Update (4/12/22): This article has been updated with additional examples and language.
Meta has repeatedly allowed -- and profited from -- ads pushing a false conspiracy theory about biolabs in Ukraine which has been linked to both Russian propaganda and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory. The ads, which have run on Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta, violate the platforms’ misinformation rules.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a QAnon-supporting Twitter account helped spread a false conspiracy theory that the attack was undertaken to target U.S.-linked labs working to create bioweapons. In reality, the labs are focused on detecting diseases, and the conspiracy theory has its roots in a longstanding Russian disinformation effort. The false claims have spread online and among QAnon supporters, and the Russian government has invoked the conspiracy theory to defend the invasion.
A review by Media Matters found that since the invasion began, Meta has profited from the conspiracy theory by allowing over a dozen ads to run on Facebook or Instagram pushing some form of the conspiracy theory, including multiple ads from Chinese state-controlled media. Meta’s rules explicitly prohibit ads that “include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers,” and at least one such fact-checker that Meta has partnered with, PolitiFact, has debunked the conspiracy theory. Several ads were removed after Media Matters flagged them on Twitter. Below is a rundown of most of the ads we found:
One ad on Facebook, from China’s official state press agency, features a video with a narrator saying, “With reports emerging about the U.S. running bioweapons lab in Ukraine, Syrian experts said the U.S. policy of setting up such labs in other countries poses risk to world security.”
Another Facebook ad featured a video of a woman at a prayer service saying, “As we wind up, I want us to pray for Ukraine. Really, I don’t know who is right or wrong. We may be saying, you know, I saw … something from another prayer group, but they were saying that there are U.S. biolabs in the Ukraine.”
Another ad, for Instagram, falsely claimed that “Russia found over 30 biological labs (with evidence of bioweapons) in Ukraine formed by the Pentagon in areas bordering Russia.”
An additional Instagram ad featured the (false) text “Pentagon Funded Bio-Weapons Labs in the Ukraine” and a video pushing the conspiracy theory, with a narrator saying, “For years now, Russia has made verifiable claims that the U.S. is running secret biological weapons labs around their borders.” The narrator also says that they are “reporting for Infowars,” a site whose content has been banned from Meta’s social media platforms.
Yet another ad, on Facebook, features a video of a woman saying about Ukraine, “There’s biolabs there, they’re talking about in the news today. The U.S. has them there. And so there are strategic reasons why Ukraine is important, which I understand, and I can understand why the civilians in Russia would understand where their leader’s coming from.”
One ad on Facebook features a video of a man saying, “They’re actually saying that the biolabs exist,” adding that he does “believe they do” exist. Another man agreed with him, saying, “I believe they do too. Because somebody is trying to get it out, and somebody is trying to bury it.”
Another ad, whose listing in the Facebook ad library specifies the range paid for it to run, ran for a day on Facebook and Instagram. The ad featured a video of a man saying there is “some evidence of U.S. involvement in the biolabs found there in Ukraine” and attacking PolitiFact for its debunk of the conspiracy theory, saying the outlet is a “propaganda arm of the progressive left.” This means Meta made money from an ad not only pushing the conspiracy theory but also explicitly attacking one of its third-party fact checkers. And the same account ran another ad on Facebook and Instagram (whose listing in the Facebook ad library also specifies the range paid for it to run) featuring a video with the same man saying the House of Representatives passed a bill that “includes an astonishing $15 billion to Ukraine, you know, so that we can protect our investment in Ukrainian biolabs.”
Another ad had video of Fox News host Tucker Carlson pushing the conspiracy theory, via footage from Russian-state media outlet RT. Multiple Chinese-state media ads also cited Carlson’s segments.
Another ad, targeting Spain, featured video of former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) pushing the conspiracy theory.
Another ad for Chinese state-controlled media accused the U.S. government of “brushing facts on biolabs in Ukraine under the rug.” And another Chinese run-media ad featured video about the “U.S. biolabs in Ukraine.”
Meta is not the only company to have made money off of this Russian and QAnon-connected disinformation. YouTube has also monetized multiple videos pushing the same conspiracy theory.