The coronavirus-Wuhan bioweapons lab conspiracy theory’s weird echo

Nefarious labwork

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There is sickness shrouded in uncertainty. With the ambient confusion floating around, a story emerges pinning the cause of the malady to a specific, government-linked lab.

Take the conspiracy theory that coronavirus was invented as a bioweapon in a Wuhan bioweapons: it echoes the pattern of stories promoted heavily by Russian disinfo outlets in 2018 following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK.

The Kremlin-aligned disinfo outlets claimed the Novichok nerve agent used to poison the Russian emigre father and daughter was in fact created near Salisbury at the UK’s chemical weapons centre.

The same year, the Kremlin decided the US was “running a clandestine biological weapons lab in the country of Georgia, allegedly flouting international conventions and posing a direct security threat to Russia — allegations the Pentagon angrily rejected.”

“It’s highly likely that the U.S. is building up its military biological potential under the cover of studying protective means and conducting other peaceful research, flouting international agreements,” said a Russian general in charge of that nation’s radiation, chemical and biological protection troops.

The Wuhan bioweapons conspiracy theory also echoes the famous Cold War-era Operation Infektion when the KGB spread the lie that the AIDS virus was created in a biological weapons research laboratory in the US state of Maryland.

Could the source or promoters of these conspiracies be related over the years? It could just be a coincidence. Definitely. But it could also be a hackneyed storyline.

I can’t, unfortunately, say for certain which it is. But the pattern holds in these three examples.

More about the psychology of conspiracy theories in The Age piece .

Jardin: Social media ‘created by jerks and exploited by our enemies’

A succinct quote from tech-culture figure Xeni Jardin on the inherent problem that social media presents for a functional democracy,

( To understand her use of the word “jerk”, click on the podcast link below.)

“The fact so much of our discourse happens on Twitter and Facebook is responsible for why so much of our discourse is so twisted…”

“I don’t want to be one of those GenX jerks who quotes Marshall McLuhan all over the place, but the ‘medium is the message’ and right now the medium are these social media apps that were created by jerks and they’re being exploited by our enemies.”

“How can anything good come from that?”

Heard here.

The ‘Russiagate’ push

Anyone following the Trump-Russia news nexus in recent months, especially the Mueller report, would have noticed an increase in the use of the term “Russiagate” as a descriptor for the event.

I’ve wondered for some time, why – based on reading Russian media outlets – this is the Kremlin’s preferred term, over other ones such as “TrumpRussia” or “TrumpPutin” or the “MuellerReport”? The likely defenders of Russia-friendly positions use Russiagate pretty consistently.

US-based internet researcher Josh Russell has pulled a set of bot accounts that all pushed the term until suspended. (Link below).

For me, the surge of bots pushing the term on social media, alongside humans using it online, in print and on TV, shows how the Kremlin tries to shape the terms of a debate in a way favorable towards its view. Social media, of course, makes this easier. If you’re trying to talk about Russia’s spell over Donald Trump, and you have to wade through a sea of “Russiagate” mentions you will likely eventually adopt the term.

Still, there is a not a clear motive for the linguistic attack on this specific term. Yet its use accords with the Kremlin’s longer-term view of information ops. It’s not about short-term gains but longer term ones. So the focus of propaganda can be oblique. Nevertheless, the push is consistent with Kremlin’s goals elsewhere: frame and shape the debate.

I can think of three possible explanations:

1) Calling it “Russiagate” brings it in line with all the other “-gates” since Watergate, which normalizes and reduces its profile. Especially when compared to TrumpRussia, or other terms that hint at the unprecedented situation in which the US president is backed by a hostile foreign state, and is in the process of dividing the US as much as possible.

On social media, a message can easily be targeted: not just through bots, seeding the message, or trolls peppering targets, but linguistically too. For example: you can declare yourself Trump opposition, assume the language of Trump opposition, then set about hollowing out the meaningful opposition from the inside, by being divisive, by making weak arguments, by recirculating stories that put the opposition on defensive.

2) Promoting “Russiagate” as a rival term to other naturally-occurring names helps to divide the growing consensus among the public that yes, Russia is a major protagonist in Trump’s political rise, as well as a motive for his actions. Highlighting internal divisions is a key information operation tactic used by Russian trolls at home and abroad.

3) Somewhat related to this, the term “Russiagate” may simply act as a marker, to help follow the conversation from afar. Its use can help onlookers (like, say, in St Petersburg) track the relative strength of one side of a global debate by charting the hashtag’s popularity.

In any case, it’s a clear example of the drive to shape the discussion within the US, even if it’s not clear why it should be shaped this way. The “Russiagate” term push should be a reminder for those who want to defend the Liberal Order that they need to think broadly about how to define the world today to shape its future in a way more favorable to democracies.

China points to internal divisions in West

It’s just one line in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily briefing – but it does seem to depart from the People’s Republic of China’s long-touted principle of non-intervention in other nations’ internal affairs.

In the course of criticizing the US, UK and France’s unilateral missile strikes targeting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s chemical weapons program (for violating “the basic principle of prohibition of use of force in international law”) Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying added: “We have noted that there are also doubts and criticism in the US, the UK and France concerning the legality and legitimacy of such military strikes.”

This seems an ever-so-slight variation from statements in previous times when such cross-border commentary on other nation’s internal affairs wouldn’t happen. But delivered directly from the MFA, it can be seen as highlighting or amplifying internal division.

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MFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying

The MFA spokeswoman went on to echo the Russian position on Syria, drawing parallels to widely condemned 2003 US invasion of Iraq. She also repeated one of the Russia/Syrian position of – we don’t know all the facts (after years’ of footage of chemical attacks on civilians) so there is no legal basis to act. Hua Chunying said:

“…When it comes to the use of force against other countries on the ground of chemical weapons, we shall not forget the precedent of the Iraqi issue. That historical lesson should be learned, and such tragedy shall never be allowed to happen again. We noted that senior officials of those three countries you mentioned said that it is ‘highly likely’ that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, or in other words, they are still ‘looking for the evidence’. We believe that it is very irresponsible to launch military strikes on a sovereign country on the ground of ‘presumption of guilt’. The issue of Syrian chemical weapons calls for truth.”

The Russians have used the same rationale both on the Syria chemical attack and in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning. But compare China’s recent recent statement on the missile attack to its official statement after the US’s unilateral missile strikes on Syria in April 2017. (From April 7, 2017)

Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country’s sovereign territory?

A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.

The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.

It could very well be that these arguments are simply in the air and so China is repeating them. But given that China and Russia are opportunistic security partners when it comes to rolling back Western influence (just look at the Snowden saga), it could explain why Russian talking points are showing up at the Chinese foreign ministry press room.

Gone are the days of “we hope all parties can keep calm” (circa 2017) and now we’re entering period of highlighting divisions internal to the US, UK, and France – the same divisions, by the way, that China and Russia have the scope and power to amplify through their own networks active in the West.

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