A peculiar phenomenon of the contemporary mis-/dis-/and malinformation (MDM) landscape is the frequent recurrence of certain themes in different MDM narratives catered to a variety of social, political, and cultural contexts. These recurrent, recycled themes - ranging from covert Jewish conspiracies to elite involvement in pedophilia - are molded to resonate in specific contexts and geographies. This phenomenon of recycled narratives opens a range of important research avenues to better understand the spread and believability of disinformation:
What does this phenomenon say about the MDM strategy of malicious actors and foreign entities? Does recycling themes attest to a lack of creativity or a mastery of forging efficient influence operations?
Does the recurrence of narratives influence the Overton window? Does it help normalize these MDM narratives in public discourse?
How might the phenomenon of recurrent narratives sustain inoculation and prebunking efforts?
Limbik has been evaluating diverse narratives for the past five years and has seen numerous themes reappear in seemingly unrelated MDM narratives. One such theme is biological laboratories and their supposed involvement in manufacturing biological weapons. This Deep Dive takes a preliminary look into three significant occasions in which biological labs and weapons appeared on Limbik’s radar: (i) the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (ii) the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, and (iii) the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
1. The origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus
As the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns around the world in March 2020, numerous narratives pushing false origin stories of the SARS-CoV-2 virus circulated across social media platforms. One subset of narratives considered the SARS-CoV-2 virus a bioweapon created in secret laboratories. Narratives often focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China - with some variants of this narrative purporting that the creation of the virus in this lab was funded by then-NIAID Director Anthony Fauci or President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. In other reiterations of this narrative, the virus was launched from Fort Detrick in Maryland, historically an important center of the U.S. biological weapons program from 1943 to 1969. Potential for Impact (PFI) - Limbik’s metric that predicts whether content related to an MDM theme or narrative will be considered believable and elicit engagement - was high for both the Fort Detrick and CCP narratives, highlighting significant resonance among U.S. adults.
2. The development of the COVID-19 vaccine
As rapidly as the biolab and weapons theme became integrated into narratives on the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it featured prominently in an important mitigation measure; not long after the announcement that COVID-19 vaccines were being developed, the narrative that COVID-19 vaccines were in fact bioweapons found widespread resonance, specifically among conspiracy theorists on Telegram channels. This narrative was accompanied by a barrage of dangerous health disinformation, encouraging people to stay away from the vaccinated and drink special home-brewed treatments to stay protected from this supposed bioweapon. Although the narrative was mostly propagated by QAnon and other Deep State and accelerationist conspiracy theorists, it quickly became normalized in public discourse that leaned toward anti-vaccination. The intertwinement of the vaccine as a bioweapon was entangled with a host of other narratives including the Great Reset and New World Order narratives about white genocide, the great replacement, and green authoritarianism.
3. The Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Fast-forward to February 2022, the biological laboratory and weapons theme has been rapidly incorporated in MDM related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia propagates the narrative that Ukraine is hosting a series of secret biolabs that are used, under U.S. auspices, to develop biological weapons. The narrative found significant resonance among U.S. adults as right-wing media and pundits further spread the disinformation. However, as with other Ukraine-related MDM narratives covered in the Deep Dive series, the duration of the war has long surpassed any initial justifications declared by Russia, leading to drastically lower PFI of the “Secret Biolabs” narrative.
The recurrence of biological laboratories and weapons in MDM narratives is not limited to these three occasions. There is, notably, a long history of Russian propaganda pushing biolab-related disinformation to divide societies per its strategic interests. Nonetheless, these three examples highlight some of the most prominent examples in recent years. The highly emotive, dangerous nature of biological weapons theme undoubtedly leads to its recycling in different contexts. Awareness among policymakers and tech regulators about the recycling of narratives will prove indispensable in understanding (foreign) influence operations, preventing the normalization of certain disinformation narratives, and sustaining prebunking and inoculation efforts.