A false claim by one disinformation journalist spiraled into a campaign of disinformation, spreading to state officials and mainstream media. Here, ActiveFence presents the story of the “US-backed biowarfare laboratories” that went viral.
Disinformation in Times of War
In the years leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, affiliated and unaffiliated state actors have been fueling their disinformation machine, laying the groundwork for what we are now witnessing. As the war intensifies, Trust & and Safety teams, content moderators, fact-checkers, and the like are fighting against a massive influx of disinformation, cyber warfare, and propaganda.
ActiveFence has been monitoring disinformation campaigns, tracking their sources, and understanding how trends disseminate. From official state media actors to pro-Russian individuals, journalists or groups, disinformation is spreading, trying to weaken Ukraine and legitimize the war. As the battle on Ukrainian soil rages, so does the battle to protect the truth online.
In this blog, we share how one disinformation actor twisted a seed of truth to start a series of lies, with the narrative spreading to mainstream social media platforms as well as to the mouths of Russian and Chinese state officials.
Weaponizing One Grain of Truth
As with most disinformation narratives, this trend has a grain of truth, making it easier for viewers to believe. In this case, a collaboration between Ukraine and the US has been distorted to explain the reasoning for Russia’s attack.
A program of the US State Department, The Biological Threat Reduction Program, collaborates with Ukrainian laboratories to “to counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental, or natural) of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases. ” However, there are no US-run biological weapons labs operating in Ukraine. Despite this, these labs are a frequent target of conspiracy theories, claiming that they are US-run biological warfare projects.
Dilyana Gaytandzhieva is a Bulgarian pro-Russia disinformation actor who is active both on her own website, Armswatch.com, and other pro-Russian outlets. An independent journalist and Middle East correspondent, she published many erroneous reports on weapons supplies to terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Since January 2022, she has been the source of many false narratives against Ukraine.
The Evolution of a Lie
Dilyana publishes an article claiming that the US government is developing bioweapons in Eastern Europe and in Caucasia, primarily Georgia and Ukraine. Using the real, existing labs of the Biological Threat Reduction Program, Dilyana spun this truth into lies around their purpose.
- January 2022: Dilyana claims that a Pentagon document was leaked, exposing biological experiments on 4,400 soldiers in Ukraine and 1,000 soldiers in Georgia, with a potentially lethal outcome. These claims have been previously reported by Chinese state media.
The Narrative Legitimizes
Since its original publication, this narrative developed over time, spreading to both mainstream and non-mainstream social platforms.
- February 24: The narrative evolves, claiming that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was meant to destroy US biowarfare laboratories in Ukraine. Shared on some of the largest social media platforms, the claim alleges that Russian airstrikes targeted the biolab locations. Maps of the lab locations were shared, showing where Russian strikes were targeted. Spiraling from there, online users began to affiliate these strikes and biolabs with the COVID-19 outbreak and related conspiracy theories.
- February 25: The narrative continued to spread to other social media platforms and messaging apps such as Telegram. Conspiracy theorists jump on the trend as well.
- February 26: Dilyana shares the claim that the US embassy in Ukraine deleted all documentation on their website related to the US government-run bioweapons facilities on Ukrainian soil. In her post, she shares these deleted documents. Additional sites covered this new development. The same day, Envolve, a news outlet known to be a source that spreads misinformation, shares the same story, claiming that:
“The US embassy in Ukraine has been caught scrubbing evidence of the existence of biolabs in Ukraine while mainstream media and fact checkers have begun telling the masses that the biolabs don’t exist.”
- February 27: The Russian government itself promotes this narrative with claims by the Russian embassy in Bosnia accusing the US of wanting to genetically destroy Russians.
- March 2: Playing on COVID-19 disinformation, QAnon conspiracy theorists and pro-Russian channels reported Russian attacks are being launched at Ukrainian bio laboratories to prevent Anthony Fauci from creating a sequel to the COVID-19 virus.
- March 6: According to the Russian Defense Ministry, evidence of these US-financed biolabs in Ukraine was revealed during Russia’s special operation, and that deadly pathogens were ‘urgently destroyed.’
The trend has grown tremendously in popularity, with hashtags such as #usbiolabs, #usbiolabsinukraine, #nocoincidence, #khazarianmafia and others. ActiveFence has witnessed this trend enter more mainstream media and conversations, with the narrative evolving daily. Spurring lies, this narrative legitimizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and paints Ukraine as a tool of the US.
A single disinformation actor has the power to promote an influential storyline, originating from just an ounce of truth. Drawing on previous false narratives, Dilyana was able to promote the narrative of the US biowarfare laboratories at the right time, pulling in so-called facts and simply scattered them across a map of Ukraine. Spreading to other influencers worldwide and sowing fear, the harmful narrative reached some of the largest social media platforms, instant messaging platforms, forums, US media outlets, and, eventually, to the Russian government itself.
During wartime, the public is far more susceptible to believing false narratives and disinformation. Threat actors take advantage of the uncertainty of war to spread disinformation far and wide across the web, including mainstream platforms of all sizes. In order to effectively contain the threat of disinformation, online platforms must act proactively. With a deeper understanding of threat actors, mechanisms, narratives, and tactics used to spread disinformation, platforms can proactively monitor actors and identify emerging trends as they arise, ensuring that their platforms are safeguarded from becoming a weapon in the current Ukrainian conflict, or during other geopolitical events.