Memetic engineering: conspiracies, viruses and historical agency

Ideas, just like viruses or organisms, do not spontaneously generate, even if certain historical circumstances make the rise and spread of a given idea more likely.

Douglas Selvage
22 October 2015
Imagining conspiracies

A human white blood cell (CD4) being attacked by the HIV virus; an AIDS prevention advertisement by The Ministry of Education Tr

A human white blood cell (CD4) being attacked by the HIV virus; an AIDS prevention advertisement by The Ministry of Education Training, Vietnam. Colour lithograph, ca. 1995. Wikicommons/Wellcome images. Some rights reserved.One of the most pervasive conspiracy theories to have arisen during the Cold War that continues to spread until today is the HIV-as-US-bioweapon thesis – namely, that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was engineered as a biological weapon by the US Government. This conspiracy theory persists, especially on the internet, although scientists have concluded – as many already hypothesized in the 1980s – that HIV originated naturally in Africa after a related virus or viruses jumped the species barrier from non-human primates in the early 1900s.

Conspiracy as virus

As I wrote about the origins and spread of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon conspiracy theory, I found it striking that its evolution and diffusion in various directions paralleled that of a virus. The basic conspiracy theory that the US government somehow stood behind the spread of AIDS arose within the gay community in the US and was published in gay newspapers no later than 1983. After statistics began to show that Haitians and African-Americans were overrepresented among those infected by HIV, similar conspiracy theories about the government’s construction of the virus began to spread within the African-American community and to appear in print in black newspapers by 1985.

Based on a number of studies regarding conspiracy theories, this development should come as no surprise. In the face of a major, new crisis or perceived threat, conspiracy theories (CTs) arise, especially within historically marginalized or oppressed groups and communities – i.e., among victims of real conspiracies. This helps the individuals concerned to gain a sense of understanding and control and to rally against perceived outside attack. Such conspiracy theories, much like HIV and other viruses, thus appear to be ‘naturally occurring’. Or, at least, that has been the explanation of many scholars. Because it is hard to trace the original purveyor(s) of a given CT – perhaps even harder than finding a “patient zero” in epidemiology – CTs often seem to spontaneously arise in such accounts.

Much scholarship, especially in psychology and political science, has also focused on the reception of conspiracy theories – why individuals or groups are susceptible or open to believing certain CTs or in CTs in general. In such analyses, the people who come to believe in a given CT or CTs are generally portrayed as passive recipients, ‘infected’ by the given idea due to natural susceptibilities. Some scholars in the field of “memetics”, based upon the term “meme” coined by Richard Dawkins in his classic 1976 book The Selfish Gene, have taken a similar approach in explaining “conspiracy memes.”

Dawkins used the term “meme” to refer to any cultural entity that replicates and spreads – e. g., fashion, melodies and learned skills. People serve as the carriers of such memes, and because they often reproduce them imperfectly or otherwise change them, memes can change and evolve over time. Just like viruses, memes naturally replicate, mutate and recombine as they spread from person to person, from brain to brain. Much of the scholarship on the reception of conspiracy theories, just like that of the “memeticists”, takes a “meme’s-eye-view” of the evolution and spread of conspiracy theories. People appear to be passive recipients, and the meme or CT often appears to be the active agent.

What about agency in the spread of conspiracies?

Although such approaches to conspiracy theories have been fruitful in terms of explaining the reception of CTs, they are also problematic, especially for historians such as myself who focus on the agency of individuals and groups. Ideas, just like viruses or organisms, do not spontaneously generate, even if certain historical circumstances make the rise and spread of a given idea more likely. Ideas themselves, including conspiracy theories, are not concrete, active agents.

The history of the evolution and spread of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon thesis serves as a useful case study of the agency of individuals and groups in constructing, spreading, and altering conspiracy theories to their own ends. My colleague Christopher Nehring and I have illustrated this in our German-language study, “AIDS Conspiracy: The Ministry of State Security and the KGB’s AIDS Disinformation Campaign.”

In our study, we conclude that the KGB adopted and adapted the HIV-as-US-bioweapon conspiracy theory spreading in the US to its own ends. It launched an international disinformation campaign accusing the US of having created and weaponized the virus. The US, according to Soviet disinformation, had thereby violated the international convention on biological weapons. And US scientists, for their part, were guilty of scapegoating Africa and Africans for the disease by positing its natural origins there.

The Soviets made one minor change in the conspiracy theories spreading in the US at the time by naming the concrete location where the alleged weaponization of the virus had taken place: the U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

This addition, by naming an actual facility where defensive bioweapons research had taken place, strengthened the plausibility of Soviet accusations of a US violation of the international convention. But this adaptation did not occur ‘naturally’, as the CT spread from person to person in the US or around the globe. On the contrary, the Soviets deliberately modified the original conspiracy theory. Although HIV itself was not the product of genetic engineering, the Soviet version of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon CT, the Fort-Detrick thesis, was the product of intentional “memetic engineering” on the part of the KGB.

Evolution of the two major strains of the HIV-as-US-Bioweapon conspiracy theory, 1983-1985:


As the chart above shows, after the KGB’s intervention, two strains of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon CT co-evolved in 1985-1986 as Moscow alternatively adopted elements from and polemicized with individuals associated with US perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche.

Strain one

Moscow had indirectly justified the launching of its disinformation campaign by pointing to accusations from LaRouche’s camp that Moscow had constructed the AIDS-virus. London venereologist John Seale, whom LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review had cited regarding “the strategic advantages of the AIDS epidemic in the West for the Soviet Union”, picked up on the Soviet thesis regarding the artificial origins of AIDS in late 1985.

Although Seale initially left open whether the US or the USSR was responsible, he now claimed that the AIDS virus had been artificially constructed by removing a gene from another known retrovirus in sheep, the visna virus. The Soviet Union picked up on Seale’s comments and began to spread them along with its own accusation regarding Fort Detrick. Shortly thereafter, California doctor Robert Strecker and his brother Theodore, partly in reaction to Seale’s comments, argued that the visna virus had been manipulated, but through its recombination with the bovine leukemia virus. The recombination, they suggested, may or may not have taken place at Fort Detrick, but the responsible individuals were communist agents from Eastern Europe who had infiltrated the US government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH).

LaRouche began to spread the Streckers’ version of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon conspiracy theory, while Robert Strecker and Seale both supported LaRouche’s 1986 California ballot initiative to quarantine all HIV-infected Californians.

Strain two

Around the same time as Strecker, Soviet-East German biologist Jakob Segal and his wife, Lilli, formulated what became the second major strain of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon thesis in the form of a “scientific study”. Although the exact relationship of the couple at the time to the KGB and its East German ally, the Stasi, remains unclear, it was the Segals’ version of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon thesis that both communist security services subsequently sought to popularize throughout the world. Jakob Segal wrote to Seale in 1986 that he had also come to the conclusion that the visna virus had been altered to create HIV; however, like Strecker, he believed that visna had been crossed with another virus, the Human T-Lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-I) by US scientists at Fort Detrick. This assertion later served as the basis for the accusation that Dr. Robert Gallo, who had discovered HTLV-I and co-discovered HIV, had personally engineered the AIDS virus.

Political goals

The co-evolution of the two strains of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon conspiracy theory from 1985-1986 demonstrates the agency of individuals and groups in constructing, changing and spreading conspiracy theories and shows how political extremists of Left and Right can borrow elements of CTs from each other. The co-evolution also suggests that CTs have an (anti-?) intellectual history that can be traced and documented through research.

At the level of individuals, psychological motivations may indeed predominate in constructing and spreading conspiracy theories, but such individuals often share political goals with others promoting the same CT. LaRouche and his supporters apparently sought to rally the public against the concomitant dangers posed to national security by communist infiltration and “homosexuality”, as “proven” by the AIDS epidemic, and to rally support for their 1987 California ballot initiative to quarantine the ensuing danger. Many of the tropes in LaRouche’s campaign echoed back to the “Red” and “Lavender” Scares in the US in the 1950s. The KGB, for its part, had concrete geopolitical goals in discrediting US “imperialism” – goals that the Segals as communists in good standing also supported.

Post-Cold War variants

Various subtypes and recombinations of the two major strains of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon conspiracy theory appeared especially after the Cold War, but such reformulations resulted once again from mimetic engineering by various individuals and groups.

One popular variant combines the HIV-as-US-bioweapon thesis with conspiracy theories regarding the pharmaceutical industry (“big pharma”). The resulting hybrid suggests that just as the science behind HIV/AIDS is false, so are the prescribed treatments from scientists and medical doctors. Quite often, the most well-known promoters of this recombination also happen to sell unproven, alternative therapies to control or “cure” HIV/AIDS, which profit them, if not their patients.

Another recombination, already popular during the Cold War, was the crossing of the HIV/bioweapon thesis with other conspiracy theories regarding planned genocides against certain populations. In the US, the black-nationalist Nation of Islam (NOI) pioneered in this regard. Already in the late 1980’s, Steve Cokely, the NOI’s “Minister of Health” and advisor to Chicago mayor Eugene Sawyer, accused Jewish doctors of intentionally infecting African-American babies with the virus. The NOI continued to spread the accusation until the late 1990’s, and “Professor Griff” from the hip-hop group “Public Enemy” helped to popularize it.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the NOI’s newspaper, the Final Call, helped to popularize the views of Boyd Graves, who accused the US government of having infected him with the AIDS virus. According to Graves, the government had developed HIV as a bioweapon to eliminate unwanted populations, including African-Americans, and the alleged founder of the AIDS-virus, Robert Gallo, had also developed a cure for AIDS. Gallo, Boyd Graves asserted, had given the cure to a Jewish rabbi, who kept it under lock and key. Graves claimed he had found out the “natural” cure; however, it was colloidal silver, with which he treated himself. He also accused an Israeli foundation of suppressing knowledge about the cure and an Israeli pharmaceutical company from blocking its production. Graves died in 2009 after a long illness at the age of 57.

Others recombined the HIV-as-US-bioweapon thesis with well-known conspiracy theories that had stood at the basis of the major totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth  century – the first, a worldwide conspiracy of monopoly capitalists bent on maximizing their profits at the expense of the working class, and the second, a Jewish-Bolshevist (or simply a Jewish) conspiracy seeking to dominate – or already dominating – the world.

In reunified, post-communist Germany, Jakob Segal teamed up with the Maoist Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD) in a bid to further propagandize his version of the Fort-Detrick thesis, along with his suggestions for alternative medications against HIV infections, especially aspirin. A conspiracy of the pharmaceutical industry, Segal argued, sought to suppress the truth about the powers of aspirin against HIV because it would undermine their profits. The MLPD offered its own cure for AIDS: the destruction of the pharma monopolies through a world communist revolution based on the Stalinist and Maoist precepts of the MLPD. However, this proposed cure for AIDS, like so many, has proved elusive. German author Wolfgang Eggert has apparently sought to revive the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy à la Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by citing the alleged intentional spreading of AIDS and other epidemic diseases by a Jewish end-times cult.

Deadly consequences

My examination of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon conspiracy theory suggests that CTs multiply, spread and recombine like viruses, but this process is not necessarily accidental.

Various individuals and groups construct, adapt and spread conspiracy theories in the pursuit of concrete goals. This suggests not only agency but also intention, a “memetic engineering” of conspiracy theories. Whatever the basic intent may be for constructing and spreading conspiracy theories, they always suggest an enemy – whether the US government, the Jews, scientists, doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, or other actors. Because conspiracy theories serve the purpose of discrediting or even demonizing an “enemy,” they contribute to mistrust and hatred against the same and can serve even to justify violence – as we see today on a daily basis.

In the case of the HIV-as-US-bioweapon thesis, the discrediting of mainstream science has led an untold number of individuals to ignore the warnings of the same with regard to HIV/AIDS – i.e., to engage only in safe sex, to seek testing if at risk from HIV infection and if infected, to accept proven treatments with anti-retroviral medications. Ignoring the mainstream science in this case can have – and has had – deadly consequences. 

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