The Propagandists Among Us

Whether dupes or active participants, the damage is real (and points us back to 2016).

Quite frankly I would rather ignore Tucker Carlson, but I am struck by his willingness to spout Russian propaganda in this present moment. I am not sure if he is a willing participant or a dupe (I very much lean towards willing participant, but at a minimum, I think he just needs something to talk about to generate viewers and attention to justify his remarkably large contract, and so maybe he is just an utter cynic). But, I have noticed his current use of a Russian-generated tale that the US has been partnered with Ukraine to maintain bioweapons labs. For those who need the basics, one can read his smarmy monolog on the subject here: Tucker Carlson: The questions about the biolabs in Ukraine that everyone should be asking.

Short version: he is taking long-standing Russian propaganda, including the kind of thing that they will try to use to justify their invasion, and then used what can only be described as willful misinterpretation and reporting of a statement by a US official to then assert that the government that is doing all the lying is the US government, not the Russian.

Glenn Kessler in WaPo has a full run-down on the entire thing (How the right embraced Russian disinformation about ‘U.S. bioweapons labs’ in Ukraine) including the supposed gotcha moment from a US State Department official:

The latest iteration of this claim was sparked by a brief exchange during a Senate hearing on March 8 between Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Nuland. Rubio asked whether Ukraine has biological or chemical weapons. Nuland responded by talking about the research labs and the U.S. concern that Russia would get access to them.

“Ukraine has biological research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to gain control of,” Nuland replied. “So, we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.”

First and foremost the only way to immediately assume that “biological research facilities” are bioweapons labs is to assume that preexisting Russian propaganda is believable. Let me note that most universities that have biology departments have labs that could be called “biological research facilities” and some of those have materials that could be considered dangerous, but that doesn’t make them weapons facilities (or anything suspicious).

It is incredibly telling that in the Carlson monolog linked above that he doesn’t actually quote Nuland, nor does the transcript link to an actual story about the testimony. Instead, Carlson said the following:

We foolishly assumed that in this one instance, they might be telling the truth and then out of nowhere, the Biden official in charge of Ukraine confirmed the story. Toria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State, casually mentioned in a Senate hearing on Tuesday that actually, yes, the Biden administration does fund a series of biolabs in Ukraine and whatever is in these labs is so dangerous that she is deeply concerned these materials will fall into the hands of the Russian military.  

This, like the entire piece, drips with implications that there are nefarious lies afoot, without ever fully making a direct accusation. The whole monolog is cast in the “just asking question motif” but is also peppered with things like maybe the Biden administration is “in this one instance…telling the truth” (because otherwise it is all just lies, lies, lies) or that it is the Biden administration, specifically, “fund[s] a series of biolabs” (nevermind that these labs have been funded for some time, including during the Trump administration).

I obviously have no special knowledge about whatever research is being done at the labs in question, although even material that Carlson himself skeptically cites, provides plenty of obvious answers, just as a great deal of detail in the Kessler piece: a combination of dealing with preexisting Soviet-era bioweapons and research in livestock diseases (which is probably the main issue, as per Kessler’s fact check).

And yes, what is going on in Ukraine at the moment, one would be concerned that laboratories engaged in pathogen research might lose power (thus affecting containment) or simply lead to spillage or other misuses.

Via Kessler:

In reality, Nuland’s statement about “biological research facilities” did not confirm allegations of bioweapons labs. African swine fever, for instance, is not a human pathogen. But it does devastate pigs and can be used as an economic weapon, so it is considered by the United States to be a potential biowarfare agent — especially in countries (such as the United States) with little experience with it.

[…]

Asked on Thursday to expand on Nuland’s comment, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said medical facilities “all have equipment, pathogens or other things that you have to have restrictions around because you need to be sure it is being treated and handled appropriately.” She said there was a concern the Russians could misuse materials, even if not designed for weapons, “in dangerous ways or create challenges for the population.”

The World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, told Reuters Thursday that it had “strongly recommended to the Ministry of Health in Ukraine and other responsible bodies to destroy high-threat pathogens to prevent any potential spills.”

Andrzej Jarynowski, a Polish infectious-disease epidemiologist, said Kharkiv’s Institute of Experimental and Clinical Veterinary Medicine is one of the best labs between Greifswald, Germany and Pokrov, Russia — a distance of about 1,300 miles. He said ASF, Bacillus anthracis, avian Influenza viruses, Francisella tularensis, brucella, salmonella, E. coli (toxin producing), Borrelia sensu lato and the coronavirus were studied at Kharkiv, a city now under siege, with active agents stored until to invasion. Dangerous pathogens are kept in freezers, so a loss of electrical power due to the war could potentially allow for their escape.

Emphasis mine.

Let’s just ask ourselves the following question: what is more likely true? That the US has been involved in basic research for a variety of reasons, including livestock diseases, with Ukrainian partners, or that the US decided to put sensitive bioweapons research facilities in a country that borders Russia? Because, you know, there would be nowhere else in the entire world to put such facilities?

The bottom line is that the only reasons to push the bioweapons theory are to undermine the Biden administration (because ratings, I guess) or because one is actually sympathetic to the Russians (or both). (There is also the possibility that Carlson is simply stupid enough to fall for propaganda of this nature but I honestly don’t think that is true–as noted above, he probably is just willing to cynically use whatever he needs to fuel his program).

The ongoing ability of Russian propaganda to penetrate a major American cable network makes me think back to the 2016 elections and similar success by Russian propagandists. It is worth noting that allegations of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections include a combination of misinformation, especially on social media sites, and complicity (even knowingly or out of ignorance) by Trump allies.

On that second point, note the following from Kessler:

Donald Trump Jr. gleefully tweeted a clip of Nuland, saying: “Well that went from conspiracy theory to Senate testimony in about 6 days … It used to take six months to go from conspiracy theory to fact.”

Again, it is hard to say whether this is stupidity or the knowing sharing of propaganda for political purposes, but unlike in Carlson’s case, I am more than persuadable that when it comes to Don, Jr., that Occam’s Razor points to stupidity. Regardless, to me, it clearly demonstrates, as the Mueller Report detailed, the willingness of the Trump camp to fall sway to Russian intelligence operations.

To the first point, No More Mister Nice Blog notes this story from NBC News: Convoy picks up cars and anti-Ukraine talking points ahead of Washington arrival which includes the following:

But as its Covid mission has become less clear, the group’s channels have turned to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where conspiracy-minded thinking has flourished. While some group members have admonished Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion, QAnon and anti-vaccine contingents within the groups have seized on a false conspiracy theory that the war is a cover for a military operation backed by former President Donald Trump in Ukraine.

The conspiracy theory, which is baseless and has roots in QAnon mythology, alleges that Trump and Putin are secretly working together to stop bioweapons from being made by Dr. Anthony Fauci in Ukraine and that shelling in Ukraine has targeted the secret laboratories. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has emerged in the past year as a main target for far-right conspiracy theories.

This is, not to get too analytical here, totally nuts. And while I have no evidence, it would hardly be surprising that Russian intelligence isn’t behind such “theorizing.” Regardless of its origins, this is clear misinformation that, like a lot of misinformation during the 2016 campaign (such as the notion that Hillary’s server was whisked away to, lest ye have forgotten, Ukraine), it finds its way into the mainstream often via Fox News, as, again No More Mister Nice Blog notes in his post:

Meanwhile, Jeannine Pirro was a guest on Fox’s The Five yesterday floating the uncut Fauci speculation:

“What I think is interesting about these biolabs… we deny, we deny, we deny. ‘It’s preposterous. Don’t waste any ink on it,'” Pirro said. “And yet, isn’t it interesting that we haven’t heard or seen Fauci in weeks?” she said….

Of course, like Tucker, she is just asking questions.

And the beat goes on. (He also links Glenn Greenwald, a frequent Tucker guest).

It seems to me that the behavior of people like Carlson, Pirro, and Don Jr. actually gives retrospective added credence to charges of 2016 election interference by the Russians and the willing complicity of some in the US media and broader politics. After all, if they are willing to help sow seeds of pro-Russian justifications for this war (which is utterly indefensible on its face) then how much more were they willing to let lies go out into the American bloodstream to damage a political opponent?

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Media, Ukraine, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    OMG! There are biological research labs all over the world. At universities, at private pharmaceutical and even cosmetics companies, at medical research facilities, agricultural research, and plenty more. You may even add blood testing labs and pathology labs as well.

    Take COVID vaccines, for example. Lots of countries are developing their own, or copying the work done by others like the AZ/Oxford vaccine. This aside from those who make brand name vaccines under license.

    It would be suspicious if Ukraine had NO biological research labs at all.

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  2. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    That’s what’s so ridiculous. I live a few miles from Pfizer and a few miles from Raytheon (missiles, not medicine, admittedly). Not to speak of all the health care facilities in the immediate area.

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  3. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I verbalized my suspicions several years ago that local police departments had been infiltrated by white supremacists—which was subsequently proven to be valid.

    American media has been infiltrated by washed Russian money–they are the hidden hand behind the Right Wing media eco system. The similarities between Russian State TV tactics & strategies and our own Right Wing new clown car should feel quite familiar. I do not believe the similarities to be coincidental–but an indication of a common parent.

    The Russians have learned the value of soft power long ago and their oligarchs have roamed the West throwing money around in their own interests AND in the interest of Putin. What better use of State of the Art influence tradecraft to throw American domestic governance into Chaos? They would be dumb not to attempt them. Especially with the American propensity to believe simply doing business with people makes them want American values. That’s proven to be a false assumption in our collaboration with China–and an utter failure to tame the instincts of the Russian Elites. I suspect the Ukraine crisis gave Western governments the cover to finally root these assholes out of their societies where they’ve created giant imbalances in politics and economies.

    Tucker Carlson is the talent so its entirely possible he is unwitting to his actual stringholders are. Upstream of him, however, someone is in the know about the origin of the messages and the beneficiary. I suspect this is why Trump fought sooooooo hard of any insinuation of “Russian Interference”.

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  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    Tucker Carlson is basically the 2022 version of Lord Haw-Haw

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  5. JohnSF says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    Similar pattern in the UK.
    So many people who shout about their patriotism, and turn out to be motivated by money, whatever the source may be, and by spite.
    Time to wake up.
    Time for a clean out.

    (Also: time to re-read George Orwell)

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  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    I suspect the Ukraine crisis gave Western governments the cover to finally root these assholes out of their societies

    I started thinking that a couple of days in, with the strong, broad, unified response. I’m very glad to see that you think so, too.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    Steven, I think it is good that the thrust of your post is that Tucker Carlson is unreliable, if not a dupe or a paid agent of the Russians. But, FWIW, I think any time spent on refuting his lies is counterproductive.

    Years ago, an obscure researcher, Jan Brunvand, who was doing pioneering work on how urban legends spread published a popular collection of these legends under the title, “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings” and achieved some fame and notoriety. He made the rounds of the talk shows and happened to mention that one especially powerful vector for these urban legends was when “Dear Abby”, Abigail Van Buren, would pick them up. Van Buren became aware and was horrified. She wanted her column to be a source for truth and practical advice, not a column version of The National Enquirer. So whenever she came across a story “too good to check” she would contact Brunvand and he would, more often than not, point to the fact that it was just a myth. Then she would make a point of exposing it in her column, confident that given her reach she would be able to stamp these myths out (some of which had been circulating for many decades) once and for all. But after a few years, Brunvand’s research showed that this had no effect. Publishly it gullibly or publishing it to refute it had the exact same effect on its spread.

    I fear that by giving a platform to the lies people such as Tucker spread, you are helping him more than hurting him. I’m not saying you should ignore him, but perhaps it would be better to simply to focus on the fact that nothing he says can be trusted.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    I think the only real question regarding Tucker Carlson is where his loyalties lie. He clearly promotes Russian propaganda, but does he do it out of a purchased loyalty to Russia, or gin up anger and ratings?

    At this point, though, one has to wonder if he needs to register as a foreign agent.

    Hey, I’m just asking questions.

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  9. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    I suspect he takes a perverse delight in outraging people for the sake of outraging them. And it certainly boosts his ratings, so there’s that very big consideration.

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  10. gVOR08 says:

    I happened to see Richard Hofstatder’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and realized I’d never read it. So I did yesterday. It was written during, and in response to, the 1964 Goldwater campaign. Boy howdy- the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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  11. Scott F. says:

    I am not sure if he is a willing participant or a dupe (I very much lean towards willing participant, but at a minimum, I think he just needs something to talk about to generate viewers and attention to justify his remarkably large contract, and so maybe he is just an utter cynic).

    I think you are right about Carlson’s motivations, but “utter cynic” seems to benign a descriptor for what he is doing. He’s being deliberately provocative for money. That makes Carlson a whore.

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  12. @Scott F.: How about cynical whore?

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan:

    But after a few years, Brunvand’s research showed that this had no effect. Publishly it gullibly or publishing it to refute it had the exact same effect on its spread.

    Isn’t that why “there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ publicity” is a thing?

  14. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    That would do it, but, as I said, I think he enjoys being perverse.

    1
  15. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Well, aside from the fact that it’s an insult to cynical whores, it works for me.

    1
  16. @MarkedMan: This raises an interesting potential aspect to the self-censorship discussion.

    1
  17. Gavin says:

    Q really is the only appropriate starting letter for this article , Steven.

    An article on BS that helps describe many different types of false info each coming from Lord Tuck Tuck at some point.. just saying “misinformation” is actually painting with too broad a brush.

  18. @Gavin: Ha! I noticed that as I was posting it. I wish I could say it was intentional.

  19. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, the discussion of conspiracy theory mongering and the difficulty in debunking it makes me think that perhaps back when I taught computer science theory I should have billed it as, “Secrets of Automata Theory THEY Don’t Want You to Know!”

    I’m kidding, but man, all I can say is tell your story and in as compelling terms as you can manage. There will always be someone who sees profit in a different story.

  20. rachel says:

    @MarkedMan: Professor Brunvand! Oh, wow, that takes me back. I took his class on folklore and urban legends back in the ’80s when I was an undergrad, and I still have my old copies of The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Choking Doberman and The Mexican Pet. I signed up for his class because I’ve always been interested in folklore. I really enjoyed it, but it also turned out to be one of the more useful uni classes to prepare me for my adult life. It, Shakespeare, and statistics were, IMO, the best classes for tuning up the old BS detectors.

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  21. DK says:

    Tucker Carlson is a liar and a traitor. Russian state TV broadcasts Tucker Carlson’s anti-democracy rhetoric for a reason. He’s a discount Hitler apologist, Charles Lindbergh without the heroics or the style. We been knew.

    Suzanne Scott and the Murdochs will recorded in history as enablers of fascism.

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  22. Fog says:

    Carlson is pro-oligarchy. It pays well. The parties are good. He is in favor of reducing the size of democracy so it can be strangled in the bathtub. Putin’s Russia is an example of how it can be done. Like the gangster said, “It’s the dollars, always the dollars.”