Kremlin media spread a stale swine flu conspiracy in the Baltics
Kremlin-funded media outlets in Russia and the Baltic states have recycled an old conspiracy theory, which was previously distributed in Georgia and Ukraine and accuses the United States military of testing biological weapons on its allies.
The spread of a demonstrably false story underlined the longevity of the Kremlin’s information operations against Russia’s smaller neighbors, and against the U.S. presence in Europe. The case echoes one of the Soviet Union’s most notorious disinformation claims: that the HIV virus was created in U.S. military labs.
On August 9, the Latvian Russian-language edition of Sputnik News published an article accusing the U.S. military of developing and testing biological weapons in the Baltic States. The story was quickly spotted by the Strategic Communications Department of the Armed Forces of Lithuania, who sent an email warning of its spread.
The “weapon” in question was identified as African Swine Fever (ASF). To support this accusation, the author of the article, Alexander Khorolenko, a columnist for both Sputnik and its Russian-language sister outlet, RIA Novosti, cited a recent outbreak of the ASF in the Baltic States. Khorolenko added:
“It’s not a far-fetched conspiracy — the facts are obvious.”
The author’s main argument was that the African Swine Fever could not have adapted to northern latitudes naturally and must have been created in a laboratory. The author argued that the Pentagon’s infectious disease labs, which operate around the world, must have developed this winter-resistant strain of ASF. This was false on several levels.
First, the chain of infection is well established. Epidemiological research has traced the current ASF outbreak in the Baltic States back through Belarus and Russia to an initial outbreak in Georgia in 2007. This, in turn, was shown to have been caused by discarded food waste from a ship.
Second, the ASF virus is highly resistant to low temperatures, which means the virus did not need to “adapt” to northern latitudes.
Third, the Pentagon’s infectious disease labs are research centers, which were set up to counter, not develop biological threats. A Pentagon-run lab in Georgia, for example, was used to secure viral and bacterial pathogens left behind by Soviet scientists in unsecured locations in Tbilisi.
The fact that Mr. Khorolenko apparently failed to check his “facts” before publication shows either a lack of the most basic due diligence, or intent to mislead his readers.
After the article appeared on Sputnik, it was picked up by a number of Russian government-funded media outlets, namely Russian state news agency RIA Novosti (Sputnik’s domestic brand, also owned by the state’s Rossiya Segodnya agency), Russia’s Ministry of Defense broadcaster TV Zvezda, Sputnik’s Lithuanian version, and Russia’s Federal News Agency.
The claims made in the article were also spread by a pro-Kremlin Baltic media outlet — Rubaltic.ru.
Despite the broad coverage in Kremlin-aligned and Kremlin-funded media outlets, the story did not spread widely across social networks. According to Buzzsumo, the different versions of the stories were shared less than 2,000 times across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Pinterest.
Not a new conspiracy
This is not the first time the Pentagon has been accused of developing biological weapons in post-Soviet states by Kremlin-funded media. It has been a popular trope in disinformation targeting Georgia, where one of these labs is located.
Coda Story reporter, Giorgi Lomsadze traced this trope all the way to the summer of 2015, when the Rossiya 24 network released a video report accusing American-funded biological research laboratories of spreading an unknown virus killing cattle in both Georgia and Ukraine.
As Lomsadze pointed out, the report failed to mention that the “mysterious” virus was identified and contained with the help of the Pentagon-funded lab based in Tbilisi.
Much earlier, during the 1980s, the Soviet Union ran a disinformation campaign called “Operation Infektion,” which claimed that the U.S. created the HIV virus in secret weapons labs. The “AIDS libel,” as it became known, remains a classic case study in the launch, spread, and laundering of falsehood.
The repetition of similar claims, this time targeting the Baltic States, in spite of the epidemiological evidence, shows both the capabilities and the limitations of the Russian disinformation machine.
Launched on one state-run platform, the article was picked up by over a dozen other state and independent outlets, which variously attributed it to a “journalist” and an “expert.” Some of these outlets, especially RIA Novosti and Zvezda, have a considerable audience in Russia.
However, the story did not perform well on social media, with relatively few shares, compared to the size and number of outlets which amplified it. It was also easily debunked by reference to online scientific sources.
The incident highlights the sheer aggression and persistence of Kremlin disinformation efforts, especially when they target the Baltic States and their most important geopolitical ally, the United States.
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