You are (probably) paying for pro-Russian propaganda
The most powerful source of pro-Russian propaganda is not the Russian government. It's the #1 rated host on U.S. cable television: Fox News' Tucker Carlson.
But before we dive into the disinformation, let's establish the facts.
For decades, the United States has partnered with former members of the Soviet Union to secure biological weapons and materials. This program is not a secret. It's called the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and it has existed since 1991. Since its inception, "the Pentagon has spent approximately $12 billion on securing material used in weapons of mass destruction in post-Soviet republics."
Russia itself has participated in the program. The Pentagon "spent $1 billion to build the Russians a facility in Shchuchye, Siberia, to demilitarize some two million chemical weapons." That project was completed in 2009. In 2012, as relations with the United States worsened, Russia terminated its involvement.
The program expanded to Ukraine after the 9/11 attacks as "U.S. policy makers grew worried about the potential for terrorists to steal biological materials." Ukraine, for its part, had requested assistance because it lacks "the funds needed to secure its biological facilities."
Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon official, "put together a team that visited Ukraine’s biological and chemical facilities." Weber discovered that several sites "had dangerous pathogen collections left over from Soviet days." The focus on the United States' work in Ukraine "was to consolidate that biological material… into secure facilities, which the U.S. would pay to build or upgrade."
Russia has used the existence of these facilities to falsely allege that the United States was working with Ukraine on a nefarious program to build biological weapons. Tucker Carlson has skillfully amplified this disinformation to his audience of millions.
Carlson's false claims about biolabs in Ukraine
On March 10, Tucker Carlson spent much of his one-hour program claiming that the Pentagon "lied" about its "biolabs" in Ukraine.
"If you had told us just four days ago that the Biden administration was funding secret bio labs in Ukraine of all places, we would not have believed you." Carlson began. Of course, these facilities are not a "secret" and have nothing to do with the production of biological weapons, as Carlson implies.
Carlson then turns to fact-checkers. He discusses in detail a USA Today piece, "Fact check: False claim of US biolabs in Ukraine tied to Russian disinformation campaign," published on February 25. Carlson keys in on one line from the USA Today article: "Russia has teamed up with China to further amplify the false claim of U.S. labs in Ukraine." He claims that USA Today and other fact-checkers were asserting that "[t]hose labs obviously didn't exist."
But the USA Today fact check does not claim the labs don't exist. Rather, USA Today notes that the U.S. government had provided funding and expertise to help secure the labs as part of a treaty signed in 2005 to "prevent the proliferation of dangerous pathogens… and to minimize potential biological threats." The labs are not owned or operated by the U.S. government.
From there, Carlson focuses on the Congressional testimony of Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Under questioning from Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Nuland testified that Ukraine had "biological research facilities" and she was concerned about the security of the facilities during the Russian assault. This is how Carlson responded on air:
Does Ukraine have biological weapons? Oh, Ukraine has biological research facilities. What? You mean secret bio labs like the secret bio labs Ukraine definitely doesn't have? Ukraine has those? Yes, it does.
And not only does Ukraine have secret bio labs, [Victoria] Nuland said, whatever they're doing in those labs is so dangerous and so scary that she is quote, "quite concerned" that the so-called research material inside those bio labs might fall into the hands of Russian forces.
I am not trying to use profanity on the air to describe our reaction. Our jaws dropped. Let's leave it there.
There is nothing jaw-dropping, or even mildly surprising, about anything Nuland said. But Carlson concludes that her testimony means "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."
Carlson goes on to play a clip from the spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense claiming there is a "military biological program under development in Ukraine, financed by the U.S. Defense Ministry." Carlson says this claim is true and "we don't have to take Russia's word for that." Carlson asserts, with no factual basis, the U.S. is "funding the creation of deadly pathogens" in Ukraine and lying about it.
Later, during an interview with former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Carlson asserts that "agencies in the U.S. government without our knowledge are secretly funding research that imperils the world and no one is ever punished for it."
Russian government directs state propaganda outlets to play clips of Tucker Carlson
Even before his rant on biolabs, the Russian government understood the value of the disinformation pushed by Tucker Carlson. He's making many of the same false claims about the U.S. as the Russian government. But the claims are far more powerful coming from an American with a massive audience.
A March 3 memo from the Kremlin obtained by Mother Jones directs state-owned media outlets to run clips from Tucker Carlson as much as possible:
It is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticizes the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behavior from the leadership of the Western countries and NATO towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin, personally.
The Russian government has also praised Fox News' coverage of the invasion of Ukraine publicly. "[O]nly Fox News is trying to present some alternative points of view," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 18.
If you have cable, you are financing pro-Russian propaganda about Ukraine
After smearing immigrants and embracing white nationalist rhetoric, Tucker Carlson has very few companies running advertising on his show. But Fox News can tolerate it because it does not rely on advertising; Fox News makes most of its money from fees charged to cable subscribers, called carriage fees.
In 2020, Fox News made $1.6 billion from carriage fees and $1.2 billion from advertisements. Other channels, of course, also receive carriage fees for their content. But Fox News has negotiated fees that are far greater than any other non-sports programming.
According to a 2020 survey, about 14% of cable TV subscribers watch Fox News regularly. But every cable TV subscriber pays an average of $1.72 a month to receive Fox News. In contrast, 31% of cable TV subscribers regularly watch FX (owned by Disney) but that channel adds just $0.81 to an average cable bill. This means, for every actual viewer, Fox News receives a $7.75 subsidy from people who never watch Fox News.
The massive subsidy Fox News receives from non-viewers has always been concerning for anyone who doesn't share its right-wing political sensibility. But now that the network's highest-rated host is a vehicle for pro-Russian propaganda, the issue has taken on a fresh urgency.
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