One week ago, powerful explosions ruptured a pair of underwater natural gas pipelines—Nord Stream 1 and 2—that run between Russia and Germany. The pipelines represent an important source of natural gas to Germany, and against the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Nord Stream 1 and 2 provide a key tool for the Kremlin to exert leverage over Europe. While exactly who is responsible for the attack, which European officials say was a deliberate act of sabotage, remains unclear, experts broadly agree that Russia is the key suspect.
As is typical following an event like this, conspiracy theories about who was responsible quickly proliferated online, with the Kremlin promoting a familiar trope: that the United States was responsible for a nefarious, clandestine plot. In official statements, state-backed media, and tweets, Kremlin messengers promoted the idea that the United States carried out the attack.
To track their spread and understand the role of state propaganda in such information, researchers typically examine posts on Twitter. But this only provides a partial view. In this case, as elsewhere, popular political podcasts served as an important, understudied, means through which Kremlin narratives reach American audiences. Following the explosions, 12 popular political podcasts have devoted 18 episodes to the theory. Less than one quarter of these episodes refuted the baseless theory, and nearly 40% fully blamed the United States.
Political podcasts in the United States are instrumental in shaping public opinion on a wide range of consequential subjects and frame the contours of contentious, often polarized debates. Until recently, research on that space has been limited. Using a new Brookings dashboard and database, we are able to more systematically study how popular political podcasts shape the information environment. By spreading the idea that the United States was in fact responsible for the explosions, several leading U.S. podcasters have advanced the Kremlin’s preferred narrative while staying under the radar of researchers—until now.
The ‘U.S. did it’ conspiracy on popular American podcasts
Eighteen episodes in our dataset referenced the theory that the United States was responsible for the Nord Stream incident, with 14 sharing content about the explosions that was conspiratorial in nature, including 7 episodes wholly endorsing the United States as the most likely culprit. Only 4 episodes sought to refute the claim.
The explosions occurred on Monday Sept. 26, and the same day only two episodes linked the United States to the incident. But after a Tuesday Sept. 27 episode of Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, in which the television host laid the blame on Washington, podcasters picked up the narrative. The remaining 16 episodes in our data set that discussed the role of the United States in the incident all aired after the Tucker Carlson segment, suggesting that some leading political podcasters may be taking cues about which stories to cover from the Fox News pundit.
On his Wednesday show, the podcast host Dan Bongino mused, “Is the Biden Administration crazy enough to do this to light a spark that might cause World War III? The answer is, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised, and I bet neither would you.’” He continued, adding that “the motivations of the Biden Administration and the green agenda I think are far greater than the motivations of Russia.”
The most prolific disseminator of Nord Stream content between September 26 and October 3 was Charlie Kirk, who devoted four segments to furthering the unfounded theory linking the U.S. to the explosion. In one of these four episodes, Kirk directly implicated the U.S. government as the culprit, asking. “So who did it?” Kirk asked. “I know this sounds cynical, but…the American Washington, DC war machine stands to benefit from this.” Kirk has previously been a disseminator of Russian propaganda. In March 2022, we documented five episodes in which he shared the conspiratorial claim that the U.S. had provided funding to Ukraine for bioweapons research. Kirk has nearly 8 million followers across popular social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Rumble, and Twitter.
Amplifying Kremlin narratives
The theories pushed by these podcast hosts align with Kremlin messaging. Over the past week, Russian state media and diplomats have argued that the pipeline leaks were the result of a U.S.-led terror attack, citing as evidence President Biden’s criticism of the pipelines and a vow to “bring an end to” them, as well as the fact that the CIA warned Berlin about the possibility of such an attack earlier this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has repeated the claim.
More than 35 times, Kremlin-backed accounts amplified a tweet by Radek Sikorski, a member of the European Parliament and a former defense and foreign minister of Poland. The tweet in question featured a picture of gas rising to the surface of the Baltic and the text, “Thank you USA.” Kremlin-linked tweets collectively received more than 69,000 engagements, or around 2,000 per post. By contrast, tweets by Russian accounts that referenced “Nord Stream” generated only 375 engagements per post, demonstrating the benefits of amplifying the European politician. The original tweet has since been deleted, but screenshots still routinely surface in Russian state-backed content.
The spread of this narrative—on Twitter and elsewhere—follows a familiar script. Conspiracists in both Russia and the United States, each for their own purposes, seize on a news development ripe for spin. Both set to work and their ideas reverberate. What follows is more akin to a game of mutual improv than formal coordination. That is in part because the Kremlin has a second order interest in amplifying the Western influencers—or “fellow travelers”—that make these kinds of conspiratorial claims, since their voices are likely to appear more legitimate and credible to audiences within the societies that Moscow targets and therefore may earn wider reach. For this reason, Kremlin-backed media and diplomats have boosted Carlson’s segment on the explosion multiple times.
This dynamic can be observed in other conspiracy theories that have spread virally online. One recent example is the biolabs conspiracy theory, which falsely suggests that the United States has been supporting a biological and chemical weapons program in Ukraine. That theory, which first appeared on a fringe message board in the United States, was picked up by alternative U.S. thinkers as well as Russian state-backed accounts. It jumped from these darker corners of the web onto Fox News in a Tucker Carlson segment. From there, it too spread quickly to popular political podcasts in the United States.
What are Russia’s goals?
In promoting the idea that the United States was responsible for the Nord Stream explosions the Kremlin is advancing several aims. One is to dent the prestige and soft power of the United States by casting it as violent and hypocritical. Another possibility is to deflect blame ahead of the outcome of an ongoing investigation. European officials have described the attack as a “deliberate act,” but until an investigation is concluded, it is impossible to say definitively who was responsible.
Moscow likely also aims to exacerbate splits within the transatlantic relationship. Over the past several days, the Kremlin has claimed, variously, that the United States carried out the attack in order to increase its access to the European energy market, to destroy the European market, and to “render obsolete” German demands to open Nord Stream 2, which would increase the flow of natural gas from Russia to Germany. This too is a long-running goal.
Finally, the Kremlin’s messaging comes against the backdrop of broader narratives that it is pushing ahead of U.S. midterm elections, in what may be bid to politically undermine President Biden as a means of ratcheting up partisan division within the United States. Just in recent weeks, Moscow has promoted a variety of narratives attacking the president—questioning his mental fitness for office, suggesting he paid for prostitutes for his son, calling him a “totalitarian dictator,” and suggesting that he worked with Facebook to censor online content, while amplifying former President Trump’s election conspiracies and calls for a new vote.
Against the backdrop of this propaganda, U.S. podcasters spreading the theory that Washington was responsible for the sabotage of Nord Stream 1 and 2 play a useful role in advancing Kremlin messaging.
Podcasts play an important yet understudied role in spreading harmful and false narratives, including conspiracy theories related to the outcome of the 2020 election leading up to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, misinformation related to COVID-19, and, now, Kremlin messaging around the Nord Stream explosions. In building Brookings’s new dashboard and database that allows researchers to examine the topics covered by popular political podcasters, we have created a tool that we hope researchers will utilize in understanding how podcasting fits into the information ecosystem and the role it plays in spreading unsubstantiated and false information.
In looking at how podcasters spread the Nord Stream narrative, we see that they pick up on ideas in one medium and extend them to another. Research on this type of activity is essential to building a coherent understanding of how conspiracy theories spread. With this dashboard and database, we seek to contribute to that work and make it easier for researchers to examine how narratives—like the one purporting U.S. involvement in the Nord Stream incident—are transmitted from one medium to another and reach large audiences. What the database shows in this case is the ease and speed with which a misleading narrative was transmitted from one medium to another, substantially growing its audience—and spreading the Kremlin’s preferred narrative of the Nord Stream attacks among the American public.
Jessica Brandt is 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.