"Bioweapons" story recycled for different countries by Kremlin propaganda
Recent allegations that the United States is running a biological weapons laboratory helped reveal a broader pattern of Kremlin disinformation.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence recently accused the US of running a secret biological weapons lab in Georgia, in violation of international conventions. The spread of this fake story demonstrated the scope and durability of the Kremlin’s information operations against Russia’s neighbours and against the US presence in Europe. Similar stories reappear regularly, always based on a set of false claims, usually accusing the US of creating biological weapons close to Russian borders. The plot usually takes place in neighbouring smaller countries, including the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia.
Using two social media listening tools, we were able to investigate the main stories supporting this broader narrative in the last 12 months. Interesting patterns emerged, suggesting that these stories were most likely tailored for the Russian domestic audience. This case study shows how Kremlin regurgitates the same old story, makes a few tweaks and releases the story to a new audience with a new lease of life.
Social Listening Tools, Methodology and Relevance
We used two social media listening tools for this research: BuzzSumo and Sysomos. Buzzsumo helps find and analyze the best-performing content (with the highest ‘engagement’) related to a specific topic, including social media. Meanwhile, the Sysomos social media listening software is able to monitor 186 languages in 189 countries, with a particular focus on Facebook and Twitter. Combining these two tools allows us to take a deep look into the information spread both by media outlets and on social media platforms.
We investigated one year’s worth of data from 27 October 2017 to 27 October 2018. First, Buzzsumo was used to scan the information space in both English and Russian languages. The initial findings were then analyzed in depth, focusing on each region. Buzzsumo was used to find the initial trends, while Sysomos was used to cross-check the findings and analyze the geographical spread.
‘Biological Weapons’ Stories
The initial scan in English and Russia revealed some interesting patterns over the period. The comparison of the two languages revealed that the timelines of these stories did not have a strong overlap. Most articles in Russian mentioning biological weapons were posted in October 2018, while the peak month for English had been December 2017. This observation was supported by the list of the most engaged (shared, liked, commented on and so on) stories and domains, which showed no significant overlap.
(Source: @DFRLab via Buzzsumo).
The main takeaway from this comparison was that the most-engaged stories and domains in English were mostly discussed by reliable independent sources, with a few exceptions (RT, and YouTube, which has to be analyzed separately). The English articles and posts mostly discussed the alleged biological weapons without focusing on a particular region, or in regards to North Korea. Meanwhile, the most engaged-with Russian articles focused on the Baltic States and Georgia, with a few stories discussing US chemical weapons without a specific location.
On 9 August, the Latvian Russian-language edition of Sputnik News published an article accusing the U.S. military of developing and testing biological weapons in the Baltic States. The weapon was identified as African Swine Fever (ASF) and it was argued that the ASF could not have adapted to northern climate naturally and must have been created in a laboratory. The author surmised that the Pentagon’s infectious disease labs, which operate around the world, must have developed this winter-resistant strain of ASF.
The Buzzsumo search revealed that there were only 24 online content pieces describing the claim, and they were solely concentrated in August, 2018. Despite the relatively low number of articles, this story managed to garner a significant number of engagements.
(Source: @DFRLab via Buzzsumo).
Sysomos analysis also confirmed the Buzzsumo findings and showed that the story was only prominent in August 2018. The Sysomos search yielded 385 unique results with the keywords "биологическое оружие" (biological weapon) and "в Прибалтике" (in the Baltic states) during the past year. The geographical spread of the content with these keywords suggested that the story was mostly targeted at the Russian domestic population. The overall sentiment of these posts was marked as 67% negative.
(Source: @DFRLab via Sysomos).
When analyzing October, the month with the highest number of articles, a focus on Georgia was observed. But not all of the articles about biological weapons in October were aimed at Georgia. A few of the articles were about biological weapons in the Baltics, Ukraine, and alleged US plans to use biological weapons against Russia.
(Source: @DFRLab via Buzzsumo).
The main story targeting Georgia had very similar themes as the one targeting the Baltic states. At a briefing on 4 October, the Russian MoD accused the US of developing weapons at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, posing a direct security threat to Russia.
This story received limited coverage in the English-language Western media and was mostly presented as unfounded. Buzzsumo analysis suggested that there was no unusual, highly engaged activity with pro-Kremlin media regarding the story, except one article from the pro-Kremlin media outlet Fort Russ. This article, published on 5 October 2018, claimed that there was proof of US biological weapons in Tbilisi. For Georgian-language engagement, no suspicious engaged media content was found either.
We used Sysomos to check the geography of the engagements and cross-check the distribution in the timeline. A search yielded 502 unique results with the keywords "биологическое оружие" (biological weapon) and "в Грузии" (in Georgia) during the past year. Most of these results were concentrated in October and the geographical spread of the content with these keywords suggested that the story was mostly targeted at the Russian domestic population. The overall sentiment of these posts was marked as 68% negative.
Geographical spread, timeline analysis and of the content with keywords “биологическое оружие” and “в Грузии”. (Source: Sysomos via @DFRLab).
Other countries were also mentioned in the story accusing the US of developing biological weapons in Georgia. According to the article, the Lugar Center was only a small element of an extensive US military-biological program. It claimed that the Pentagon was running a number of biological weapon facilities in the countries adjacent to Russia, like Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. This serves as a signal that the biological weapons allegation will likely be targeted at these countries in some future disinformation campaign.
Indeed, Ukraine has already been targeted by similar stories, in January 2016, August 2017, July 2017, and on other occasions. These stories did not stand out much in the 12-month period we focused on.
The biological weapons stories that emerged throughout the past 12 months appear to be only the tip of the iceberg. The story about Georgia from 5 October 2018 is also not entirely new. A similar story appeared in Georgian in 2015, also involving the US, a secret biological virus and farm animals. And indeed, in the 1980s, the Soviet regime spread the lie that the US created AIDS as a bioweapon.
These stories did not appear to be prominent in English-language media, unlike some previous fake stories. This finding, together with the Sysomos analysis, suggested that this narrative is primarily tailored for the domestic Russian audience. This does not come as a big surprise, since the narrative feeds perfectly into the image of Russia as a ‘surrounded fortress’, often used by the Kremlin to rally the population together and distract them from the real problems Russia is facing.
This narrative serves as a good example of how the Kremlin propaganda machine constantly recycles and repackages the same themes. Our analysis also shows that Kremlin propaganda is not only aimed at damaging the West, but also at ensuring that Russians do not have an accurate picture of the outside world.
Lukas Andriukaitis is Associate Analyst at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and a Digital Forensic Research Associate at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.