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Pro-Putin Disinformation on Ukraine Is Thriving in Online Anti-Vax Groups
All the usual themes: Secret government alliances, anti-Semitic tropes, and nefarious scientists.
Kiera Butler March 2, 2022
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen how conspiracy theories can overlap and collide. I’ve documented how anti-vaccine groups embraced QAnon disinformation about liberal elites conspiring to unseat Trump, and how white nationalists find willing audiences for their racist ideology in anti-mask groups. Over the last week, a new disinformation hybrid has appeared, as online anti-vaccine groups have become a hotbed of pro-Russia conspiracy theories about the conflict in Ukraine—and some of the most prominent anti-vaccine activists are actively promoting geopolitical falsehoods.
Imran Ahmed, executive director of the online extremism tracking group Center for Countering Digital Hate, has been following the convergence of the conspiracy theories, and he’s noticed they share familiar themes: alleged secret government alliances, anti-Semitic accusations, and allusions to nefarious scientists. “There are particular individuals within the anti-vaccine world who are amenable to pro-Russian propaganda,” he says, “and that would include some of the people who’ve cohered around QAnon and Trump.”
One example of this is how an old Trump-era storyline—the theory that SARS-CoV-2 was deliberately engineered in a lab and released—seems to have been reconstituted in a new form: Anti-vaccine influencers claim that the United States owns a network of secret biolabs in Ukraine where dangerous infectious disease research takes place. For them, it’s just obvious that Biden is sending aid to Ukraine in order to protect those assets. This rumor has been proven to be manifestly false—but that hasn’t stopped it from circulating and gaining momentum.
Last week, Christiane Northrup, an influential holistic medicine practitioner who regularly spreads pandemic misinformation and promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory, shared with her 78,000 Telegram followers a map that supposedly showed the secret labs in Ukraine that she insists create viruses. She also shared a post from a Bulgarian news site claiming that the US government “conducted biological experiments with a potentially lethal outcome on 4,400 soldiers in Ukraine and 1,000 soldiers in Georgia.” This is not true. On Instagram, a popular meme traveling with the hashtag “#biolabs” shows a photo of Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, with the caption “I might not be a smart man, but I do know if they lied to me about Covid for 2 years, they are probably lying to me about why Russia invaded Ukraine this week.”
Imran’s team has also noted that a strong current of anti-Semitism runs through many of the Ukraine conspiracy theories in anti-vaccine chats. Sherri Tenpenny, the anti-vaccine activist who has claimed that Covid shots make people magnetic, suggested in a Monday post to more than 150,000 followers that Jews were using the Ukraine conflict to distract the world from a meeting in Europe about pandemic preparedness.She shared a post from an account called End Times Newz that used echo parentheses, a widely recognized symbol that anti-Semitic hate groups use to identify Jewish people. “Whilst everyone is distracted by the events in (((Ukraine))), the (((WHO))) is ramming through an international treaty on ‘pandemic’ procedures,” the post said. “Same tribe every time” On the same day, in a separate Telegram post, Tenpenny claimed that the hacker group Anonymous, which has carried out recent cyberattacks against Russia, is “part of the Soros/Klaus/WEF puppet army.” This refers to billionaire philanthropist George Soros and Klaus Schwab, who is the founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) that holds a yearly economic symposium in Davos, Switzerland.
One aspect of Putin’s rhetoric on the Ukraine invasion—that the Western hegemony is trying to force progressive values on Ukraine—will appeal to Americans steeped in far-right conspiracy theories about the Deep State and the villainous intentions of public health agencies. Putin’s message, Dubow notes, “really does throw pretty naturally off of a lot of messaging they had, to try to raise skepticism about vaccines, about the origins of Covid, about how generally you can’t trust any member of the Western establishment.”
Anti-vaccine online spaces have proliferated in the last few weeks as activists have come together to plan a US version of the anti-mandate trucker convoys that happened in Canada. Observers have noticed a pro-Putin sentiment in many of those anti-mandate convoy planning chats on Telegram, as well. In one, a member wrote, “Go Putin! He is standing up against the New World Order with the Truckers of the world! Going against George Soros.” In a Facebook group called Freedom Convoy 2022 with 22,000 members, someone posted last week about “reports that Putin Strikes are targeting US-RUN BIO-LABS in the Ukraine.” He went on:
“One thing is for sure, there is much more to this story than any of the world governments or mainstream media is reporting. If we learned anything from the media’s depiction of the Canadian Convoy, one important thing was that the media will twist the facts to support a political narrative.”
Anti-vaccine and wellness influencer Naomi Wolf predicted ominously on Telegram that “the Truckers’ Convoy [and] Ukraine, will be weaponized in a cyberattack to give more emergency powers to Pres Biden and suspend midterms.”