How bad actors exploit primal fears to spread disinformation

Table of Contents

Viral Fears

One way to make a disinformation story go viral is to shape it around what people fear most. One way to counter such stories is to point out the irrational fears people have.

Social scientist Paul Slovic and others have found 18 factors that “press our risk-perception buttons,” says Dan Gardner in his book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. They include catastrophic events, new complex technologies, harm to children and future generations, and dread of particularly painful deaths, such as being killed by a shark.

Gardner says some prominent ones are:

📌Catastrophic potential: If fatalities would occur in large numbers in a single event – instead of in small numbers dispersed over time – our perception of risk rises.

📌Familiarity: Unfamiliar or novel risks make us worry more.

📌Understanding: If we believe that how an activity or technology works is not well understood, our sense of risk goes up.

📌Children: It’s much worse if kids are involved.

📌Future generations: If the risk threatens future generations, we worry more.

📌Dread: If the effects generate fear, the sense of risk rises.

📌Trust: If the institutions involved are not trusted, risk rises.

📌Reversibility: If the effects of something cannot be reversed the risk rises.

📌Origin: Man-made risks are riskier than those of natural origin.

For example, “many people are more afraid of the radiation from nuclear waste or cell phones than they are of radiation from the sun, a far greater risk.” (#9: natural vs. man-made risk) says David Ropeik, formerly at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and George Gray, a former executive director of the Center, in their book Risk.

Those spreading disinformation (deliberate falsehoods) often know how to press these “hot buttons” in people’s brains. Also, many instances of misinformation (unintentional mistakes), naturally occurring rumors, and false but widely believed “urban legends” reflect common fears.

Fear of “the Other” and Imagined Taboo Violations

There are “three great primal fears,” according to Robert M. Smith, author of Primal Fear: Tribalism, Empathy, and the Way Forward:

Fear of others

Fear of being left behind, and

Fear of social disruption.

Fear of outsiders, “the other,” is a very common human fear, as we instinctively trust those who are members of our tribe, figuratively or literally.

Claiming that foreign “others” have violated cultural or religious taboos is an especially potent smear.

For example, in 1990, when the U.S. and other forces were deployed to Saudi Arabia after Iraq invaded Kuwait, a false story emerged that falsely claimed U.S. forces were violating the most sacred Islamic sites. Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab journalist, described the totally false claim in an interview with a Washington Post reporter:

“For two months the East Jerusalem press,” which has been sympathetic to Iraq, “was printing stories about the desecration of the Moslem holy places, about how American soldiers in Saudi Arabia were walking naked around Mecca and throwing beer cans on the prophet’s tomb. It sounds funny, but these reports were believed by many people …”

This could not possibly have happened because U.S. soldiers were stationed on military bases near Kuwait and Iraq, and were not allowed to visit Mecca or Medina, which were 1,200 kilometers away. But fear of outsiders led people to believe the false claim that the U.S. military was violating sacred Islamic sites, creating instant outrage and causing riots in East Jerusalem.

In contrast, the Iraqi disinformation claim that the United States was supposedly dumping toxic waste in the Gulf received very little attention. Such a claim would likely have had more impact in countries where concern about the environment was more widespread at the time. But alleged taboo violations resonate everywhere.

Allegations of rape also involve a very powerful moral violation as well as supposed crimes against children (#4 above). These two factors, plus fear of immigrants, were combined in the famous “Lisa” case in Germany in 2016, in which a 13-year-old German girl of Russian origin who was missing for 30 hours claimed to have been kidnapped and raped by three men, whom she implied were immigrants. Under questioning, she admitted she had made up this story and had stayed with a 19-year-old friend.

The false claim inflamed emotions. Russian-speaking Germans protested after Russian media repeated the false rape claims. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov even became involved, accusing German media of covering up the case of what he called “our Lisa.” German authorities firmly rejected these claims and what they called Russia’s politicization of the case.

Primal Fears about Children Being Victimized

In July 2014, Russian state television broadcast a horrifying false story, described in a Daily Beast article:

Ukrainian officials had nailed a 3-year-old, clad in just his underwear, to a wooden board “just like Jesus,” right before his mother’s eyes, according to Russian state television. Then, said Galina Pyshniak, Channel One’s sole witness and a pro-Russian refugee, the military in Slovyansk had grabbed the mother, tied her to a tank, and dragged her three times around the city’s central Lenin Square. “The Ukrainian army are not liberators—they’re bastards,” she said.

The supposed crime never happened. A Russian reporter sent to Slovyansk tweeted, “Nobody I spoke with in Slovyansk has heard a thing about this.” BBC reported there was no Lenin Square in Slovyansk, where the supposed crime took place. Channel One later retracted the story, but the damage had been done.


The photo above shows children in Ghouta, Syria who were killed by chemical weapons fired by the Syrian regime in 2013. The photo was later deceptively used in India to try to bolster stories that falsely claimed children had been killed to steal their organs.

The so-called child organ trafficking rumor went “viral” in the late 1980s and 1990s. It falsely claimed Americans or others were adopting or kidnapping Latin American children and killing them so they could use their body parts for organ transplants for their natural-born children.

There was no truth to this terrible story, but many people believe horrific stories about crimes against children. Similar false claims that corneas from eyes were being stolen from children for transplants won the most prestigious journalism prizes in France in 1995 and in Spain in 1996.

Since 2014, Russian media have falsely claimed that the organs of wounded Ukrainian soldiers were being sold for profit and exported to Europe. Such false claims are impossible for practical reasons, says Joel Newman, spokesman for the U.S. United Network for Organ Sharing. He and other experts explain why such claims are false in the 2019 report “Russian TV Digs Up Fabricated Organ Harvesting Claim.”

The so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory in the United States falsely claimed that powerful politicians were imprisoning and sexually abusing children. A young man who believed these baseless stories drove 550 kilometers with three guns in December 2016 to try to free children supposedly being held captive in a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. He recorded a message for his sleeping daughters: 

“I can’t let you grow up in a world that’s so corrupt[ed] by evil without at least standing up for you and for other children just like you.” He entered the restaurant with two of the guns, terrifying customers and workers and firing several times in his search for the non-existent captive children. Later, he regretfully told a reporter, “The intel [information] on this wasn’t 100 percent.”

The QAnon conspiracy theory, which came to include Pizzagate, falsely claims “the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles” and “in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims to extract a life-extending chemical called adrenochrome.” There is a perverse moral symmetry in this imagined ultimate crime: those who are most evil brutally murder the most innocent so they can live unnaturally long.

All these false stories play on deep-seated fears about harm to children, which go far back in history. In 1990, folklorist Veronique Campion-Vincent described the child organ trafficking story as:

a new – updated and technologized – version of an immemorial fable. The core of the fable is that the group’s own children are being kidnapped and murdered by evil outsiders. … the grim horror tale contrasts extreme innocence and evil.

Accusations of such kidnappings and ritual murder were made against Christians in ancient Rome, Jews throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, and up to modern times, and satanic sects or hated ethnic groups in contemporary America. Child abductions in 18th-century France were explained by ailing nobility who needed them for medical reasons: the leprous king (Paris, 1750) needed blood baths, or a mutilated prince (Lyon, 1768) needed a new arm that incompetent surgeons were trying to graft each day from a new kidnapped child. … The main lines of this ever-changing tale are:

📌A conspiracy is unveiled: a hidden order substitutes meaningful evil for meaningless chance or hazard.

📌A hostile out-group is denounced as a scapegoat for the group’s tensions. Often, too, the group’s own elites are presented as part of the conspiracy.

📌Absolute evil is contrasted with utter innocence. The victims are the weakest of the group, but also the incarnation of its future, its young children.

📌The victims are drained of their blood, symbol, and essence of life. Often they will be cannibalized by evil outsiders who need our vital force. (“The Baby-Parts Story: A New Latin American Legend,” Western Folklore, January 1990.)

In short, false claims that evil outsiders are victimizing the most treasured, innocent, vulnerable, and helpless members of society in horrifying ways have been a persistent false tale for centuries. Pointing out the ancient nature of this “immemorial fable” may help reduce belief in its current versions.

Other Primal Fears

The COVID-19 pandemic stimulated fears in many of New York City’s communities about victimization, powerlessness, and extinction, primal fears at the core of many conspiracy theories. The New York Times reported:

In March [2021], the city’s Polish community was treated to false claims that the mRNA vaccines were designed to “annihilate Christianity and the Polish Nation.” A city report in March described a rumor prevalent in New York’s Haitian neighborhoods that the vaccines were created to reduce the Black population.

…The effort [to track and refute false COVID-related claims] has identified conspiracy theories in at least a dozen languages, from Spanish to Urdu. Among the spookiest lies: Vaccinated people have developed boils; vaccines magnetize the body; “deep state [hidden government] operatives” developed the vaccines together with the military. All nonsense.

Another groundless fear: “many people in Brooklyn’s Caribbean communities wrongly believed the vaccines caused infertility.”

These baseless conspiracy theories speak to primal human fears about victimization, loss of autonomy, and the annihilation of one’s group. Conspiracy theories centered around these fears are virtually guaranteed to surface in times of danger.

Exaggerated Fears about Depleted Uranium

Few things if anything, scare people more than nuclear weapons, for good reason. But this fear also extends to things that sound like they are closely related to nuclear weapons or nuclear energy but are not.

For example, depleted uranium (DU) is widely seen as very dangerous, despite a study by a European Union panel of experts that found its use as armor-piercing ammunition in conflicts in Yugoslavia in 1999 and Bosnia in 1994 and 1995 had “no detectable effect on human health.”

DU ammunition round pictured above. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

But “data and facts are puny in the face of belief,” says cognitive anthropologist Bob Deutsch.

Many people naturally associate uranium with the atomic bomb, Hiroshima, radioactive fallout, cancer, and birth defects. These very powerful fear-filled associations can easily overpower facts and logic.

Depleted uranium is what is left over – the “by-product” – when natural uranium is enriched to make fuel for nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons. It is 40% less radioactive than natural uranium, which itself is only weakly radioactive. But people mistakenly think anything with uranium in its name must be extremely dangerous.

Sam Cohen, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project (which produced the first atomic bombs) tells a story illustrating the power of irrational fears about uranium, even among those highly knowledgeable about it.

When he left the Manhattan Project, Cohen took a small cylinder-shaped piece of natural uranium, about the size of a person’s smallest finger, as a souvenir. He kept it on his desk at his next job. One day, a colleague picked it up and asked what it was. After several incorrect guesses, Cohen told him it was uranium.

Cohen says, the man put it down immediately and soon excused himself to go to the men’s room. “When he came back, his hands had been scrubbed red,” and Cohen observed:

[His] professional credentials in the area of nuclear physics and radiation were impeccable. … From a technical standpoint he had an exquisite understanding of what was happening in the piece of metal in his hands and the possible radiation danger it posed. He knew there was no conceivable danger. He knew that he could have taped the uranium to his groin and left it there for the rest of his life with no threat to his potency, his fertility, or to his genes and chromosomes. Yet he was frightened over the possible consequences of being “contaminated” by the radiation.

… [H]e was reacting psychologically to something that, intellectually, he fully understood. (The Truth About the Neutron Bomb, p. 24)

Fear and reason operate in different systems in the brain, cognitive anthropologist Bob Deutsch notes. And he says, “fear reduces cognitive capabilities.” In the case of depleted uranium, it seems to practically extinguish them.

One way to possibly overcome these fears is to draw attention to the fact that, in the case of depleted uranium, subconscious associations and fears typically overwhelm facts. If people recognize the power these subconscious fears have, this may create a cognitive opening that can allow people to be more receptive to facts. Even then, it is difficult.

Fear of Biological Weapons

One of the most powerful primal fears is of biological weapons and the worry that they might cause a deadly outbreak of contagious disease.

These fears are deep-seated and rooted in fact. Millions have died from COVID-19, but the toll of past pandemics has been much worse. During the “Black Death” pandemic in Europe, Asia, and North Africa from 1346 to 1353, the bubonic plague killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people, from 17 to 54 percent of the world’s population at the time. In Europe, an estimated 30 to 60 percent of people died. Plague outbreaks continued for centuries.

Biological weapons evoke fear of catastrophic mass deaths, which pushes the “risk perception button” extremely hard. As is the case with depleted uranium, even activities that are mistakenly perceived to be associated with biological weapons can cause panic.

This makes it easy for Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and others to scare people when they falsely claim that Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) laboratories established by the United States in different countries are biological warfare facilities.

The labs have nothing to do with biological warfare, but the false claim that they do is easy to make and often believed by many. This has become easier in recent years because U.S. efforts to reduce biological and other threats, which started in the former Soviet Union 30 years ago, have expanded.

The Nunn-Lugar Act and the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created many new dangers, including what would happen to the many nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that were now the property of some of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union? A 1991 Harvard study had found that “of the republics of the Soviet Union, only Russia has within its borders anything like the technical means necessary for full-cycle operations and maintenance of a nuclear arsenal to world standards.”

U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar leaving The White House in 1991

U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar teamed up to write the “The Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991,” informally known as the “Nunn-Lugar” act, which passed the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly in late 1991.

The program provided U.S. funding and expertise to support four goals:

1. consolidate and secure WMD [weapons of mass destruction] in a limited number of secure sites;

2. inventory and account for these weapons;

3. provide safe handling and safe disposition of these weapons as called for by arms control agreements; and

4. offer assistance in finding gainful employment for thousands of former Soviet scientists with expert knowledge of WMD or their delivery systems.

After 1998, these efforts were undertaken by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). By 2014, threat reduction efforts in the former Soviet Union to secure nuclear weapons and destroy WMD and WMD infrastructure had largely ended. In 2008, DTRA was authorized to operate in other regions.

Destruction of Chemical Weapons in Syria and Libya

After the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, Syria in August 2013, it agreed to a Framework for the Elimination of Syria’s Chemical Weapons, which launched an international effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapon program. 

In 2014, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program collaborated with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Mission to provide shipping containers, material handling equipment, and trucks to support the shipment of more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents and related materials out of Syria.

Similarly, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program assisted the Government of Libya in securing and destroying chemical weapons that were discovered after the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi.

Reducing Biological Threats

In recent years, the danger of biological weapons and diseases has become more prominent in threat reduction efforts. By the 2010s, programs to reduce “the threat of state and non-state actors acquiring biological materials and expertise that could be used to develop or deploy biological materials and weapons” had become the largest activity within the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

Efforts against Ebola

DTRA played a large role in the development of the first vaccine against deadly Ebola Viral Disease, first discovered in Africa in 1976. The West African Ebola epidemic from December 2013 to January 2016 sickened 28,646, causing 11,323 deaths, for a very high 40 percent death rate.

From 2003 to 2014, DTRA invested more than $300 million to develop medical countermeasures against hemorrhagic fever viruses, including Ebola. Beginning in 2014, DTRA worked with the other U.S. government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop a vaccine against the most common form of Ebola, which was approved in late 2019. Studies showed the vaccine to be at least 97.5 percent effective.

At one crucial point in vaccine manufacture in 2019, DTRA even helped organize the shipment of frozen bulk vaccine material from the manufacturer in Germany to the United States to meet critical production schedules so the vaccine could arrive in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in early 2020.

Cooperative Threat Reduction Efforts in Georgia

The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and DTRA helped establish the Central Reference Laboratory (CRL) in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, which was renamed the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in 2018. An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted:

It has the first high-containment laboratory in the region that meets Biosafety Level 3 standards, meaning it is equipped to study serious or lethal human diseases, and it serves Georgia and the wider region with detection and diagnostic capacity for disease outbreaks.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lugar Center and associated Georgian health facilities have performed over 160,000 COVID-19 tests and trained and qualified 33 laboratories that performed over 2 million additional COVID-19 tests.

The U.S. government has successfully transitioned 21 DTRA-refurbished laboratories (including the Lugar Center) to the government of Georgia, which as of January 2018, assumed full sustainment and operational responsibilities and costs for the Unified Laboratory System.

These labs, the Lugar Center in particular, and similar ones in other countries are the labs that Russia complains endlessly about, falsely accusing or insinuating that they are developing biological weapons, with China joining in.

Playing on Suspicion and Fears

The contrast between reality and misinformed opinion in the realm of biological weapons is striking. Russian and Chinese propagandists work very hard to create unwarranted suspicions about U.S.-funded Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, which help prevent disease outbreaks in more than 30 countries, and about biological defense research in the United States. Unfortunately, this is extraordinarily easy to do because of the primal fears that people have about biological weapons. Meanwhile, as discussed in the addendum below, there is good reason to suspect that Russia may be pursuing offensive biological weapons in secret.

The United States Renounced Offensive Biological Weapons 50 Years Ago

The United States developed biological weapons and defenses against them during World War II, when it faced the threat of biological warfare (BW) from Japan, which had “more than 3000 scientists” working in their BW program. But in 1969, President Richard Nixon announced the United States:

will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate. Our bacteriological programs in the future will be confined to research in biological defense, on techniques of immunization, and on measures of controlling and preventing the spread of disease.

In explaining the reasoning for the decision, Nixon noted that biological warfare “has massive, unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable consequences. It may produce global epidemics and profoundly affect the health of future generations.”

In 1971, the Nixon administration announced the conversion of biological warfare facilities at Fort Detrick, Maryland, to a “Center for Cancer Research.” The U.S. government transferred 67 buildings from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), which included the National Cancer Institute. In announcing the conversion Nixon said, “we now have scientists devoting their efforts toward saving life, rather than destroying life.”

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick conducts defensive research both to protect against possible biological warfare attacks but also disease outbreaks and other threats to public health. Research at USAMRIID is aimed at finding “medical solutions—therapeutics, vaccines, diagnostics, and information—that benefit both military personnel and civilians.”

Similarly, for decades, the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has worked with more than 30 countries to improve their ability to detect, diagnose, and report unusual biological incidents, all in the interests of preventing natural, accidental, or intentionally caused outbreaks of disease. But Russian and Chinese propaganda and disinformation try to turn things upside down and spread the false view that such facilities are supposedly making the world more dangerous rather than safer.

Overwrought, groundless fears that these facilities may be involved in preparations for biological warfare draw their strength from irrational primal fears and from repeated disinformation claims.

Soviet and Russian Biowarfare Activities

While the United States was giving up its offensive biological weapons in the late 1960s, “the Soviet government … decided to do essentially the opposite, namely, to establish a large biological warfare program that would be driven by newly discovered and powerful biotechnologies,” wrote Raymond Zilinskas, co-author together with Milton Leitenberg of the authoritative 890-page 2012 book The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History.

Zilinskas wrote in a 2016 study, “In 1992, Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the USSR had operated an offensive bioweapons program in violation of the BWC” [the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which “effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons.”].

Zilinskas concluded in 2016, “At this time, there are no signs that Russia intends to scale back the biological institutes that once directed the Soviet bioweapons program.”

Ironically, Russia works hard to falsely promote primal fears the United States is developing biological weapons while being extremely secretive about its own activities in this area.

Further recommended reads

Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Dan Gardner, 2008

How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,” Psychology Today blog by David Ropeik

Organ Snatchers” by Peter Burger, Magonia 56, June 1996

The Origins of Nunn-Lugar and Cooperative Threat Reduction, by Paul I. Bernstein and Jason D. Wood, 2010

The History of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR)”, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 2019

False allegations of biological-weapons use from Putin’s Russia” by Milton Leitenberg, The Nonproliferation Review, October 12, 2021


Past issues 

#1: A Counter-Disinformation System That Works, January 8, 2020

#2: Three Ways to Counter Disinformation, February 11, 2020

#3: The Myth that Debunking Doesn’t Work, March 25, 2020

#4: What Works in Debunking, April 14, 2020

#5: The Coronavirus and Disinformation: Russia Remains True to Form, May 27, 2020

#6: Using Pseudo-Academic Online Journals to Amplify Fringe Voices, September 28, 2020

#7: Building an International Disinformation Network, November 10, 2020

#8: What Can We Learn from the Active Measures Working Group?, December 1, 2020

#9: Clandestine Disinformation and Agents of Influence, March 23, 2021

#10: The Extraordinary Scope and Breadth of Russian Propaganda and Disinformation, June 7, 2021

#11: The Goals and Main Tactics of Russia’s Disinformation, August 23, 2021

#12: Spinning Nemtsov’s Murder and Attempted Murders of Skripal and Navalny, October 4, 2021