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Russia Crafts Ukraine Disinfo to Appeal to US Audience: Experts

  • Russia is pushing conspiracy theories about “crisis actors” and secret bio-weapons labs.
  • Experts say some narratives appear designed to specifically appeal to US conspiracy theorists.
  • High-profile right-wing influencers in the US have pushed Russian disinformation about Ukraine.

New conspiracy theories about the Ukraine conflict are sweeping social media, promoted by Russia and embraced by swaths of the Western far-right.

At a UN security Council Meeting on Friday, Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia claimed the US established secret labs in Ukraine to research bio-weapons.

An aim of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, he said, was to destroy those labs and eliminate a threat to humanity.

He went on to claim that pregnant women pictured bloodied and injured after Russia bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 10 were “crisis actors,” playing the part of victims in an elaborate plot to frame Russia.

The conspiracy theories were promoted by a range of Russian diplomatic accounts, as well as by Chinese state-run publications and its foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.

They are claims more commonly seen in the darkest corners of the internet, rather than voiced in the United Nations or by career diplomats.

But experts say that the resemblance is no coincidence — and that the claims appear to have been designed by Russia partly to appeal to America’s thriving conspiracy-theory culture.

It’s part of a disinformation campaign by Russia to foster support for its actions in Ukraine, and corrode trust in official sources of information, in a playbook it has perfected during recent conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, say experts.

Some believe that Russia in tailoring its disinformation to appeal to a growing audience in the West, using memes that have long been popular among western conspiracy theorists.

Carlson, bio-labs

Fox News host Tucker Carlson on an edition of his show on March 11 promotes the claim that the US is running secret balls in Ukraine.

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Joe Ondrak, head of investigations at Logically AI, told Insider that Russia has long promoted conspiracy theories about secret US bio-labs in former Soviet states. One in 2018, he said, centered on lab in Georgia, another post-Soviet state where Russia has annexed territory in recent years.

Ondrak said that the COVID pandemic, and the rise of online conspiracy theory movements like QAnon, had bolstered the appetite in the West for conspiracy theories.

The audience, he said, had become “extremely receptive to this kind of messaging — discovering old posts and circulating them before catching on to Russia’s messaging now.”

“One of the things I’ve found quite interesting is that it’s clear Russia is aware of this new audience and is, to an extent, playing to the crowd,” said Ondrak, singling out the “crisis actors” conspiracy theory Russia has promoted .

“They’re playing the hits that they know a certain Western demographic will be particularly receptive to,” he said. “The language used now seems a little more directed to be picked up on by Western conspiracists.”

So-called “false flag” conspiracy theories, alleging government plots to stage atrocities, have long been a staple of US conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones of Infowars.

They were most notoriously promoted about school mass shootings such as Parkland or Sandy Hook. Jones and other right-wing conspiracy theorists have sought to portray victims of the attacks as “crisis actors” faking their involvement in an attack.

“Moscow definitely has its target audience in mind by promoting ‘crisis actors’ conspiracy theories that are easily proven false,” tweeted disinformation analyst Cindy Otis on Monday.

Conspiracist websites promote Russian disinformation

Already, conservative influencers such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson and social media personality Candace Owens have embraced the bio-labs conspiracy theory. Some on the left, such as former Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, have done the same.

The conspiracy theories pushed by Russia are also being channeled through a complex ecosystem of conspiracy theory websites and social media channels, said Alexander Reid Ross, an expert at the Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right. They are then picked up by key influencers, further fueling their spread.

Clips of figures like Carlson pushing the conspiracy theory can then be played on Russian state media, completing the circle.

Marc Owen Jones, another disinformation researcher, told Insider that the bio-labs conspiracy theory was being promoted on Russian channels via the Telegram app before spreading to other conspiracist outlets and being promoted by government officials.

An analysis by Kate Starbird, an expert in disinformation at the University of Washington, found that people talking about the bio-labs conspiracy theory on Twitter were most frequently linking back to US far-right and other fringe outlets, including the National Pulse.

Though Russia is seeking to adapt its narratives to a new audience, to some observers, the core claims are pretty familiar.

Reid Ross told Insider that Russia was dusting off a disinformation playbook it perfected during the Cold War, and refined in recent conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

He said that back in the ’80s Russian intelligence, as part of Operation Infektion, had spread the false claim that the US had developed the AIDs virus in secret labs.

“This is just typical disinformation, which for Russia goes back to the KGB days when they started obsessing about AIDS as a “bioweapon,”” said Reid Ross of the most recent iteration of the bio-labs conspiracy theory.

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