Author: Svetoslav Malinov
“There is an ever-growing number of new American secret laboratories showing up in the post-soviet space, conducting bio-military activities, especially in Ukraine” is one of the leading disinformation narratives in the time period 2019-2022, spread by pro-Kremlin figures in the Bulgarian online media domain(1)
It is a complex narrative easily disseminated through various types of online media outlets. It intermeshes within a whole range of smaller propaganda sub-narratives including:
- Google funded the artificial creation of COVID-19.
- US agriculture projects actually create genetic agents – infected lab insects that can be transported to any desired point.
- American bio labs show up all over the world, mainly around the borders of Russia and China.
- US labs show up in Ukraine to create further chemical provocation.
- US labs in Ukraine cause concern among citizens.
- The artificial origin of COVID-19 comes from US bio labs.
- Disease outbreaks occur around US labs, atypical for the respectable area.
- WMD being developed in US labs in post-Soviet space.
- U.S. lies that peaceful epidemiological stations operate near Russian borders, these are actually military biology labs.
- The US is building bio labs in post-Soviet space without providing any access to international specialists.
- The collection of biological materials from Russian citizens is a meticulous and systematic effort by the US military to create a new generation of programmed biological weapons.
- Ukraine is the ideal place to create weapons against the East Slavic ethnic group.
Methods and means for spreading disinformation:
The methods and means for penetration and spread of the “The US is developing biolaboratories in the post-soviet space” narrative differ from media to media, depending on the degree of pro-Kremlin bias in the general editorial policy, the type of media – tabloid- or broadsheet-alike web-sites, and how the media supervises the publication of new content. Three groups of media could be outlined – media with clear pro-Kremlin positions, media that balance between pro-Kremlin and neutral opinions and media that do not proliferate pro-Kremlin propaganda. Some of the ways, in which disinformation is penetrating the media are similar among all three groups, but there are two key differences. The first of them refers to the number of published articles that could be attributed to disinformation and propaganda. Even media that try not to proliferate Kremlin’s propaganda could publish individual articles that contains disinformation narratives. The second difference is the intentional use of disinformation techniques, such as appeal to authority, causal oversimplification, misrepresentation of someone’s opinion, etc. These techniques are used only by the first two groups of media and respectively, much more often by the pro-Kremlin media than the ones that balance between pro-Kremlin and neutral positions.
When monitoring the type of media, that balance their pro-Kremlin standpoint with more neutral positions and the type, that attempts not to promote a pro-Kremlin stance, the most common way for disinformation and propaganda to penetrate the media is the publication of one-sided article, without editorial comment or presentation of alternative viewpoints. A great example of the latter is the statement of Chinese Foreign Ministry official Zhao Lijiang for the Russian newspaper Izvestiya. Nearly identical articles quoting his words without any editorial amendments were republished in focus-news.net, epicenter. bg and trud.bg on 08.04.2021. Similar scenario unfolded with an article named‘US and NATO are turning Ukraine into a “powder keg”‘, republished from fakti.bg., 19min.bg. and Trud bg., citing Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov for RIA Novosti again, without any editorial remarks.
Although in some instances, the media outlet publishes a note stating that the piece was “presented without editorial interference and expresses solely the opinion of the author”, there was no such case in the 29 articles monitored. Instead, often the media will publish a translation of a statement or a foreign article, promoting strong pro-Kremlin views without any such note to the reader (e.g. Correspondent (Ukraine): US labs in Ukraine cause concern amongst citizens, Focus News, 10.10.2020.)
Another way pro-Russian disinformation narratives infiltrates the online media – deliberately or not, is through the existence of a regular column called the “Review of the important topics in the Russian/Western world press” (e.g. Focus News) which again becomes a platform for presenting one-sided opinion selected from the media of the respective countries. Considered collectively, these reviews of the foreign press provide a balanced picture by republishing articles from both pro-Kremlin and pro-Western sources. But in fact, doing so facilitates the uncritical dissemination of pro-Kremlin disinformation coming from both Russian and foreign sources.
Finally, and just as importantly, there are also cases, when a more neutral and fact-based article includes hand-picked individual messages, that are at the center of widespread disinformation narratives. For example, in a relatively balanced article about “US admitting existence of US bio labs in Ukraine” a Telegram post of a famous Ukrainian lawyer and human rights activist An- drey Portnov is inserted, where he is furious about why Washington can’t keep its dangerous biolabs on US soil, claiming that all this is “nonsense”. (“USA admitted: There are American biological laboratories in Ukraine”, Fakti.bg, 04.24.2020.)
Regarding the number of published articles, the top-10 sources, spreading the narrative for “The US is developing WMD in secret laboratories”, account for more than 92% of all articles, and cover both media with clear pro-Kremlin positions and media that balance between pro-Kremlin and neutral opinions. However, the former dominates clearly with much higher number of articles, incl. majority of them applying combination of disinformation techniques (e.g. pogled.info, News Front, classa.bg).
In terms of propaganda techniques, used by the above two groups of media, “appeal to authority” is used in two different ways – when a pro-Russian “author- ity/leader” is referred to, and when a statement of a pro-western figure is used out of context. In the former case, these are either official Russian authorities and opinion leaders (e.g. Nikolai Patrushev, Russian Secretary of the Security Council) or foreign journalists, public figures, and health experts that share clear pro-Kremlin views (e.g. Bulgarian pro-Russian journalist Dilyana Gaytandjieva, Former Ukrainian MPs Volodymyr Oleinik and Oleksiy Zhuravko, pharmacology and toxicology specialist Alexander Ediger, etc.) Often, the “appeal to authority” is mixed with “misrepresentation of the opinion”, which is taken out of context. In such cases, the authors usually refer to one or more world-recognized sci-entists or figures from the academia (e.g. J. A. Hobson, Sergey Glazev, etc.) or to somewhat popular American/Western science media (e.g. an article about how the American popular science magazine Science published an article titled “Agricultural research or a new bioweapons system?”, where microbiologists in Germany and France, concerned about the growing number of biolabs near Russia’s borders, expressed the opinion that the United States is preparing for bacteriological warfare through genetic agents – infected laboratory insects that can be shipped to any point on the planet. The article made the conclusion that US biolabs in Ukraine and throughout the post-Soviet space are developing biological and chemical weapons under the guise of civilian activities).
Another often used disinformation technique refers to “denying statements”, i.e. a statement from USA authorities or NATO representatives is inserted in the article and then claimed to be untrue, citing disputed facts. For example, the article “Biology in the hands of the Pentagon “ (pogled.info, 18.04.2021.) says that “Despite official statements from the US that these labs are “peaceful sani- tary and epidemiological stations”, “for some reason they are more reminiscent of Fort Detrick in Maryland, where Americans have been working for decades in the field of military biology… According to a report by former Georgian Health Minister Igor Georgadze, a highly toxic chemical was tested on humans in the US biolab Lugar in Gеоrgia, resulting in the deaths of 73 Georgian citizens.”
(1) Data based on monitoring of 150+ online media web-sites for the period 1 Jan 2019 to 31 Dec 2021, incl. traditional media outlets and web-sites, publishing regularly news and media articles. Data is collected through Sensika (https://sensika.com) media monitoring and analysis system, based on complex Boolean search with pre-defined combinations of key words and phrases. Results have been additionally filtered and verified by manual review of all content items. Final dataset contains 70 articles from 15 media web-sites.