In recent weeks, Russian officials and state media have seized on a fresh piece of disinformation to justify the invasion of Ukraine: that the United States is funding the development of dangerous biological weapons in Ukraine. This claim, which has no basis in fact, has not been confined to Kremlin propaganda. Popular podcasters in the United States have repeated and promoted it for their own purposes.
Amid a reckoning over the role of podcasts in disseminating coronavirus-related misinformation, the promotion of this conspiracy theory by prominent American podcasters is the latest example of how podcasting has become a powerful and largely overlooked vector in the spread of mis- and disinformation. Over a 10-day period beginning March 8—when U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said that the United States had provided funding to Ukrainian labs carrying out research to prevent the diffusion of harmful pathogens (not bioweapons)—13 popular political podcasters devoted segments in 30 episodes to the false theory that the United States had funded biological weapons research in Ukrainian labs.
As the notion that the United States funded biological weapons development in Ukraine spread from fringe QAnon groups to Fox News, podcasts appear to have played a key role in facilitating its proliferation while at the same time mostly escaping scrutiny. The nature of podcasting makes oversight challenging, but the rapid growth of the medium suggests that this is a set of challenges that requires urgent attention from policymakers considering how to guard against disinformation.
Biological weapons conspiracy theories on popular American podcasts
Our study drew on a database of political podcast series that were either listed in Apple Podcasts Top 100 Series or were recommended by Apple to users who liked those series. To examine whether these podcasts spread Russian disinformation regarding U.S. funding of bioweapons, we downloaded episodes that aired between March 8 and 18, transcribed those that referenced bioweapons or biolabs in their episode description, and searched for keywords related to the conspiracy theory. We also reviewed transcripts for any episodes cross-posted on YouTube. By doing so, we can gain a sense of how the most listened-to podcasts are engaging with the conspiracy theory. (A more detailed overview of the sampling process for these series and our definition of “political podcast” is described here.)
Overall, 30 podcast episodes in our data set repeated the false claim that the U.S. government funds biological weapons facilities in Ukraine. Of those, 27 episodes supported the bioweapons narrative. Three episodes aired the narrative without endorsing or refuting it. As of March 21, 2022, 12 of the 13 shows that gave credence to the conspiracy are in Apple’s Top 100 for the category “News.” Two of these shows are currently in the Top 10. Notably, while many prominent political podcasters on the right embraced the bioweapons conspiracy, at least one did not: The Ben Shapiro Show devoted a segment of an episode to debunking the narrative.
The biological weapons conspiracy theory, which has been refuted by the United States government and through independent reporting, had been circulating in far-right circles for at least a week before Nuland’s Senate testimony . Several of the episodes promoting the conspiracy aired just after her remarks. The story gained additional traction across the political podcasting ecosystem following a March 9 primetime segment of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News that claimed Nuland’s testimony the day before showed Russian claims to be true. “Nuland just confirmed that the Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie and a conspiracy theory and crazy and immoral to believe, is in fact, totally and completely true. Whoa,” host Tucker Carlson told viewers (Figure 1).
Of the 13 podcast series that promoted the biolabs narrative, seven devoted multiple episodes to the conspiracy theory (Figure 2). One series—The Charlie Kirk Show, which is hosted by the founder and president of the conservative political group Turning Point USA—covered the disinformation narrative five times in 10 days. At the time these episodes aired, Kirk’s show was among the top four podcast series on Apple’s Top Shows in the category of “News,” behind podcasts from authoritative media outlets like the New York Times’s The Daily and NPR’s Up First. Bannon’s War Room podcast, hosted by former President Donald Trump’s one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon, devoted segments in five episodes to the story. With its episode on March 8, Bannon’s show was the first popular series in our dataset to promote the conspiracy. Bannon’s show claims to have been downloaded over 135 million times and ranks second in the “Politics” Category on Apple.
What does COVID-19 have to do with it?
The false theories that these podcasts push about the existence of U.S.-supported biological weapons capabilities in Ukraine frequently draw on COVID-19 conspiracies. In the 21 episodes in our data set that featured COVID-19-related claims, Anthony Fauci is mentioned more than 50 times. Across the dataset, hosts and guests make a series of outlandish statements linking the biolabs conspiracy to COVID-19 falsehoods. Peter Navarro, a former top Trump administration official, called Fauci “the common denominator here” and said that “whatever happened in Ukraine, he had to know about just like he had to know about in China” in an appearance on Bannon’s War Room. Lara Logan, a journalist for Fox News’s streaming service, went on The Charlie Kirk Show to claim that “Dr. Fauci’s fingerprints are all over” the non-existent bioweapons program. Daniel Horowitz, the host of the Conservative Review with Daniel Horowitz, claimed those responsible for funding Ukrainian bioweapons were the same groups responsible for the pandemic: “It’s coming from Big Tech, the Western Oligarchs, the same nexus of tech-media, biolabs, the U.S. government and the Western Oligarchs that created COVID and created COVID fascism.”
Russian disinformation regarding the biolabs conspiracy has made the same attempt to link COVID-19 to its narratives regarding Ukraine, and this is in line with past practice. The Kremlin generally does not fabricate narratives—even its most outlandish conspiracies—out of whole cloth, but rather draws on themes that are already present in the domestic discourse of target societies. For example, the Kremlin’s efforts to deflect blame for its 2016 campaign of interference in the U.S. presidential election by accusing Ukraine drew on ideas circulating within the American far right. Here, Moscow appears to be playing on distrust in the United States and Europe over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and antipathy for government-imposed mitigation measures—a skepticism the Kremlin has actively sought to exacerbate over many months, long before the crisis in Ukraine began.
Podcasts are generally not a “social” media. There is no clear, built-in mechanism for listeners to comment on or push back against the information contained in any given episode and few ways for fact checkers to identify, never mind reach, a podcast’s audience. Although anyone can be a podcaster, the medium has more in common with radio broadcasting than other new media platforms, but without well-developed normative constraints on the sharing of false or misleading information.
Podcasting platforms also make it difficult to address the spread of disinformation—like the notion of U.S.-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine—across the medium. The content moderation policies of most major podcasting apps are often vague, ad-hoc, or fail to delineate how they handle so-called “lawful, but awful content,” like disinformation. Google explicitly links its podcast policies to those that guide search engine results. For listeners who might wish to report a specific episode, the process is often insufficient or altogether absent. Apple only allows users to report content if it falls within very rigidly defined categories; Spotify provides no means of reporting directly from a podcast series’ page; and Google’s reporting process at this time is unclear. Absent fundamental changes to the architecture that governs the podcasting ecosystem, better, real-time monitoring of this space by researchers—particularly in times of national and international crisis—could be an important first step toward improving transparency and accountability across the medium.
Jessica Brandt is the policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology.
Valerie Wirtschafter is a senior data analyst in the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
Adya Danaditya is a research intern with the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
Google provides financial support to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit organization devoted to rigorous, independent, in-depth public policy research.