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.
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.
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?