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Russia claims U.S. labs across Ukraine are secretly developing biological weapons

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia's disinformation campaigns to justify invading Ukraine have failed up to now, but Russia keeps trying. And one conspiracy theory is gaining some ground here in the United States. It's spreading through some of the same channels that domestic extremists rely on.

NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism, so she's on this story. Good morning.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the Russian narrative?

YOUSEF: Well, this has come to be known as the biolabs conspiracy, Steve, and it goes like this. The U.S. has laboratories all over Ukraine where it's secretly developing biological weapons or conducting dangerous experiments, and so Russia's using this to justify its attack on Ukraine, you know, to protect itself and perhaps even the wider world.

You know, this claim isn't new, Steve. Russia has a long history, dating back to Soviet times, of claiming that the U.S. has been developing biological or chemical weapons and even, in the 1980s, claimed that the virus that causes AIDS was a result of that. But I think the thing that's notable now is that this was one of several disinfo narratives that was generally floating around and not gaining too much traction when the war began, until a Twitter user, who went under a handle @WarClandestine, seized on it in late February.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's when you know something is really true, when a random person without their name on a Twitter account says. Yeah, so who's @WarClandestine?

YOUSEF: So it's an account that belongs to somebody who traffics in the QAnon conspiracy theory. In the past, they've tweeted extremist views, calling for the execution of some public figures. I spoke with Alex Kaplan about this. He's a senior researcher at Media Matters, and he said that this was a really important inflection point in the life of this narrative.

ALEX KAPLAN: I actually consider it to be potentially the most significant failure for a mainstream social media platform to enforce their QAnon crackdown since they started in mid-2020 because the consequences of it have been so significant.

YOUSEF: You know, Steve, the QAnon community was maybe predisposed to believe this kind of claim. You know, it's already somewhat sympathetic to Russia and Vladimir Putin and, shall we say, skeptical of the U.S. government. And this has turned out to be a windfall for the Kremlin. Chinese state media have amplified it. And here in the U.S., it's tipped into a more mainstream right, you know, when Tucker Carlson started talking about it on his show on Fox News.

INSKEEP: Are there any facts here at all?

YOUSEF: Well, since 2005, the Department of Defense has partnered with Ukraine through something called the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which basically supports 46 labs that are run by local officials in Ukraine to deal with or detect pathogens that would be harmful if released into the wider world. So, for example, helping to monitor the spread of COVID-19 or defending against the spread of something called African swine fever. But, you know, the U.N. has said it's not aware of any bioweapons program in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: OK, so you have something that's for public health to detect pathogens that gets twisted into something to spread them. Is this changing any minds in the United States?

YOUSEF: No. You know, popular sentiment in the U.S. still seems to be overwhelmingly against Russia in this conflict. But I did put this question to Jared Holt. He's with the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

JARED HOLT: What I do worry this could do is provide people who are maybe skeptical or predisposed to conspiratorial thinking an easy ramp to, you know, dismiss the horrors that are being reported from news agencies all around the world about what's happening to people in Ukraine.

YOUSEF: And, you know, U.S. officials have warned this could be a false flag narrative to justify, you know, Russia possibly using chemical weapons in this war.

INSKEEP: NPR's Odette Yousef, thanks.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.