If you’ve ever heard the idea that HIV/AIDS was created in a US military laboratory, you’ve been exposed to a viral fake news story that was planted by the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. Despite this idea now being wholly disproven, it still holds traction in some parts of the world and serves as a prime example of how deeply a false idea can burrow into the public perception of pandemics.
In the new era of social media and populist politics, these kinds of misinformation and disinformation campaigns now have the potential to be turbocharged like never before. If you need any evidence, just take a look at COVID-19.
Active Measures: Old-School Fake News
Throughout the Cold War, the secret services of the USSR and its satellite states engaged in a tactic of political warfare they called “active measures.” It was essentially the “fake news” of its day, in which acts of espionage, propaganda, misinformation, and other dirty tricks were used to confuse the enemy and generate chaos.
It was arguably one of the USSR’s most potent and valuable weapons, aside from its hundreds of nuclear weapons. KGB officer, Oleg Kalugin, once described active measures as being the “heart and soul of Soviet intelligence.” In 1980, a conservative CIA estimate suggested that the Soviets were spending $3 billion each year on active measures, which would be about $11 billion in today’s money.
Active measures came in shapes and sizes. In its most brutal form, it involved the assassination of rivals and the threat of violence. However, they often used “softer” tactics, such as secretly injecting certain narratives, slogans, half-truths, and outright lies into the public discourse. The idea was to meddle with the minds of the enemy by planting seeds of distrust and antagonism, effectively turning the system against itself from within.
The Origin Of AIDS and Operation Denver
Operation Denver was perhaps the most sinister – and certainly the most successful – of all of the active measures ever pulled off. Often known as Operation INFEKTION, it involved the USSR and its satellite states composing a campaign to push the idea that the virus behind HIV/AIDS was artificially engineered by a bioweapon lab in the US.
The dangerous move came in the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War. With hostility still glowing red hot, US President Ronald Regan took a hardline approach against communism, flaring up tensions with the Soviet Union to their limits.
This heated geopolitical backdrop collided with the emergence of the AIDS outbreak. The virus had been circulating around the world at low volumes for decades, but HIV became officially recognized in the early 1980s when unusual cases of pneumonia and skin cancer were documented in young gay men living in New York and Los Angeles.
As the 1980s continued, the scale of the crisis slowly became apparent. Fear, panic, and tragedy started to mount. Scientists were struggling to explain the origins of the novel disease, let alone find a “cure,” and the public was becoming increasingly uneasy. We know now that HIV-1 in humans originally came from a chimpanzee in Central Africa, but this was far from established at the time.
Amid the anxiety and uncertainty, the USSR spotted an opportunity. On July 17, 1983, the Soviet’s HIV/AIDS disinformation campaign kicked off when an Indian newspaper called The Patriot published an anonymous article with the headline: “AIDS may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments.”
According to the byline, the letter was allegedly written by a “well-known American scientist and anthropologist” in New York. However, recent research by Dr Douglas Selvage has helped to uncover more evidence that this story was planted by the Soviets as part of an active measures campaign.
“I guess we would call this ‘the smoking gun.’ The KGB wrote to the Bulgarian state security and said ‘We're conducting this disinformation campaign saying that the virus that causes AIDS comes from a US military laboratory in Fort Detrick,’ and they wanted to claim that the Pentagon and the CIA are behind it,” Dr Douglas Selvage, a Cold War historian and project director at the Stasi Records Archive in Berlin, told IFLScience.
“Their argument was basically this: it might not be true, but in the long term, it's part of a higher truth that will be proven about the imperialists in the United States are engaged in biological weapons research, which actually turned out that wasn't the case after the end of the Cold War,” added Selvage.
Slowly but surely, the idea slowly bled into the world’s imagination. In 1986, another shot was fired by a retired East German biophysicist Jacob Segal reported that he’d identified “circumstantial evidence” that the AIDS virus was artificially synthesized via US government experimentation at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
He argued that the pathogen was a genetic hybrid of two naturally occurring viruses, VISNA and HTLV-1, that had been created in 1977 at Fort Detrick. The US agents, so his theory goes, had then infected homosexual prisoners with the experimental bioweapon who went on to spread the virus to gay populations in New York City and San Francisco.
Segal claims that he started his HIV research – which was never formally published in a scientific journal – independently after feeling that the natural-origin hypothesis was fishy. However, Dr Selvage says there’s some evidence to indicate that he was “nudged” into the research by the secret services.
With this new sense of hollow scientific legitimacy, the story of the lab-leak origins of HIV/AIDS spread around the world, appearing in a huge number of communist-linked newspaper articles, radio reports, and news wire services. As a testament to the story’s success, it even snuck into an array of mainstream newspapers and media reports with no link to the USSR.
“I think this is one of the big successes of active measures,” explained Dr Selvage.
“Only rarely did they have active measures that really took off and, in the case of HIV/AIDS as a disinformation campaign, the ultimate goal was that the propaganda would start spreading on its own.”
“And it's still spinning around the internet in the United States,” he added.
More than a decade later, the rumor was still going strong. A survey in 2005 reportedly found that almost 50 percent of African Americans thought AIDS was lab-made, while over 12 percent believed it was created and actively spread by the CIA with the aim of wiping out Black people.
Old Tricks, New Targets
In more recent years, world powers have taken notes from the success of the Soviet’s HIV/AIDS misinformation campaign and used them for similar ends.
“Under Putin, of course, the Russians have been active with their active measures yet again. They were doing it with the Ebola epidemic in 2013 and 2014. Russia Today and Sputnik News were publishing reports saying that Ebola was a US bioweapon developed at Fort Detrick to kill off Africans, which echoed the old thesis about HIV/AIDS,” explained Selvage.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen yet another novel disease grab the world by the neck: COVID-19. Just as before, we’ve seen a stream of misleading claims entering the public consciousness and even government agents planting disinformation.
“In the very early stages of the pandemic, China copycatted the Russian techniques, trying to flood the zone with alternative narratives of where COVID came from,” explained Peter Warren Singer, a political scientist who co-wrote the book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, also speaking to IFLScience.
“And much like the Russian approach, it's contradictory. China is simultaneously saying COVID originated in a US military lab, COVID originated in Italy, COVID originated maybe in Taiwan. The goal is not to say ‘this is the alternative truth.’ It's simply to flood the zone with misinformation."
Subsequently, the origin of COVID has become the subject of a politicized and toxic debate within the US. The scientific consensus still says it’s most likely the disease has a natural zoonotic origin, as opposed to a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Technology, although debate still rages on social media.
Singer says he’s not aware of any government actively pushing the China lab leak narrative in a weaponized form on social media. Nevertheless, he does believe that social media has turbocharged these kinds of discussions and helped to amplify alternative explanations that counter the mainstream.
Furthermore, in a world that’s become hyper-saturated with information – whether it’s legitimate, false, or somewhere in between – our ability to discern the truth has become weary and weakened, leading to even more misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“It’s akin to how HIV/AIDS plays out in the human body with viral infections,” Singer concludes.
“Once you fall prey to one conspiracy theory, you are more likely to fall prey to other false ideas because conspiracy theories, in essence, wear down the cognitive defenses against lies."