Washington urgently needs a 21st-century communication strategy.
By Ivana Stradner, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Anthony Ruggiero, the senior director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
March 10, 2023, 1:36 PM
In late January, the Russian Foreign Ministry launched its latest disinformation campaign, claiming that Moscow had acquired more than 20,000 documents about a supposed secret U.S. biological weapons program in Ukraine. Spreading this fake news via its official Twitter account, the ministry also claimed the U.S. Defense Department “aimed at creating elements of a biological weapon, & testing it on the population of Ukraine.”
This tweet alone received more than 2 million views. The Russian Embassy in Washington stepped up next, recycling the Kremlin conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was engineered as a bioweapon by the U.S. government.
All of this is part of a familiar deluge of fake news coming out of Moscow, and the obvious absurdity of these claims could prompt U.S. officials to dismiss them. Such complacency, however, would be a mistake. The problem is that they draw attention away from Russia’s genocidal war and other actions, not least because articles such as this one need to be written to debunk them.
Even the most far-fetched charges against the United States are taken seriously in some parts of the world—and, increasingly, among Americans beholden to pro-Russian propagandists such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. The long history of Russian and Soviet disinformation campaigns shows that they are far more successful than one might think in spreading doubt about U.S. actions and intentions, and Moscow scores a win if even a small fraction of people fall for what, to most observers, appears patently ludicrous.
It is therefore a dangerous omission that Washington still has no counter-disinformation strategy beyond the occasional official denial of Moscow’s claims.
Russian propaganda inventions can be quite elaborate. In December, the Russian military’s head of radiation, chemical, and biological defense, Igor Kirillov, claimed Russia had discovered a “large-scale burial of the remains of biomaterials” in Lysychansk, a Russian-occupied city in eastern Ukraine.
It had supposedly been put there by the U.S. Defense Department as part of a secret program. Kirillov then fabulated that Russia’s discovery had led the Pentagon to move this supposed bioweapons research from Ukraine to Central Asia and other parts of Eastern Europe. Last year, Russia requested a formal meeting of the Biological Weapons Convention to accuse the United States of operating biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. Most participants who spoke during the meeting rejected Russia’s assertions.
At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Russia accused Ukraine and the United States of a plot to use migratory birds and bats to spread pathogens. The Pentagon, Russia claimed, was also collecting blood samples from Ukrainian COVID-19 patients to develop biological weapons genetically targeted at “the Slavic ethnicity” as part of a larger plot whereby the United States manufactured COVID-19 to retain its international power.
In that vein, Kirillov also thought it was suspicious how quickly the United States was able to produce mRNA vaccines to treat COVID-19. Actual facts are obviously not the point for the Kremlin’s information warriors, who run a sophisticated operation weaving together misleading and often unrelated narratives to spread rumors and sow doubt.
The Kremlin honed many of these techniques in the Cold War, when the KGB conducted Operation Denver, a successful disinformation campaign that blamed the U.S. government for creating and releasing HIV, the virus that causes AIDS and killed millions of people worldwide before treatments were developed.
This fake news was picked up and spread by media around the world, especially in developing countries. This narrative and others like it were part of Moscow’s agenda to systematically frame Washington as a nefarious actor with a secret agenda to subjugate—and even exterminate—populations, especially in the developing world.
More recently, the Russian ministries of defense and foreign affairs accused the United States and Britain of chemical attacks in Syria, a grotesque inversion of the truth. Russia was using a well-worn playbook, accusing adversaries of crimes against humanity that Moscow’s own close ally was committing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda operatives recognize that Russia’s own state media and government officials lack credibility in the West. Just like the Soviets used left-wing journalists and protest groups as useful idiots or willing intermediaries, Russia today focuses on infiltrating Western far-right networks, right-wing media, and populist parties to spread its narratives.
Atlantic Council fellow Jared Holt has described how Russian disinformation trolls exploit far-right groups’ existing obsession with secret government plots, for example by piggy-backing on conspiracy theories popular with QAnon. In this paranoid underworld, secret government bioweapons are a recurring theme.
Russian disinformation then capitalizes on the viral spread of these narratives from secluded circles to broader audiences via social and mainstream media. For instance, after a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing confirmed the well-known fact that the United States supports epidemiological institutes in former Soviet countries—part of a post-Cold War disarmament agreement that turned military labs into civilian public health institutions—a number of far-right channels and platforms spun this information through a pro-Russian lens.
On Fox News, Carlson claimed the hearing “just confirmed that the Russian disinformation … is, in fact, totally and completely true.” Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast trumpeted the “U.S. biolabs in Ukraine” narrative as well. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out to his audience of 9.7 million that the bioweapons story went “from conspiracy theory to fact.”
Many other governments have begun fighting back against the Kremlin’s disinformation trolls this way—Ukraine’s social media strategy is just one example.Russia has pursued similar tactics in Europe. In the days leading up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin spread bioweapons disinformation around Europe to help rationalize the impending war.
After a Russian Telegram channel posted documents showing supposed evidence of Ukrainian plans to use bioweapons, German pro-Russia channels and organizations, such as Anti-Spiegel, amplified the narrative. Eventually, the disinformation attracted the attention of political figures. Steffen Kotré, a member of the German parliament for the pro-Russian Alternative for Germany party, demanded that parliament debate “bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine.” A study later found that almost 7 percent of Germans believed the bioweapons disinformation.
The first step in countering Russia’s narrative begins with explaining the truth to global audiences. At the most recent Biological Weapons Convention review conference in Geneva, the U.S. delegate accused Moscow of hiding an active biological weapons program, a blatant violation of the convention. He also pointed out Russia had continued Soviet-era biological weapons programs rather than dismantling them, as Moscow claims to have done.
The case perfectly illustrates the four steps in the Russian disinformation playbook: deny everything, unleash false narratives, accuse others of what Russia is doing, and repeat. Unfortunately, Washington has not amplified these messages any further. This is a lost opportunity, as more Americans and Europeans have probably heard Russia’s disinformation narrative than the U.S. government’s rebuttal.
Second, the U.S. government should finally enter the world of 21st-century media. Too much of its engagement with Russian disinformation is still based on stodgy diplomatic statements and policy reports. Russia has been engaged in a successful information operations campaign adapted to social media and other contemporary communications channels, and the United States should respond.
While reports and fact sheets debunking Russian lies are valuable for, say, journalists engaging in research, these tools will not reach ordinary people. Instead, a smart U.S. campaign would, for example, mock the Kremlin on social media with sharp commentary and humorous memes about Russian bioweapons programs. Many other governments have begun fighting back against the Kremlin’s disinformation trolls this way—Ukraine’s social media strategy is just one example.
The Kremlin despises being mocked, and Russia responds to direct condemnation—even if it is produced in Hollywood. In 2019, HBO released a miniseries on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. The series’ negative portrayal of Soviet authorities angered Putin to such an extent that the Kremlin immediately banned the series. State news media, such as Sputnik, attempted to discredit the show.
Russia’s NTV even announced plans for its own series about the disaster. (And we wouldn’t be surprised if the channel blamed the United States.) Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin’s heavy-handed efforts to censor the show have only increased Russians’ interest in watching it—a well-known result of censorship known as the Streisand effect.
Finally, it is even more important for Western governments to put Russia on the defensive in the information space. When the Kremlin is on the defensive, it will spend time, energy, and resources defending itself in the information space instead of attacking the West. For example, the United States should craft new ways to amplify the truth about Russia’s existing bioweapons program and violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government has been reluctant to use information campaigns to its full advantage in fighting the country’s adversaries, which has yielded the information space to anti-U.S. propaganda. While outrageous claims about the United States crafting pandemics or using birds to spread diseases may seem unbelievable, Washington’s silence lends credibility to Kremlin-spun narratives. The United States urgently needs a 21st-century information strategy focused specifically on Russia’s activities—and give Putin a taste of his own medicine.
— Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @ivanastradner
— Anthony Ruggiero is the senior director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration. Twitter: @NatSecAnthony
A foul, halfwitted piece of dogshit like Trump Jr has 9.7m followers! Then you have Fucker Karlsonov with his huge fanbase and the poison-spewing shit-for-brains Bannon.
No wonder kremkrapp is so popular in the US; the one place where it should never get a foothold.
There is an urgent need for legislation that severely punishes public figures for acting as accessories to genocide.
Great article and great observations. I just don’t see the US government capable of going on the offensive.
Karlsonov and Gabbardova working hard as usual. For the fucking kremlin:
P.T. Barnum once said, there’s a sucker born every minute. This saying is one of the truest in the history of humanity. We see it daily as suckers across the globe are swallowing every morsel of shit that is served by evil hate mongers such as the fascist mongrels Carlson, RT, Sputnik, Hitchins, AfD, Le Pen, Orban, Berlusconi, Trumpet, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Laura Ingraham, and so many more.
The problem is that there is no cure for stupid.
For sure, our current government does not have the foresight nor the willpower to do anything about these above-mentioned entities that are shamelessly supporting evil.
Step 1 is forbidding Fox News and lock up Rupert Murdoch and all employees in Guantanamo Bay.
I haven’t thought about step 2 yet, but I think step 1 is already a great step forward.