YouTube has been making money from videos pushing a false conspiracy theory about supposed biolabs in Ukraine, a claim that originated as part of a Russian disinformation effort and has become tied to supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a QAnon-supporting Twitter account helped spread a false conspiracy theory that the attack was actually undertaken to target U.S.-linked biolabs working to create bioweapons. In reality, the labs are focused on detecting diseases. (Conspiracy theories about the labs had circulated before the attack as well.)
The conspiracy theory, which has its roots in a longstanding Russian disinformation effort, has spread online and among QAnon supporters. The Russian government has also invoked the conspiracy theory to defend the invasion.
A review by Media Matters using the tracking tool BuzzSumo found that YouTube has made money from multiple videos pushing the conspiracy theory since the invasion began — videos that have earned tens of thousands of combined views.
One video with revenue-generating ads titled “WHAT ABOUT THOSE BIO LABS REPORTEDLY/RUMORED TO HAVE BEEN TARGETED IN UKRAINE?” features a man noting that both Ukraine and the United States have said the conspiracy theory is false, but then claiming that “the same people that you already distrust” are “telling you that there's nothing to see here,” adding that “we can't trust any of them wholeheartedly” and “the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.” The channel also features merchandise under the video, and YouTube may get a cut of the sales, according to the platform.
Another video with ads titled in part “P3nt4g0n sponsored BIOLABS in UKRAINE financed by Hun7er Bid3n!” features a man claiming, “I believe that that’s part of Russia’s plan is to attack some of these biolabs that are owned by … America and Illuminati characters, Bilderberg-type characters, Rothschilds, etc.” The video was monetized via superchats, a feature both YouTube and the channel profit from in which a user can pay the channel to have their question or comment featured in the video.
Another video that has ads, titled in part “Ukraine-Bio-Labs-Genocide by the [Deep State],” features a woman claiming that “in Ukraine there were biolabs to make bioweapons and the objective was to take down the global population by 90%,” adding that “the cabal has the underground biolabs” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is liberating Ukraine, taking out biolabs.” The channel has previously had ads on other videos as well, including one pushing the QAnon conspiracy theory that the late John F. Kennedy Jr. would return as former President Donald Trump’s vice president and threatening that “there are 200 million armed and dangerous American citizen patriots who [are] ready to see this show get on the road.”
Another YouTube conspiracy theory video titled “I NEED JOURNALISTS! I Got Permission to do a Bio Weap Lab Tour in Ukraine!” also has ads. It’s from John Mark Dougan, a cop turned disinformation creator who previously fled to Russia to escape the FBI. In the video, Dougan claims the Department of Defense had been “pushing bioweapons labs on the Russian border” and seemed to justify the invasion by saying if Russia or China were “developing bioweapons” in Juárez, Mexico, “you think they’d like that stuff? No. Why do they do it in Ukraine?”
YouTube has allowed videos pushing the biolabs conspiracy theory to rack up hundreds of thousands of combined views. The platform has taken down at least one of the videos for violating its rules, but others remain.
YouTube has created a monetization crisis on its platform by repeatedly allowing channels to monetize videos that violate the platform’s own rules, along with allowing ads to run on videos pushing misinformation in general. That has included allowing the monetization and spread of QAnon-related content on YouTube, despite the platform’s crackdown on the conspiracy theory.