RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo are still reaching Spanish-speaking audiences, now with misinformation about biological research facilities in Ukraine. This latest wave of misinformation comes even after governments and social media platforms placed restrictions on Russian-backed media outlets – and after the conspiracy theory itself has been debunked.
Right-wing actors in the United States have led a campaign pushing conspiracy theories about research labs in Ukraine, bolstering Kremlin-backed claims that these research labs, or “biolabs,” are U.S.-controlled chemical and bioweapon development facilities. Video segments of Tucker Carlson amplifying biolab conspiracy theories have been repeatedly amplified in Spanish-language networks.
Conspiracy theories about the biolabs in Ukraine have been previously linked to both Russian propaganda and the QAnon conspiracy theory. Although there are biological laboratories in Ukraine backed by the U.S., there is no evidence suggesting that the U.S. is funding bioweapons development, according to both the White House and President Volodymyr Zelensky. The United Nations has also stated that it has no record of any biological weapons program in Ukraine.
Platforms like Facebook, Youtube, and Telegram have imposed bans on Russian state-backed media in an attempt to impede the spread of misinformation that serves Russian propaganda efforts, but many of the efforts by platforms and government institutions to limit the spread of Russian-state media have fallen short for Spanish-speaking audiences. This tracks: Social media companies have a poor record when it comes to removing and flagging misinformation in Spanish.
The biolabs narrative has experienced significant spread in Spanish online spaces across Facebook and Twitter, and is also spreading on Telegram. RT en Español has garnered thousands of retweets and likes on multiple posts. On Facebook, Media Matters found that as of March 17 the top five Spanish posts about the biological research facilities in Ukraine had a conspiratorial skew, purporting that the U.S. was supporting chemical and biological weapons. These posts earned over 246,000 interactions combined. And Facebook is also profiting from ads pushing false conspiracy theories about the alleged biolabs in Ukraine.
Sputnik Mundo and RT en Español continue to support the spread of conspiracy theories on social media:
On Twitter and Facebook, Sputnik Mundo is accusing the U.S. of installing the largest bioweapons testing center in Ukraine, alongside similar claims alleging that the Russian Ministry of Defense brought forth evidence proving that the U.S. was experimenting with bat coronavirus samples in the biological laboratories.
RT en Español on Twitter and Facebook has mostly echoed Russian and Chinese state officials’ demands for the U.S. to “come clean” and give a full explanation of what the biological research labs are doing in Ukraine. Other posts claim that the U.S. was leading the development of biological weapons or experimenting with deadly pathogens in Ukraine.
Although Telegram has banned Russian-backed media outlets, a low-volume Telegram channel is still spreading RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo articles pushing the biolabs narrative. Many of these posts are amplifying identical or similar claims to those detailed above.
Further, lies about Ukrainian biolabs being clandestine bioweapon operations funded by the U.S. are being merged with far-right conspiracy theories on fringe internet platforms, and this merger is especially aggressive on Telegram.
On Telegram, Russian propaganda boosted by the U.S. far-right is absorbed into QAnon conspiracy theories and forwarded into Spanish-language Telegram channels, where outlandish theories claiming that COVID-19 is a bioweapon and that Putin is destroying pedophile rings in Ukraine have reached thousands of Spanish-speaking users.
The proliferation of fringe right-wing accounts, the pro-Putin drumbeat of conservative media, and the weakness of platform moderation in Spanish-language networks have created ideal conditions for Russian propaganda to spread to a large Spanish-speaking audience.