JULIA: Hi. This is Julia (ph). And I just dropped my 17-month-old baby off at day care for the first time, and then I went on my first jog in 17 months. You're listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
2:06 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, March 29.
JULIA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will definitely still be working on improving my lung capacity.
JULIA: All right. Here's the show.
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MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I love it.
KHALID: Those first few moments of liberation when you drop the kid off at day care - as much as you love them, they are bliss.
PARKS: That's what spring's all about to me, too. It's just getting that cardio back, man. Winter...
PARKS: ...A lot of sitting around in winter.
KHALID: Hey there. This is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.
KHALID: And today on the show, how a Russian conspiracy theory about an alleged Ukrainian bioweapons lab found fresh life on Fox News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")
TUCKER CARLSON: It turns out that our government has, for some time, funded biolabs in Ukraine that do, among other things, research on, yes, biological weapons. This is not a conspiracy theory. It's true. So why is the U.S. government doing this in Ukraine?
KHALID: That was Fox host Tucker Carlson on his show earlier this month. And I want to be abundantly clear, despite what we all just heard him say, what he is describing is, in fact, a conspiracy theory. To help us make sense of this all, we are joined on the podcast today by a very special guest, Odette Yousef. She covers domestic extremism for NPR. And, Odette, we are really glad to have you on. Thanks for joining us.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
KHALID: So you have done some really stellar reporting on this very topic. And I want to begin by understanding what the basis for this specific conspiracy theory is. Is there any element of reality behind it?
YOUSEF: So, Asma, the conspiracy theory is that the U.S. is conducting research and developing biological weapons in these secret labs in Ukraine and that this is used as justification by the Kremlin for its attack in Ukraine. So you mentioned that, you know, is there any truth to it? So it is true that the U.S. is supporting some biological laboratories, research facilities in Ukraine. This is part of a program that the - at the Defense Department called the Biological Threat Reduction Program. And basically, the U.S. supports Ukrainians on the ground who are working at these labs to study pathogens. There's, like, 46 of these labs around Ukraine. And, you know, the work they do at these labs is, for example, monitoring the spread of COVID-19 or trying to fight the spread of something called, like, African swine fever. So, you know, they're keeping an eye on pathogens that would be, you know, really harmful if released into the wider population.
KHALID: So, Odette, as we heard just a couple moments ago, the pernicious Russian version of the story - that the U.S. is somehow developing biological weapons with Ukraine - has found a sympathetic audience in some corners of the American right. You know, we just heard Tucker Carlson speaking about it. How did that happen?
YOUSEF: So, you know, I'll just take a step back, Asma, because the Russian narrative that the U.S. is developing, you know, biological or chemical weapons is one that dates back decades - I mean, back to, you know, the Soviet era.
KHALID: Oh, OK.
YOUSEF: So, you know, to people who might follow Soviet propaganda, this was really sort of just like a trick out of the old playbook and, you know, didn't really merit all that much attention. The reason that this one seems to have blown up is that right around the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine, there was one Twitter account of a QAnon adherent who, you know, posted a map that, you know, allegedly was showing the locations of these biolabs in Ukraine and was sort of insinuating that these were sites where the U.S. was developing biological weapons and that these were also being targeted by Russia and, you know, sort of indicating, well, isn't this understandable? That Twitter thread received thousands of retweets before the account behind it was actually taken down. And it just seemed, you know, it seemed to snowball from there. So it, you know, it really got sort of a new life when it was picked up within the QAnon community. And then in early March, this question came up during an exchange between Senator Marco Rubio and Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland during a committee hearing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARCO RUBIO: I'm sure you're aware that the Russian propaganda groups are already putting out there all kinds of information about how they've uncovered a plot by the Ukrainians to release biological weapons in the country and with NATO's coordination. If there's a biological or chemical weapon incident or attack inside of Ukraine, is there any doubt in your mind that 100% it would be the Russians that would be behind it?
VICTORIA NULAND: There is no doubt in my mind, Senator, and it is classic...
YOUSEF: I mean, the thing is, I think just the very fact that this question came up during a Senate committee hearing is indicative of this narrative sort of breaking through to a more mainstream right. And it was actually because of that exchange that this topic ended up getting an airing on Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News and reached a much more mainstream audience on the right.
PARKS: I do think that point is really interesting, this idea that almost always - whatever the theory is - is just being tweaked a little bit for this kind of the time of the moment. It's usually something that has been floating around or that has been pushed by conspiracy theorists for years, if not decades. And so I think that's important for people to understand, too, when they're thinking about stories like this.
KHALID: So, you know, listening to what you're describing, Odette, I'm reminded of this clip of tape that we have played on the podcast a couple of times now. This is from Frances Haugen, the famous Facebook whistleblower who testified before Congress last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANCES HAUGEN: When I worked on civic misinformation, we discussed the idea of the misinformation burden, like, the idea that when people are exposed to ideas that are not true over and over again, it erodes their ability to connect with the community at large because they no longer adhere to facts that are consensus reality.
KHALID: And, Miles, I mean, this makes me think just broadly about how misinformation - I mean, here we're talking about this specific story, allegations of a biolab, a conspiracy theory that is not true - spread. But basically what she's describing, I mean, it's inherent to other stories as well, this idea that if people you trust in your community double down on ideas that aren't true, it leaves you really vulnerable to accept more things that are also not true. And I guess, in this specific example, I'm thinking there are so many people in corners of the American right who do not believe that President Biden is the correct, rightful president. I mean, they still believe that he is an illegitimate leader. And so, so many other aspects of how he has governed, for them, seem up for debate.
PARKS: Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like it always comes back to this idea of kind of information silos to me, where you have these corners where you're not getting information from other places. I always think back to this Pew data point from 2020, where there was a point where roughly 20% of Americans responded by saying President Trump was doing a good job responding to the coronavirus, but more than 60% of Fox News viewers - people who said they got most of their political news from Fox News - said President Trump was doing a good job handling the coronavirus. And I feel like that has stuck with me over the last couple of years to just show how there are multiple realities in America right now.
KHALID: All right. Well, I have a lot more questions, but let us take a quick break first, and we'll be back in a moment.
And we're back. And, you know, I've been thinking a lot about the reasons that maybe conspiracy theories like this find fertile ground and how maybe it's tied in some ways to the fact that the U.S. government has not always been honest with the American public. And I realize that, you know, there are examples that aren't exactly parallel to what's going on here but, you know, you can look at issues like the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or domestic surveillance programs after 9/11. The government does have a track record of being dishonest with the American public. And so maybe it is understandable why people might be skeptical about official narratives coming out of Washington. And I'm curious, Miles, what you make of that.
PARKS: Yeah, I mean, that's obviously true. But I think it's also kind of - I want to be clear on saying that I do not think this conspiracy theorizing would stop if the government was completely transparent and, you know, perfectly honest about everything. I think that's an important point to make, too, because, you know, in my work covering elections over the last few years, I've seen this push from local election officials to be more transparent, more honest about how things are working, you know, starting livestreams, for instance, of counting ballots or how things are certified. And then you see these sorts of conspiracy theorists take clips and edit them of the livestream and, you know, basically add context that isn't really true. And so I think simultaneously, yes, it's true that the government has not always been honest, but then also you are going to have bad actors take whatever the government does and kind of twist that message, even if they are honest.
KHALID: And that, I guess, leads me back to this question about Tucker Carlson. And, Odette, you know, when you have this popular figure on Fox who is spreading information about this biolab story in conservative circles, how is that being received back in Russia, because this is essentially the very storyline that the Russian government is trying to spread?
YOUSEF: I mean, since it got a wide viewing to American cable audiences, Russia has really dug in on this. You know, it's called for a couple of hearings on this at the U.N. Security Council, which, you know, at the last one, several members of the Security Council sort of denounced this as, like, a charade. And, you know, it's recently sort of ramped things up with claiming that figures such as Hunter Biden and George Soros are somehow connected to the financing of these biolabs. This has been a major - yeah - a major disinformation win for Russia, and they have taken this and run with it. And, you know, Fox News - when NPR contacted Fox News for comment about this, you know, they directed us to other comments that Tucker Carlson's made. You know, he's called the Russian invasion wrong, saying Putin is to blame for the events in Ukraine. But nonetheless, you know, he's given multiple airings to this conspiracy theory.
KHALID: So before we wrap today's show - I know today we have talked a lot about this one particular storyline, but it feels like the past couple of years there have been so many different conspiracy theories floating around our political sphere. And it feels like there's sort of a psychological pull, maybe, in times of uncertainty. And I don't know how you combat this. And do you have any sort of parting words of wisdom for us before we wrap today's show?
YOUSEF: Yeah. I think part of this is just a lack of widespread news literacy - you know? - a lot of the doubts that are being sown around the real function of these research facilities in Ukraine. They're being posed on Tucker Carlson's show, for example, as questions that should be asked of the government, rather than information that is citing specific sources that can provide evidence that what they're saying is true, that biological weapons are, in fact, being, you know, developed at these facilities. You know, we haven't seen any evidence of that. And then, you know, the other part that I would add is that, you know, there is some research being done around something called, you know, disinformation inoculation. And that is, you know, an area of study where people are looking at how can we help people recognize that some messages are specifically targeting their fears, targeting their emotions, and, therefore, they might be more susceptible to these kinds of disinformation campaigns. And so it's important, I think, for people to sort of be aware of those cues when they're hearing information, to be aware of whether it's targeting, you know, their fears, you know, trying to make them feel more uncertain about the world that they're living in and then lead them to some sort of conclusion that might not be, in fact, based on evidence.
KHALID: All right. Well, we will leave it there for today. Odette, thank you very much for coming on today's show. We appreciate it.
YOUSEF: Thanks for having me.
KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
PARKS: And I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.
KHALID: And thank you, all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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