Kremlin media poisons Baltic debate about African virus.
Despite professing to adhere to high journalistic principles, pro-Kremlin media in Lithuania is spreading conspiracy theories about the causes and origins of the African swine fever virus (ASFV) outbreak in the Baltic States, claiming that the outbreak is “a dirty trick of the Pentagon.”
The pro-Kremlin outlet Sputniknews.lt writes that the ASFV outbreak in Lithuania and the other two Baltic states this summer was caused by “the Pentagon working out its strategy and tactics of biological war.” The author alleges that the virus’ resilience to “the cold Northern climate” proves that it was developed in a biological laboratory and that “the U.S. military bio-lab Fort Detrick is involved” because “offensive infection agents are developed” there. Rubaltic.ru ping-ponged the subject, claiming that “the U.S. is testing biological weapons in the Baltics and is preparing for a Third World War.” It added that the Pentagon controls the spread of ASFV in the Baltic states and runs experiments in its military bio-laboratories in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
These claims have no basis in fact. The ASFV cases have been a major concern for pig breeders, the agricultural sector, and the public at large, with 47 cases recorded this year on pig farms in Lithuania, according to the State Food and Veterinary Service. Infected pigs were exterminated, and in one case, approximately 20,000 pigs had to be killed. The mainstream Lithuanian media quotes the Veterinary Service, which reports that ASFV spreads by wild fauna, is transmitted only among domestic and wild swine, and is difficult to control. This year, the disease has been found in animals across Eastern Europe, including in Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Hungary, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Kaliningrad region of Russia. The outbreak does not threaten human life or health.
The use of conspiracy theories is an old manipulation and disinformation technique used by the Kremlin since Soviet times. A similar conspiracy theory about the spread of ASFV was circulated in the 1970s, when Soviet media spread stories that the CIA brought ASFV to Cuba to undermine the Cuban economy and the Castro regime. Today, the Kremlin employs that same ASFV conspiracy theory with a slight twist, adjusting to the current geopolitical situation and accusing the Pentagon rather than the CIA. Moscow’s apparent goal is to increase dissatisfaction among the Lithuanian public, especially farmers, and to undermine public support for U.S.-Lithuanian cooperation and NATO troops stationed in the Baltics.
During the Cold War, another widespread rumor held that Colorado potato beetles were sent to the Soviet Union by the U.S. to destroy Soviet potato crops. However, it has been established that the Colorado beetle spread across America and then Europe in the 1850s (when the Soviet Union did not exist), and was certainly not an instrument of U.S. policy. Another false story that captured the imagination of conspiracy theorists, especially in the 1980s, was that the deadly HIV/Aids virus was created by the CIA on the orders of U.S. president Richard Nixon to wipe out homosexuals and African-Americans. There is some evidence that this rumor was, in fact, manufactured by the KGB as part of a Cold War disinformation campaign to discredit the U.S.
Psychologists note that even the most rational people sometimes buy into conspiracy theories as a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness in the modern world. Conspiracy theories about threats to human life or human existence such as fatal viruses or epidemics are effective in sowing dissatisfaction, mistrust, confusion, and fear. Using the “wolf cries wolf” technique, the Kremlin media vilifies others for something the Kremlin does. The Kremlin’s allegations about the deliberate spread of ASFV by the U.S. as an offensive biological agent distracts the public from the established fact that the Kremlin used chemical weapons to murder Alexander Litvinenko with polonium and inflict grave harm to the Skripals with Novichok chemical material.
The pro-Kremlin media always has a choice: either to continue poisoning the public discourse with conspiracy theories and other fake news, or convey factual, analysis-based news. It continues to choose the latter.
CEPA StratCom is an online journal covering crucial topics in strategic communications in the transatlantic community. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Photo: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Laura Max
06 September 2018