlin sources continuing to push narratives linking COVID-19 to biological warfare, and both pro-Kremlin outlets and Chinese officials and state media falsely portraying high-security public health labs in former Soviet republics as involved in covert development of biological weapons. Analysis of Russia’s evolving tactics shows an increasing amplification of disinformation originating elsewhere, such as Iran, China or the US far right, to avoid accusations of Russia creating false content.
The Influence Operations Playbook
Using disinformation to divert attention from the mismanagement of public health crises and to stoke fears about scientific and medical issues is not a new tactic. Active measures and influence operations were a major component of anti-American strategy throughout the Cold War.
The most prominent public health campaign, in the 1980s, linked acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) to biological weapons. Capitalizing on the uncertainty that prevailed about the origins of AIDS, and the strong public fear and uncertainty provoked by the disease, the Soviet Union fabricated and pushed a narrative asserting that AIDS was the result of American biological warfare experiments. The story was initially planted in an obscure KGB proxy newspaper in India, The Patriot, purportedly written by an American “insider” claiming that AIDS had come from US labs connected to Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency experiments and intended to target people in Africa. After a couple of years, the story was repeated by the Soviet journal, Literaturnaya Gazeta, and the story started spreading. It spread particularly well in the developing world, where the high cost of Western satellite feeds limited access to Western news while Soviet-bloc news services proliferated. Despite repeated rebuttals, there are many across the globe, including in America, who still believe AIDS was made in a US lab.
One of the earliest public health disinformation campaigns took place during the Korean War in 1951 and 1952, when China and North Korea alleged that the United States dropped disease-carrying insects over North Korea and northeast China to spread plague, anthrax, cholera and other diseases. A lesser-known campaign, around the same time as the Korean War, was driven by East Germany’s allegations that American planes had dropped Colorado beetles over its potato fields to induce starvation of the East German people. A German biological warfare expert commented in 2013 on a BBC World Service program: “The story was aimed at covering the government’s own inability to fight the beetles, and provided a handy extra accusation to hurl at the Americans....The East German government…had political convictions and they were concerned by the increasing danger of the developing Cold War.” Similar claims were made decades later, in the mid-1990s, by Cuba, which accused the United States of deliberately introducing insects that ravaged the Cuban potato crop. The accusations led to the only formal consultative meeting convened under the Biological Weapons Convention in its 45-year history, but the meeting was unsuccessful in getting to the bottom of the incident and the verdict was left undetermined.
During the 2002–2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, a Russian scientist claimed the virus was a mixture of measles and mumps that could only be made in a lab. Many Chinese seized on the notion, speculating that SARS was a genetic weapon developed by the United States to target them alone, and the official China Youth Daily linked a National Institutes of Health-sponsored genetic study in China to the US genetic warfare program. The recent Ebola outbreak in Western Africa in 2014 also suffered from smatterings of conspiracy theories and disinformation (for instance, Sputnik News, the Kremlin-controlled media outlet, accused the United States of being behind the outbreak).