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 past 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, CEO of the online extremism tracking group Center for Countering Digital Hate, has been following the convergence of conspiracy theories and noticed that they share familiar themes: alleged secret government alliances, antisemitic 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 QAnon, 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 the U.S. 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.”
Meanwhile, Candace Owens, a conservative political pundit-turned-anti-vaccine activist, used an extended metaphor involving the lab-leak COVID origin theory to describe the conflict in Ukraine. “We are now experiencing Foreign policy Covid: ‘Experts’ pretending that what is happening between Russia and Ukraine is a naturally occurring event, when in fact, it was manufactured in a lab by the people who stood to benefit trillions,” she tweeted to her 3 million followers last week.
Ahmed’s team has also noted that a strong current of antisemitism runs through many of the Ukraine conspiracy theories in anti-vaccine chats. Sherri Tenpenny, the anti-vaccine activist who has claimed 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 antisemitic 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, the founder of the World Economic Forum, which holds a yearly economic symposium in Davos, Switzerland.
Ben Dubow, a fellow of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, has documented the spread of Russian disinformation during COVID. He notes that antisemitic tropes involving the Hungarian-born Soros are a hallmark of Russian disinformation campaigns, largely because Soros has promoted democracy in “what Russia considers its sphere of influence,” says Dubow. “He is very much an obsession of Russian leadership.” Anti-vaccine groups have their own diabolical Soros myth: Many believe he worked with Bill Gates to hide microchip tracking devices in the COVID vaccines.
In a bizarre Telegram video on Tuesday, David Wolfe, a wellness influencer, also connected the invasion of Ukraine to Soros and Schwab. He then went on to speculate wildly about American politicians’ children and pedophilia in Ukraine: “If you’re convicted of paedophilia in Russia, you’ll get chemically castrated, he’s gonna throw you out,” he told his more than 100,000 followers. “How can John Kerry’s kid, and Nancy Pelosi’s kid, and Biden’s kid all be involved in the Ukraine? I’ll tell you how, because that is the bed of corruption in Europe and in mid-Asia.”
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.”
Indeed, wild theories about Ukraine do seem to be gaining traction beyond just the influencers pushing them. I noticed them popping up in casual conversations among members of online anti-vaccine groups as well. In a Telegram group with 52,000 followers called COVID Vaccine Injuries, a member posted about an upcoming video, saying, “I plan to expose, for the first time, using information I never shared before, how the conflict in Ukraine, the vaccines, and The Great Reset are all tied together.” (The Great Reset is another recurring theme in many of these posts—it’s a conspiracy theory that alleges that the government and elites are using the pandemic to brainwash citizens.) In an anti-mandate Facebook group with 3,000 members called Stop the Tyranny, one member posted last week, “Look at all the corruption installed in Ukraine. Putin is against the New World Order and child trafficking.” She shared a meme of Leonardo DiCaprio that read, “The moment you realize Putin isn’t fighting Ukraine. He’s fighting the DeepState in Ukraine!”
Anti-vaccine online spaces have proliferated in the past few weeks as activists have come together to plan a U.S. 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.”
When I ask Dubow if he thinks that agents of Russian disinformation campaigns are specifically targeting American online anti-vaccine groups, he says he wouldn’t be surprised—but it would hardly be necessary. “The information environment is already set for that sort of messaging to make its way there,” he says. “You think about the profile of these groups—they’re people who deeply distrust the U.S. government, deeply distrust any mainstream narrative.”
Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Ahmed agrees. Sherri Tenpenny and Christiane Northrup are members of his group’s Disinformation Dozen, a list of the 12 most influential spreaders of vaccine disinformation, which also includes Robert Kennedy Jr. and Joseph Mercola. Ahmed’s group has extensively documented the cross-pollination of conspiracy theories in online anti-vaccine spaces, noting how anti-vaxxers seamlessly integrated the QAnon idea of a coming “storm” of retribution into their conversations and insisted COVID shots were part of a comprehensive and evil government agenda called the Great Reset. “After a sufficient amount of time of cross-fertilizing each other’s follower base,” he says, “they actually started to merge their central conspiracies.”
Nonetheless, Dubow expects that Ukraine conspiracy theories will remain mostly a fringe phenomenon. “We’ve seen for the first time in a while, both in terms of total posts and in terms of total engagements, Russia’s really losing control over the narrative,” he says. Yet Ahmed cautions that above all, anti-vaccine influencers are opportunists—and they will adapt whatever happens to command the headlines into their own narratives. Indeed, as Candace Owens tweets furiously about Ukraine, she is gaining more followers—to whom she is also promoting her forthcoming documentary series about the supposed dangers of each of the recommended childhood vaccines. Anti-vaccine activists are “always looking to see how they can mold their narrative to fit any breaking news item and fit it into a conspiracy theory,” says Ahmed. “Because the key element of conspiracy theorists is that they don’t have to rely on facts.”