On Thursday afternoon, the head of the radiation, chemical, and biological defense department of the Russian Armed Forces dropped some bombshell news: Hunter Biden had funded the Pentagon’s “military-biological program” in Ukraine.
Igor Kirillov illustrated his explosive claim with a color-coded spider diagram featuring pictures of Biden alongside a smiling George Soros and links to the Democrat Party and multiple U.S. government departments. What he didn’t back it up with was any actual evidence.
But just like the wider “U.S.-funded biolabs in Ukraine” conspiracy, Kirillov and the Kremlin don’t need facts, because they know that simply mentioning Hunter Biden’s name in the same sentence as “biolabs” would get them exactly what they wanted.
And just hours later, Fox News’ top-rated host, Tucker Carlson, gave it to them:
In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a consensus emerged outside of Russia: The Kremlin had lost the information war.
This thesis took hold because Russia’s initial attempts to convince the world it had a valid reason for invading a sovereign country failed spectacularly, as open-source researchers and journalists on the front line quickly and easily debunked fake videos and the obvious false flag operations the Kremlin was using as pretexts for war.
Add the sophisticated and slick use of social media by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials, plus viral stories of Ukrainians facing down Russian forces, and it’s easy to see why people might have believed the information war had been won.
But Russia has been in this game for longer than most, and there were indications that measures the Kremlin had put in place years ago were beginning to reap rewards. For example, this viral map produced by a German media outlet secretly backed by the Kremlin was shared widely among progressives and served to distract those viewing it from the horrors unfolding in Ukraine by flagging other conflicts happening around the globe.
What the Kremlin was waiting for was a narrative that would take hold not inside its own country, but globally, and in the biolabs conspiracy, it found the perfect one.
The conspiracy broadly claims that the U.S. is helping fund biolabs inside Ukraine (which is true) and that those laboratories are developing biological or chemical weapons that will be used against Russia (which is not true). Variations of the theory claim Ukraine was behind COVID-19, and that perennial right-wing bogey figures like Hillary Clinton and Anthony Fauci are involved.
As the biolabs conspiracy took hold earlier this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki blamed Moscow and Beijing for spreading the false narrative—but in reality, the conspiracy was homegrown.
Claims that the U.S. has been funding biolabs to develop chemical or biological weapons around the world have been circulating for years, but the Ukraine conspiracy theory was born on Feb. 14 on the far-right Christian social network Gab, when a user posted a map of Ukraine, claiming to show the locations of U.S.-funded biolabs.
The map, first reported by NBC, attracted just three comments, but on the day the invasion began, the same image was shared by an anonymous Twitter account called @WarClandestine, which had previously shared QAnon conspiracy theories.
A thread by that account claiming to have uncovered the “real” reason why Russian President Vladimir Putin was invading Ukraine garnered huge attention, and though Twitter subsequently removed the account, the damage was done.
A month later, right-wing communities still view @WarClandestine’s thread as verifiable proof that the conspiracy is real, and it has pervaded conspiracy theory communities like QAnon, as well as the wider pro-Trump MAGA world typified by Carlson’s credulous section on Thursday night’s show.
Today, the biolabs story is everywhere. Along with Carlson’s unending willingness to give airtime to conspiracy theories and Kremlin propaganda, new research by Brookings this week showed that it is being boosted by hugely popular right-wing U.S. podcast hosts, including Steve Bannon, Dan Bongino, and Charlie Kirk.
These figures are also boosting this conspiracy on their social media channels, and those platforms are struggling to control it.
New research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) showed that on Facebook, up to 80% of the posts sharing the bioweapons conspiracy have not been labeled to inform readers that the posts are missing context or contain partly or entirely false information.
The bioweapons conspiracy has become canon among many right-wing communities, who are using it as a way to justify their defense of Putin, who has committed war crimes against the Ukrainian people.
The conspiracy has also taken hold in many communities outside the U.S., as exemplified by Matthew from Derby, who spoke to TalkRadio in the U.K. this week:
The conspiracy may not have originated in the Kremlin’s disinformation department, but they’ve done everything in their power to keep it in the news.
As well as pushing out this narrative via its army of cyber trolls, the government’s highest-profile figures continue to push the conspiracy at every opportunity to help convince their own citizens that the war is justified.
“The Pentagon has placed biolabs all along the Russian border,” Sergei Lavrov said in an interview earlier this week. “Ukraine is their biggest project. It's a clear threat to international peace and security.”
Experts also worry the Kremlin could be boosting this narrative as a pretext to use chemical weapons inside Ukraine.
Last week the Russian Defense Ministry released documents that claimed to prove that the U.S. was training migratory birds to carry bioweapons from Ukraine into Russia.
And now it’s claiming that Hunter Biden is involved, knowing full well that use of his name will result in another cycle of credulous reporting from America’s hugely influential right-wing media machine.
On Thursday night, the conspiracy came full circle when the person who shared the original Twitter thread that caused the biolabs conspiracy to explode told his 51,000 Telegram followers that Carlson was helping spread the conspiracy among the ”normies.”
“Say what you want, but the most-watched news show in America is talking about Hunter Biden’s connection to biolab funding in Ukraine via Rosemont Seneca,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. “The normies are being herded on a collision course with the truth. They are on the cusp of piecing it all together. Make no mistake, this is culminating into a mass realization the likes of which the world has never seen.”
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.