Truth decayThe Secret Lab Conspiracy: A Converging Narrative

Published 15 July 2020

Some observers have recently argued about a convergence of narratives between pro-Kremlin and Chinese disinformation networks. One example of the convergence of false Russian and Chinese narrative, both aiming to undermine relations among Western and pro-Western countries, is the  “clandestine U.S. biolabs” conspiracy theory.

“The United States has deployed more than 200 military biological laboratories across the world. Among them, more than 30 have been exposed. The rest are hidden in unknown places. They may be right beside you”, an alarming message warned YouTube users in a video shared on the 21st of May. The creators of the video claimed that “the biological laboratories of the United States give us the creeps” and sincerely invited the “netizens from all over the world to look for more than 200 mysterious biological laboratories of the United States”.

Just a few weeks later, on the 11th of June, the “netizens”, as active participants of online communities are called, delivered. Another YouTube video presented “continuous revelations from the netizens”, cataloguing a “growing list” of exposed laboratories in the United States, Europe, the Caucasus and Asia. “The US military has set up over 200 bio-security labs in 25 countries for research and development of biological weapons such as dangerous bacteria”, the video said and appealed, on behalf of the global netizens, for international organizations to investigate the US biological laboratories.

At a glance, the videos would resemble an already familiar conspiracy theory sowing doubt about the origins of the coronavirus, were it not for several telling details. The videos were shared in five languages from the YouTube accounts of the China Global Television Network (CGTN). CGTN is the international division of the CCTV, or China Central Television – the state-controlled TV network of the People’s Republic of China. Earlier this year, the British media watchdog Ofcom formally sanctioned CGTN for biased coverage of the Hong Kong protests. Even more surprisingly, the “continuous revelations of netizens” almost verbatim coincided with “revelations” previously made by the pro-Kremlin media and the Russian officials.

The Revival of the “Secret Labs”
The disinformation trope of secret US military bio-labs on Russia’s borders has been making rounds in the pro-Kremlin media for years, in particular targeting the Lugar lab in Georgia. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic gave a new impetus to these efforts, with the pro-Kremlin media building and expanding on the already existing “secret lab” disinformation template. Multiple pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets claimed not only that the novel coronavirus was an American biological weapon against China manufactured in NATO and Pentagon-funded laboratories, but also that clandestine US laboratories were operating around the worldsurrounding Russia, China and Iran.