The Virus of Disinformation: Echoes of Past Bioweapons Accusations in Today’s COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories
Despite its moniker, the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic almost certainly did not originate in Spain. The belligerents of World War I suppressed reporting on the outbreak in order to avoid harming morale, while Spain, as a neutral country, had a media free to report openly on the extent of the disease. Since most media coverage of the outbreak came from Spain, so too did its origin story. The 1918 outbreak — frequently compared to the current COVID-19 pandemic in terms of public fear and response — could have begun in China, or the United States, or northern France. But the lasting debates around its point of origin — and, by extension, the attribution of responsibility for its spread — are familiar to those of us living through the novel coronavirus outbreak.
More than a century later, several countries are employing disinformation and messaging campaigns around COVID-19 in a branding effort to ensure they are not blamed for the pandemic in the history books. As the number of COVID-19 cases in China has reportedly declined, Chinese state-run media and diplomats, including a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have waged a disinformation campaign against the United States in an attempt to distract from Beijing’s mismanagement of the crisis. This includes a baseless claim that American military members brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan this past fall during the Military World Games.
Meanwhile, Iranian officials and state-run media outlets have aggressively promoted conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is a U.S.-manufactured biological weapon targeting Iran, or that the United States is weaponizing the crisis to benefit its pharmaceutical industry. And Russia has leveraged its “full disinformation ecosystem,” including state TV as well as social media bots and troll farms, to amplify the Iranian allegations and spread other hoaxes attempting to link the origins of the virus to the U.S. government. These efforts are part of an ongoing information warfare campaign by the Kremlin that has included deploying contradictory narratives undermining U.S. public health efforts to combat the spread of disease at home and abroad. America’s competitors are exploiting the global COVID-19 pandemic to weaken the United States and advance their strategic interests while the world is on its knees.
While China, Russia, and Iran are seeking to capitalize on the current crisis, their tactics are not new. Rather, America’s adversaries are borrowing from an influence operations playbook first developed during the Cold War to pin public health crises on the U.S. government. While age-old fears and paranoia have long led governments and publics to blame shadowy, malign foreign actors for the seemingly-sudden appearance of diseases within their communities, these disinformation efforts now benefit from the speed and reach of modern media to rapidly shape and influence both opinions and actions across the globe. To counter its adversaries’ false and destructive narrative about COVID-19, the U.S. government should focus on communicating a clear, consistent, science-based message about the origin, prevention, and treatment of the novel coronavirus both domestically and abroad.
Biological Disinformation Campaigns in the Cold War
“Active measures” — overt and covert techniques used to influence world events and behavior in foreign countries — were a major component of Soviet strategy throughout the Cold War. Claims that the United States was carrying out biological warfare attacks were common allegations from communist adversaries. The 1987 report on Soviet propaganda efforts from the Active Measures Working Group, led by the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency, noted, “Moscow and its allies have sought to identify the United States as a violator of the [Biological Weapons Convention] and to portray the United States as ruthlessly pursuing offensive chemical and biological weapons (CBW) research.”
While many biological weapons-related allegations originated with the Kremlin, they were often amplified by leaders and media sources in developing countries, particularly those allied with the Soviet bloc. Cuban double agents and leaders, including Fidel Castro, asserted that the United States had spread a variety of tropical maladies, including hemorrhagic conjunctivitis and dengue fever, in the 1970s and 1980s; one agent informed a reporter, “We look at the CIA as a kind of Herod that kills our children.” In 1982, a Soviet magazine alleged that U.S.-financed anti-malaria programs in Pakistan were in fact part of a plan to breed “particularly dangerous species of mosquitoes” that could be used as a biological weapon delivery system in Afghanistan. As a result of these accusations, Pakistani authorities expelled the American head of the research center.
While accusing the United States of biological weapons use was a common ploy for Communist adversaries during the Cold War, two campaigns in particular stand out for their far-reaching and long-lasting effects.
Biological Weapons Accusations and the Korean War
In 1951 and 1952, China and North Korea alleged that the United States dropped disease-carrying insects, spiders, and rodents over North Korea and northeast China in order to spread plague, anthrax, cholera, encephalitis, and meningitis. (These diseases were endemic in the region, and illness was rampant among both civilians and troops as a result of the war conditions.) The Soviet Union took up these charges at the United Nations, and a quarter of Soviet media coverage at the time was devoted to the accusations. The United States immediately and vociferously denied the charges; President Harry S. Truman clarified in a letter to Rep. Robert Kastenmeier that he “did not amend any Presidential Order in force regarding biological weapons, nor did I at any time give my approval to its use.”
Scholars have found and published documents from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which demonstrate that the Central Committee and Chinese and North Korean leaders corresponded about this campaign. Indeed, Soviet military personnel serving with the Soviet mission in North Korea assisted in the fabrication of these bogus claims. It remains unclear who was the instigator of this disinformation campaign, though the documents seem to suggest that it was China. But the historical evidence does suggest that this was a coordinated effort among U.S. adversaries to undermine America’s reputation in the international community. The effects of this campaign linger: in 2019, the Pyongyang Times resurfaced the historical accusations and claimed that the United States was “[pushing] ahead with a plan for biochemical warfare” on the Korean Peninsula.
The AIDS Disinformation Campaign
Perhaps the most egregious biological disinformation campaign was the Soviet-driven rumor that AIDS was the result of U.S. biological warfare experiments. Capitalizing on the uncertainty that then prevailed about the origins of HIV/AIDS and the strong public fear and uncertainty provoked by the disease, the Soviet Union launched a campaign in the mid-1980s to convince the world that AIDS was invented at Fort Detrick, an Army installation that had been the principal base for the U.S. biological weapons program until the program’s termination in 1969.
While Moscow began its disinformation efforts in 1983 with a KGB-authored editorial planted in an Indian newsletter, the campaign had little impact until it engaged the assistance of other intelligence services friendly to the Soviet Union. In 1985, the KGB sent a telegram to the Bulgarian State Security in which they outlined their plan “to create a favorable opinion for us abroad that [AIDS] is the result of secret experiments with a new type of biological weapon by the secret services of the USA and the Pentagon that spun out of control.” Under “Operation Denver,” security services from various Soviet republics distributed a September 1986 “study” by East German biologist Jakob Segal that postulated that military scientists at Fort Detrick had artificially synthesized the AIDS virus from two naturally occurring viruses. By late 1987, the story had appeared in over 200 periodicals in 25 languages. An Active Measures Working Group report noted that one reason for the spread of this conspiracy in the developing world was the high cost of Western satellite feeds; as a result, access to Western news was relatively unavailable in Africa, Asia, and Latin America while Soviet-bloc news services proliferated. Over time, the story took on new dimensions: Radio Moscow claimed that a U.S. vaccination project in Zaire was a deliberate attempt to infect Africans with AIDS, and other media reports attributed the spread of the disease in certain regions to the presence of U.S. military populations there.
American and British media picked up the false narrative as well, with lasting effects. A 2005 study by the RAND Corporation and Oregon State University revealed that nearly 50 percent of African Americans believed AIDS was man-made, with over a quarter considering AIDS the product of a government lab. The theory also lived on in Africa. Former South African Health Minister Manto Tshabala Msimang recirculated the conspiracy in 2000, and a Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner claimed in 2004 that the virus was a biological weapon. It is important to note that this narrative has had particular resonance among communities that have not only experienced disproportionate suffering from the epidemic, but also have deep-rooted experiences of racial oppression and medical abuse, which may predispose them to mistrust government institutions around health-related issues.
Adversaries have continued to find new angles on the same old biological weapons allegations. In 2014, in the midst of the Ebola outbreak, Sputnik News, a Kremlin-controlled media outlet akin to the Soviet-era news services, accused the United States of being behind the outbreak. More recently, Russia has made allegations in the press and in the United Nations that the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, a laboratory in the Republic of Georgia funded through the Defense Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, is in fact a secret U.S. biological weapons laboratory. This despite visits from international experts confirming its peaceful, scientific purpose to assist the country with identifying and treating diseases.
Disinformation and COVID-19
The bioweapon allegations around the current COVID-19 pandemic are remarkably similar to those initiated and proliferated by the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. One of the fundamental principles of Soviet disinformation campaigns was that they needed to be built around a “kernel of truth” that would lend credibility to an otherwise entirely fabricated and unsubstantiated story or accusation — a strategy American adversaries continue to use today. As the Soviets and others did in North Korea in the 1950s, in Cuba in the 1980s, and worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s, China, Russia, Iran, and even India (though these were quickly retracted) are using a very real natural disease outbreak to cast aspersions on the United States and raise questions about its activities. They capitalize on the anxiety that members of the public are already feeling about disease to suggest that this fear should actually be directed at the U.S. government. And they take advantage of existing wariness about the federal government, weaving together elements about which publics — including in the United States — may already be sensitive or distrustful, such as the United States government’s long-shuttered offensive biological warfare program, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and highly publicized government laboratory errors, into a narrative that suggests that Washington is at best incompetent, and at worst malevolent, in order to further sow discord and suspicion.
China, Russia, and Iran are using many similar tactics for falsely promoting that the United States is to blame for the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has already caused illness, fatalities, and damage to the U.S. economy. They have made the accusation that the novel coronavirus was created by the United States for nefarious reasons. Each country will attempt to “win the pandemic” by not only quickly containing the spread in its population, but framing itself as a responsible international actor — and recasting the United States as the villain in the story. And while some of these efforts are intended to distract the domestic audiences in these countries from their government’s mishandling of the pandemic, it is probable that they also intend simultaneously to promote distrust of the United States government both domestically and abroad.
In the 21st century, America’s rivals have new tools, such as social media, to help carry out their information operations. One National Institutes of Health study notes that “in the U.S., eight in 10 Internet users search for health information online, and 74% of these people use social media.” Social media allows for the prominence of “influencers” who are not experts yet provide content read by their followers as information, including on matters of science and health. Misinformation, particularly simple explanations that seem more straightforward than the nuanced explanations provided by scientific or health experts, often spreads faster than accurate information.
Complicating matters in the context of COVID-19, once a false narrative is out it is nearly impossible to correct and eradicate fully. Social media platforms encourage clicks and sharing as quickly as possible, so people rarely verify the information before they share it. As a result, false narratives can spread quickly before experts have a chance to weigh in and debunk the claim. These aspects of social media make it easier for Russian and Chinese propaganda arms to spread disinformation. Since this novel coronavirus has so many unknowns, conspiracy theories will be particularly dangerous if they become rooted in the minds of the public — who must play a crucial role in slowing the spread of the disease — and could also interfere with the high degree of international cooperation needed to combat COVID-19. Unfortunately, these campaigns appear to be having an effect: in a recent poll, 23 percent of American adults said that they believed the novel coronavirus to have been deliberately developed in a laboratory.
The people of China, Russia, and Iran are grappling with the effects of COVID-19 while their leaders, security services, and government-controlled media are attempting to manipulate the global narrative. Everyone depends on international scientific and public health cooperation to end the pandemic, but such cooperation is dependent on transparency and trust. When AIDS began to spread through the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Moscow eventually distanced itself from its conspiracy theories about a U.S. origin in the interest of cooperation with U.S. scientists on medical research. But by then the damage was done, and the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign on AIDS had lasting reverberations in efforts to control the spread of the disease in Russia and elsewhere.
Thus far the efforts to combat COVID-19 disinformation campaigns are largely limited to medical researchers stating that available evidence points to natural, animal origins for the virus and scientists explaining how its characteristics do not match those of a biological weapon. The U.S. government summoned the Chinese ambassador over the claims from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, and the diplomat publicly distanced himself and his government from the conspiracy theory, which he called “crazy” and “very harmful.” Subsequently, China appears to have moved away from claims of U.S. responsibility for the virus, which suggests that government intervention by the United States can have an important impact in stopping the spread of such rumors.
Historically, Washington has largely remained mute about accusations of biological weapons proliferation in an effort to avoid amplifying the false claims. This may be one reason why the United States’ adversaries have continued to rely on this playbook. Maintaining the trust and credibility in the scientific community will remain important, but there needs to be a parallel official message that calls out Russia and China for trying to manipulate the narrative and recast the United States as the creator of the virus.
It is easy to assume that a disease of which we have little understanding and no experience with comes not from evolution and other natural phenomena, but from malevolent forces at work. United States officials, too, have been known to fall victim to this fallacy on occasion, as in the case of “yellow rain” in Laos in 1981. But accusations ascribing human agency to naturally occurring diseases — particularly when those diseases are as devastating as COVID-19 — can greatly damage public knowledge, not to mention trust. It is therefore particularly important for American officials to base claims on COVID-19 on established science, including information published by the Centers for Disease Control.
With the abundance of false information proliferating about the novel coronavirus and the United States’ alleged role in initiating the pandemic, the U.S. government would never be able to effectively address each individual false accusation. Instead, the government should continue to message consistently at all levels about the scientific consensus that the virus emerged from zoonotic spillover, as well as best practices for preventing and treating the disease. This message should be stated clearly and using all the international forums at the country’s disposal, including the United Nations. Next year’s Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention may provide such an opportunity — it is important to reiterate to the members of the international community that false allegations of biological weapons use can be enormously harmful to efforts to make sure that such use is prevented. The selfish actions of China, Russia, and Iran are particularly sinister when humanity faces a common foe of disease.
Sarah Jacobs Gamberini and Amanda Moodie are Policy Fellows at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.