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.
ODETTE YOUSEF (NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT): 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.
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 from 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 stepped into a more mainstream right, you know, when Tucker Carlson started talking about it on his show on Fox News.