From COVID to Kyiv: Conspiracy theorists push Ukraine disinformation

Julie Charpentrat and Marine Pennetier, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 12 2022 05:27 PM

Locals learn war tactics and weapons at the city's Polytechnic University in Odessa, Ukraine, March 11, 2022. Maria Senovilla, EPA-EFE
Locals learn war tactics and weapons at the city's Polytechnic University in Odessa, Ukraine, March 11, 2022. Maria Senovilla, EPA-EFE

As attention fixes on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so do conspiracy theorists who actively push Kremlin propaganda online after two years of sharing disinformation about the coronavirus.

They claim the war is an attempt to divert attention, some even say it is a ploy to get French President Emmanuel Macron elected again next month.

Experts say conspiracists are opportunists aiming to cause disruption, following where global attention is to spread their false narratives.

The change is clear on the Facebook, Twitter and Telegram accounts of some of the most prominent conspiracy theorists, including Silvano Trotta in France, Sherri Tenpenny in the United States and Simeon Boikov in Australia.

Some of the conspiracies say Ukraine would be the "rear base of an international pedophile network", or would host "secret US laboratories" preparing a new coronavirus for a "new world order".

Tristan Mendes France, a conspiracy theory expert in France, said some who shared rumors about the coronavirus now do so on Ukraine.

"It's not a surprise: this world of conspiracies is an empty shell that aggregates around the news of the moment," he said.

The Kremlin itself says the attack on Ukraine is in fact a plan to rescue the Russian-speaking population and to shield them from a "Nazi" regime.

- Opportunism -

The subject may have changed but not the conspiracists' targets.

The names of Bill Gates and George Soros have popped up, and have been the subject of several disinformation posts debunked by AFP fact-checkers.

The two billionaires were accused of masterminding the pandemic, now conspiracists claim they financed biological weapons factories in Ukraine.

Some even claim they planned the war to divert attention as they prepare a new virus, and so Russia only intervened to stop the apparent plan.

"A number of influential anti-vaxxers" who made a name for themselves during the pandemic seek "to exploit the world's attention on the invasion," said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, describing them as "opportunists". 

He was unknown before Covid but today Silvano Trotta has several thousand followers on Facebook, Telegram and VKontakte, a popular Russian social network, where he shares his theories about the "false Ukrainian crisis".

On the other side of the Atlantic, Sherri Tenpenny, an American osteopath who has shared disinformation on Covid, tells her 160,000 Telegram subscribers that Jews are behind the conflict in Ukraine.

- Russia's exploitation -

The pro-Russian emphasis in conspiracy theories is nothing new. Moscow is considered one of the masters of spreading disinformation online.

In May 2021, when influencers were contacted by a mysterious communications agency to criticize Western vaccines, eyes turned to Russia even though Moscow denied any links.

It's impossible to know for sure whether the move from anti-vax and Covid scepticism to pro-Russian rhetoric on Ukraine was directed by Moscow itself.

But disinformation, whether on Covid or Ukraine, "stirs discontent" in Western democracies, destabilising them and thus serving Moscow's interests, said Julien Nocetti, of the French Institute of International Relations.

Moscow has learnt how to exploit Covid-sceptic and anti-vaccine accounts.

But Nocetti said the "mistake" made in Europe and the United States was to view Russian disinformation "through a very specific crisis context".

The Kremlin, he added, has "a much more strategic vision" and thinks "long term".