For weeks now, misinformation watchers have been monitoring a sudden shift within COVID-19 conspiracy circles, away from railing against masks and mandates and towards spouting pro-Putin propaganda about Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine. It’s a strange and striking pivot that’s already sparked concerns about the evolution of these communities.
But over the last few days, observers have noticed a new line of arguments about the conflict in Ukraine spreading through these pandemic “truther” spaces that are arguably more on brand—yet also more disturbing. Rather than minimize, excuse, or applaud Russia’s naked aggression, these theories largely argue that the Ukraine conflict is actually just a “false flag” manufactured by a sinister, shadowy cabal of global elites to cover up, or expand and perpetuate, their vague yet nefarious pandemic plots.
That is to say, they basically argue that this complex and tragic crisis is actually all about them, and their issues.
As the vaccine law expert and antivax movement watcher Dorit Reiss told The Daily Beast, the emergence and spread of these baseless arguments sheds light on “the intense selfishness and self-importance” at the heart of these communities. “Everything has to be about them,” she said. “And the crisis they imagine exists has to be the driver of everything that happens in society.”
It also suggests, according to several other experts on conspiracy groups and thought whom The Daily Beast spoke to for this story, that COVID truthers don’t intend to fade away with the pandemic. Instead, they seem eager to turn their ideas on COVID’s roots and effects into a comprehensive identity and worldview. They’ll likely try to graft their increasingly wild and all-encompassing conspiracies onto every major event that arises in the future, forcing the rest of us to keep dealing with their tired bullshit indefinitely—and functionally spitting in the faces of the victims of crises.
“It is sad that these people are so fixated on their anti-vaccine politics that they cannot recognize the suffering of millions of people in Ukraine who are being bombed, whose homes have been destroyed, and whose lives have been upended,” said Mark Beissinger, an expert on Russia and Ukraine who’s been monitoring the conflict between the two nations, after reviewing some of the arguments floating around pandemic conspiracy communities about the war’s supposed true purpose.
Some theories connecting the Ukraine conflict to the pandemic do just read like attempts to make pro-Putin propaganda more relevant to the COVID truther communities they’ve been circulating within for a while now.
Notably, for years, Russia’s spread rumors that America has secret, illegal bio-weapons labs in Ukraine, as part of their longstanding efforts to delegitimize the U.S. As soon as the invasion began, pandemic conspiracy groups started to argue that Russian strikes were really just taking out these targets—that the invasion was an act of justified self-defense in the face of hypocritical neo-liberal imperialism. (Olena Lennon, an eastern Ukrainian-born scholar who studies Ukrainian politics and security, told The Daily Beast that she and others are worried that the Kremlin’s been pushing these rumors especially hard recently “to use them as a pretext for deploying biological weapons in Ukraine.”)
This theory is baseless; it seems to stem from misrepresentations of old treaties in which America offered Ukraine support in modernizing and strengthening the security of biolabs working on public health projects. It also has nothing to do with COVID, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on misinformation who’s been monitoring this narrative.
“People with a strong disposition to see things as the product of conspiracies will see them everywhere.”
Earlier this week, a pandemic conspiracy channel with over 96,000 followers posted an updated version of this theory, claiming that, according to Russian officials, the labs were working with bat-born coronavirus samples. This vague mention finally connected this long-running Russian apologist rumor to the truther community’s beloved theories that COVID-19 was created in American-backed lab work, then unintentionally or intentionally loosed upon the world. Variations of this newly salient version of the biolab apology have popped up in other truther groups as well.
A prominent antivaxxer also recently spun a story on the supposed injustice of Ukraine’s bid to cripple Russia’s internet ecosystem to make it more relevant to her Telegram followers. “Do you think the ‘Powers that shouldn’t be’ will stop with Russia?,” she posted. “Do you think they won’t try to ‘delete’ all ‘antivaxxer’ domains, or those of other dissident voices next?”
Soon after she made this post, reports confirmed that Ukraine’s efforts on this front had failed. So apparently the answer to this sneering and paranoid hypothetical question is … yes?
The vast majority of theories that attempt to coopt the Ukraine crisis into pandemic conspiracies, however, don’t seem to reflect and riff off of pro-Putin talking points. Instead, many argue that a vague elite class that controls all countries and geopolitics sparked or stoked the conflict either partially or solely to distract the public from the supposed collapse of mainstream narratives about COVID.
“Although the Russia/Ukraine ‘war’ has its own nefarious agenda behind it. [sic] They also used it to perfectly time the release of COVID-1984 data from the FDA, CDC & Pfizer so that it gets scrubbed underneath the rubble with little to no coverage,” a Telegram channel with over 25,000 followers wrote in a recent post.
“They are giving you a war in an attempt to make you forget about 2 years of tyranny and medical fascism,” a post in a COVID conspiracy forum with over 49,000 followers echoed. “DON’T GET DISTRACTED BY THIS FAKE WAR.”
Others claim that global elites orchestrated the conflict to cover up an alleged wave of imminent vaccine deaths or further acts of “medical fascism.”
“Biolabs have been discovered in Ukraine by Russian forces,” a post that’s circulated on a few pandemic conspiracy Telegram channels in recent days reads. “This is just further cover for what is to come with people get terrible ill [sic] from the covid vaccines. They will say some super bug was released from the biolabs as result of Russian whatever [sic]. NPCs will eat it up as the reason they now have V-AIDS and whatever health problems they are suffering with.” (NPCs is a pejorative term for people who accept mainstream science rather than conspiracy theories; V-AIDS refers to a widespread belief among conspiracists that the COVID vaccines give people AIDS.)
“As the world is distracted by the orchestrated Russia/Ukraine situation. [sic] The WHO is attempting to become the New World Health Organization,” reads a post on another major pandemic conspiracy channel, apparently referencing old-school New World Order conspiracy theories.
Still other emergent conspiracy theories argue that the war is just the next step in The Great Reset, a long-debunked conspiracy theory that claims global elites either created or opportunistically used COVID-19 to create chaos—and that eventually they will leverage this chaos to build a new society in which they are basically god kings and everyone else is reduced to high-tech slavery.
“It is sad that these people are so fixated on their anti-vaccine politics that they cannot recognize the suffering of millions of people in Ukraine who are being bombed…”
“Covid was the boom for Pharma, Ukraine is the boom for Military,” a post circulating on a few prominent pandemic conspiracy Telegram channels reads. “Both are part of the CIA-WEF-driven global coup d’etat.”
“Looks like they’ve chosen a war scenario as the next stage in this global takeover,” another post making the rounds reads. “Practically all governments worldwide are infiltrated to orchestrate the globalist Great Reset agenda… Russia, Ukraine, United States and the UK all have the same end goal to achieve which is a top to bottom re-structure of society [sic].”
Memes echoing these ideas have flooded COVID conspiracy channels as well, showing things like offensively caricatured “NPCs” with masks or vax stickers in one frame, and identical figures with Ukrainian flags in place of these pandemic signifiers in another. “Putin is the new COVID,” a common refrain on conspiracy social media runs. “Ukrainian flags are the new masks. Russians are the new ‘unvaccinated.’”
Several conspiracy peddlers have gone so far as to suggest that officials subjected society to “color programming” throughout the pandemic, using blue-and-yellow motifs in PSAs and ads to prime us all to become transfixed by this conflict and instinctually support Ukraine. Someone even made and circulated a nearly 12-minute-long video of quick-cut stills of yellow-and-blue images used in COVID messaging. Some of these images are just things like a yellow road sign under a blue sky that appears incidentally within a news article on the pandemic. None of these posts address the fact that this is a common color scheme, used by many major brands for years.
“No one in Russia or Ukraine has said anything remotely like this,” Alexander Motyl, a scholar who monitors and writes on politics in the region. “This is complete nonsense.”
But even if these theories have no basis in fact—no connection to or respect for the ground realities of an ongoing tragedy—the experts The Daily Beast spoke to for this story say they do seem to be gaining rapid and a degree of traction across the pandemic conspiracy world.
“These theories started in the deepest, darkest recesses of the antivax social media underground,” says David Gorski, a doctor who monitors these communities (and writes about them under the pen name Orac). “Now they’re being parroted by more ‘respectable’ outlets” in this space.
None of the experts The Daily Beast spoke to for this story was surprised by the emergence or spread of these theories. Just like the proliferation of pro-Putin narratives across the pandemic conspiracy world was a predictable result of the movement’s growing anti-Western and pro-authoritarian currents and of longstanding Russian efforts to sow and stoke misinformation in these sorts of communities, coopting unrelated crises is a predictable result of the myopia and self-importance of the brand of conspiracy thinking that defines and pervades these groups.
“People with a strong disposition to see things as the product of conspiracies will see them everywhere,” said Joseph Uscinski, an expert on conspiratorial beliefs and thought processes. “It’s like a lens they wear and never take off. It’s who they are and how they see the world.”
“If you’re inclined to see all government action as unilateral and coordinated, then it’s easy to see things as intentionally intertwined in the service of one central goal,” added Jennifer Reich, who’s been monitoring anti-vaccine conspiracy theories since the early 2000s.
“Everything has to be about them. And the crisis they imagine exists has to be the driver of everything that happens in society.”
COVID conspiracy theories in particular started out relatively narrow. But as the truther movement grew into a big tent encompassing people who believe in things like QAnon and the existence of ancient Jewish cabals that control the world, and rejecting all conventional science and authority as inherently suspect, it became increasingly easy for people within that space to draw lines between almost anything they found objectionable or questionable and the Great Reset agenda.
“The Great Reset claims that the power of the conspirators involved in it is such that they would be able to control anything on a global scale to serve their interests,” Jamieson explained.
Pandemic conspiracy theorists have actually been inching towards expanding their theories to encompass more than just COVID for months now. Notably, throughout 2021 several major conspiracists in the space mused about how they (i.e., the ill-defined and supposedly all-powerful global elites) would soon use global warming as a pretense for a new round of lockdowns. And as early as January, posts like these started to pop up on conspiratorial channels: “The COVID Narrative Is Over … False Flag in Ukraine Next?”
“COVID was their cover for the Great Reset and they would not have wanted it to end as it has… Does this mean that they won’t try other things? Of course not. War with Russia, climate change, digital pandemic or another engineered virus are all possible” next steps in their plans.
But just because this development in COVID conspiracy rhetoric was predictable, that doesn’t mean it’s not worrisome. Over the last two years, pandemic truthers have rapidly grown into a movement capable of organizing serious harassment campaigns against their perceived foes—who are in fact almost all people trying to solve genuine health crises. Or, say, the entire fucking city of Ottawa. If this movement grows into a sustained ideology, a political block that inserts its usual torrent of rage and misinformation into every future major event… well, that’ll certainly be a new brand of unrelenting hell for the rest of the world.
Even just in the short-term, several experts The Daily Beast spoke to for this story worried that the truther cooption of the crisis in Ukraine could end up helping Putin, and hurting Ukrainians. Motyl, for one, worries that they could “distract attention from Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine.”
“Anything that diverts attention from this ongoing tragedy is criminal,” he stressed. “All the more so if it’s absurd.”