Co-ordinated disinformation around the origins of infectious diseases is nothing new. In 1983, under the codename Operation Infektion, the Soviet Union began a years-long campaign to seed the idea that the US had manufactured HIV/AIDS at a military lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. The story was originally published in a fringe pro-Soviet newspaper in India as an anonymous letter to the editor which served as the baseline for further reporting years later, all referring back to the letter. Later, the Soviet Union bolstered the claim with a scientific report by husband and wife Biologists Jakob and Dr. Lilli Segal who suggested that the AIDS virus was synthesised from two separate retroviruses. Further into the report, they stated that their hypothesis is based on extrapolations and no concrete data, but maintained this was enough evidence for it to be credible. The ‘long game’ played by the Soviets with tenuous evidence by experts had paid off. By the late 80s, variations of the story had appeared in over 80 countries – eventually being read out on US prime-time news. To this day, the belief persists in the US, especially among the African-American community, that AIDS was engineered by the government. Though Operation Infektion is the most famous and analysed case, similar speculation about engineered biological weapons ran rife in the case of Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and SARS – though now, such claims are ripe to be spread at an accelerated rate via the Internet. This history of speculation leads us to the current Coronavirus crisis.
The story of this specific viral COVID-19 origin myth requires us first to look at a known far-right conspiracy website “Zero Hedge”, an Austrian financial blog that started out with libertarian leanings before branching out into non-financial news and openly espousing alt-right viewpoints and conspiracy theories.
The Story So Far
On January 31st 2020, their Twitter and Facebook accounts were permanently suspended due to a doxxing campaign against a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Zero Hedge posted an article called “Is This The Man Behind The Global Coronavirus Pandemic?” along with a picture and details of the scientist in question, suggesting that users “pay him a visit” to find out what was going on. Since then, the hashtag “#freezerohedge” has enjoyed a steady presence on Twitter and their articles are still being shared.
Much has been made of Zero Hedge’s bans from Facebook and Twitter, with Bloomberg, Wired, Buzzfeed News, and PolitiFact all reporting on the event – but what is more interesting is how we ended up here and how this incident is simply the latest event in a network of fringe news websites with links to Russian far-right think-tanks and parallels to the aforementioned Cold War disinformation campaign.
Prior to their doxxing article, Zero Hedge had published the story Did China Steal Coronavirus From Canada And Weaponize It? – a compelling, paranoid origin myth with an almost cinematic scope. The story, briefly paraphrased, is as follows:
In 2012, a 60 year old Saudi man was admitted to a private hospital in Jeddah with SARS. In 2013, a sample of this man’s SARS was sent to Canada’s National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. In 2019, a shipment of virus samples from the Canadian lab ended up in China – four months later, a group of Chinese virologists were forcibly ejected from the lab. The lead scientist who was escorted from the building was Chinese Bio-Warfare agent Dr. Xiangguo Qiu. Dr. Qiu made several trips to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, 20 miles from the Huanan Seafood Market – the epicentre of the outbreak.
Implied here is the notion that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have reverse-engineered a ‘stolen’ SARS sample into COVID-19, and either through intention or accident, it has made its way into the global population.
This globetrotting tale of espionage, theft, and bioweaponry is still receiving circulation on Twitter and Facebook, and makes for an exciting way of explaining the uncertainty and turmoil we are experiencing in the wake of a global pandemic. However, the ‘exposé’ published by Zero Hedge is not theirs.
Gabby Deutch notes in a piece for Wired that the article Did China Steal Coronavirus from Canada and Weaponize It? was originally submitted by Great Game India. Deutch briefly mentions Great Game India’s web-presence before tracing the re-posting of their article to Zero Hedge and Red State Watcher. Deutch emphasises the spread of the conspiracy to conservative news sites with a wide readership and characterises Great Game India as a “microscopic blip” on the internet. In addition, a report produced by NewsGuard in the wake of the Zero Hedge event presented a profile of Great Game India, characterising it as a site that “severely violates basic standards of credibility and transparency” - giving it a score of 12.5/100. Their report focuses heavily on debunking the information presented on the site using more reputable journalistic sources, but with both it and Deutch’s article, important questions remain: who are Great Game India, and how did the report from a “microscopic blip” on the internet seed a viral conspiracy theory reaching millions of screens?
About Great Game India
Great Game India is a blog-style news website that publishes a mixture of current affairs reports on “on geopolitics and international relations” and historical investigative pieces. Though well-presented, a cursory glance at subheadings reveal the conspiracy theories underpinning the site’s reporting and worldview. Under “Science & Society” we find “Mind Control” and under “Intelligence & Espionage” we quickly find “Demonetization – War on Cash”. In addition to their main site, Great Game India also runs gginews.in, a more conventional news outlet covering a wide range of geopolitical issues related to India, with backlinks to Great Game India’s main website.
Great Game India bills itself as a “journal on geopolitics and international relations” – though the print version of the journal has been “suspended temporarily” since June 2017 and complaints have been lodged against the website for not sending copies of their journals out. The journal issues are behind a paywall, but contents are viewable. GGI is clearly intending to portray itself as a serious scholarly venue, but it lacks several key features of basic transparency and accountability associated with academic research; authors are not named and there is no information on review processes or editorial policy.
GGI also heavily publicise a book “from their editors”; India in Cognitive Dissonance – self-published through Notion Press in February 2020. This text is billed as a “hard-hitting myth-buster, a timely reminder for the decadent Indian society; a masterpiece on Geopolitics and International Relations from an Indian perspective”. Though the book has an average of four out of five stars on goodreads, albeit from three reviews, it has received a notably damning review on Amazon.in.
The IP addresses referring to both Great Game India and GGINews are hosted by Website Welcome in the US. Website Welcome is the company responsible for Hostgator's private name servers. Consensus from WhoIs.com, WebofTrust, and /r/webhosting is that “as long as they get paid, they don't care what is hosted on their servers”. There are numerous reports of phishing and spam alongside legitimate businesses hosted on Website Welcome.
The “Stolen Canadian SARS Sample” conspiracy
Why did an article from a little-known Indian conspiracy website with an out-of-print journal and a self-published book of dubious quality go viral when compared to stories of a similar theme from other websites or personalities?
Key here is the construction of the story that went on to be republished by Zero Hedge. In a move lifted from the Marvel Studios playbook, Great Game India had distributed their COVID-19 origin story across a variety of texts, publishing numerous articles before posting the piece in question: Coronavirus Bioweapon – How China Stole Coronavirus From Canada and Weaponized It. This article, despite being two months old, is still a pinned post at the top of their homepage. Since its publication, they have inserted backlinks to older articles and published approximately 30 supplementary articles using their bioweapons claims as a base to construct a timeline for this conspiracy.
The viral article contains a Wikipedia-like contents panel, giving their assertions a sense of concrete structure and logical flow:
Great Game India begins their construction of the article by establishing credibility with a link to a peer-reviewed medical paper: ‘Isolation of a novel coronavirus from a man with pneumonia in Saudi Arabia’ in the New England Journal of Medicine. They then link to an article from 16/05/2013, Canadian Lab Acquires Coronavirus Sample, that had been lifted word-for-word from an article published two days prior by Helen Branswell of The Canadian Press, though no credit is given. A small line of text indicates that this article had been modified on 12/02/2020 to link to Great Game India’s Coronavirus articles and to weave this news into the narrative they assembled.
Much of the rest of the viral article is constructed in the same way, backlinking to previous Great Game India reporting, often using other news outlets as a source (often CBC), and sensationalising claims to fit their constructed narrative. A particularly egregious example is their reporting on Dr. Frank Plummer, a renowned HIV/AIDS researcher who died in Kenya shortly after Great Game India’s viral article was published. CBC reported on his death and gave information about his life, while Great Game India, despite linking to CBC’s story, ran the headline Frank Plummer - Canadian Scientist Key To Coronavirus Investigation Assassinated In Africa? Beyond the headline, there is no further reference to assassination or evidence given to support the claim. Similar sensationalising and conjecture can be found across their report. For instance, the Chinese researchers to which their story refers were ejected from the Canadian laboratory due to an administrative error. Great Game India reported on this as such, but with “administrative error” marked in scare quotes, and linking this incident to the unrelated arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou by Canadian authorities. As shown in the table of contents above, they frame this sequence of events as “Chinese Biological Espionage.”
Great Game India’s viral article and wider reporting on Coronavirus is constructed in a way to mask elements of truthful reporting and legitimate sources through a network of links back to their own website. These backlinks often land on tagged article lists, repeat to link back to the same article, or otherwise keep readers on Great Game India’s website rather than leaving to assess the sources they (rarely) link to.
Dr. Dany Shoham, medical microbiologist and ex-IDF agent, pointed out the links between Canada and the institute in Wuhan in an interview with the Washington Times on the same day Great Game India published their piece and was quoted in articles that appeared in several other media outlets. Though the Washington Times later recalled the piece and it had been refuted by the Washington Post three days later.
There are important questions regarding Great Game India’s motives. Though they do mention him in their article, the Winnipeg-Wuhan links are not attributed to Dr. Shoham and instead presented as fruits of their own research. They do, however, give prominence to a 2015 paper published by Shoham in the Journal of Defence Studies, detailing China’s biological warfare programme. Although the individual pieces of this theory can be traced back further than Great Game India, they compiled the elements into one cohesive whole in a surprisingly fast, coherent and effective manner, which may explain why this particular article was picked up by Zero Hedge and thereafter went viral.
Great Game India relies on brief input from academics and professionals to help bolster their narrative. After the release of their viral article, they published an interview with Dr. Francis Boyle. Boyle is a human rights lawyer who drafted the Bio Weapons Act signed into law by George W. Bush and author of the book Biowarfare and Terrorism.
Great Game India present this interview - originally published by the podcast Geopolitics & Empire – as evidence that COVID-19 is a lab-made bioweapon. Their transcript of this interview and an editorialised story based on it have been reposted across the internet word-for-word under the Great Game India name and others. Great Game India’s editorialised version links back only to previous Great Game India content.
It must be noted that, despite Dr. Boyle’s background and history, 7 out of 10 first-page Google results for Dr. Francis Boyle are reposts or related directly to the Geopolitics and Empire interview. This trend continues for the second and third pages of Google too. Examples of which are as follows:
- The Economic Times India - current first result ahead of Dr. Boyle’s Wikipedia page.
Following their publication of their original viral article and further reports, Great Game India have also published an infographic based on their claims. This infographic serves to add a sensationalist visual component designed for further viral spread, simplify their story - asserting their claims as fact (such as the ‘assassination’ of Dr. Frank Plummer), and generally creates another level of abstraction between any concrete evidence and the narrative assembled and spread by Great Game India.
The Founders and History of Great Game India
According to their “about” page, Great Game India was founded and is run by ‘Raja Sekhar’ and Shelley Kasli. Raja Sekhar’s bio on Great Game India lists a postgraduate degree in Geopolitics and International Relations, and an impressive list of research expertise – including Economic Warfare, Electronic Warfare, and Counter-Terrorism. According to a profile on Zoominfo.com, prior to founding Great Game India, he was the Vice President of the Bajirao Peshwa Organisation, but there is no trace of that organisation through conventional search engines. Further Open-Source Intelligence investigation revealed that Raja Sekhar is Gouravaram Rajasekhar. According to LinkedIn, Rajasekhar was the Vice President of the Bajirao Peshwa Organisation (“a non profit and noble organisation which strives for establishing knowledge hubs in rural societies to spread awareness on real world life”) and a Research Associate for Mordor Intelligence, specialising in Market Research. Presently, he lists himself as the Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Great Game India since 2014, and a Political Consultant for the Indian Political Action Committee.
This consulting role may be linked to Avaasat Consultancy Private Limited, a company with no web presence, but which is listed on tofler.in and a variety of other corporate detailing websites as having both Gouravaram Rajasekhar and Shelley Kasli as founders and directors.
Great Game India’s other co-founder, Shelley Kasli has a more pronounced web presence and it is here where a history of Great Game India can be pieced together:
2009 – Vimeo profile
Shelley’s Vimeo profile is the earliest trace of his web-presence. He bills himself as “an aspiring creative artist who is looking to become a filmmaker/director in his future.”
2009 – YouTube profile
Linked from his Vimeo profile is an unremarkable YouTube profile that largely consists of music playlists. However, the key here is that the profile image is the Great Game India Logo.
2010 – Wildchild Studios
Another link is to a now-defunct blogspot for Shelley’s Wildchild Studios. The URL suggests a change in name at some point. His company appears to specialise in making corporate promotional videos and renders.
Here, a distinct change in content can be found. Linked from Wildchild Studios/Dream Realm Studios is a prototypical version of Great Game India hosted on Blogspot and created by Shelley Kasli. This early blogspot appears to be a repository for long-form essays along similar themes to Great Game India’s later output on their registered domain. Interestingly, there is no trace of Gouravaram Rajasekhar in this early iteration of Great Game India.
2012 – Great Game India blogspot
16/06/2014 – Great Game India domain registered and site begins publishing.
2017 – GGI News registered
2018 - GGI Andhra registered. A regional venture that is now defunct.
In addition to this timeline, Shelley Kasli has a significant online web presence as an author, publishing articles that often re-use content across a variety of fringe and ‘alternative’ news websites.
- GGI News - Shelley’s first article for which offers a pro-Putin stance for India.
- Indian Defence Review - articles re-used from Great Game India.
- Eurasia Review - as Great Game India.
- Voltaire Network
- Geopolitical Monitor
- Countercurrents - a search through their website’s search bar reveals that Shelley had been publishing articles via Facebook notes. These have been referenced in a variety of other news websites.
- Nexus Newsfeed
- Journal of Eurasian Affairs - credited as founder of Great Game India with Gouravaram Rajasekhar as a co-author (not credited with any association with Great Game India).
Many of the news sites linked above have been flagged by Andrew Weisburd as nodes in a network of fringe disinformation, often borrowed from by sites such as Zero Hedge.
However, three websites stand out as particularly concerning and raise serious questions around the roots of Great Game India and how independent its output is.
The first is the Centre for Research on Globalization - "an independent research and media organization based in Montreal" that has a known climate change denial agenda. In addition, the centre is identified in Andrew Weisburd’s disinformation network and has been under watch by NATO as a springboard for Russian disinformation.
Shelley Kasli’s Author Profile.
The second website to note is Katehon. A known right-wing think tank based in Russia. Katehon has been noted as a point of Russian coordination in the French presidential election along far-right lines. As though to illustrate that point, authors listed alongside Shelley Kasli on Katehon include Marie le Pen.
Shelley Kasli’s Author Profile.
Finally, Kasli has a presence on Geopolitica/Geopolitika.ru. This site shares the layout of Katehon, as well as staff such as Leonid Savin as chief editor for both and a self-described "Head of the Administration of the International Social Movement “Eurasian Movement”. Geopolitica.ru features Aleksandr Dugin as a regular contributor; a major influence on anti-liberal ideological discourse in Russia and foundational thinker in neo-Eurasianism. Dugin is known to have close links with high-level Russian officials, having served as an advisor to Gennadiy Seleznyov, and his book, Foundations of Geopolitics is said to have had a massive influence on Russian foreign policy.
Shelley Kasli’s Author Profile.
The Spread of the Bioweapon Origin Article
The rapid speed at which Great Game India’s article found readership is in no small part due to Zero Hedge’s reupload boosting readership. The impact is very clear when looking at web traffic for Great Game India. Prior to publishing this article, they were averaging around 40,000 unique visits per month (by comparison, The Guardian has just shy of 300 million per month). Once picked up by Zero Hedge, their article would receive a portion of ~40 million monthly views - an alarming boost in readership for such a conspiracy. This boost is reflected in Great Game India’s later analytics. Their monthly visits rocketed to 124,000 by the end of January as their article was published on the 29th, and by the end of February, this ballooned to nearly 700,000 monthly visits. When compared to Zero Hedge’s readership, it might seem like a drop in the ocean, but since there was only one very small referral link from Zero Hedge to Great Game India, a 1650% increase in traffic shows that people were clicking that link.
Additional boosts in readership came from Reddit where it was posted in its Great Game India and Zero Hedge form nearly 550 times as a main topic link to subreddits as large as /r/worldnews and /r/coronavirus to more expected venues such as /r/antiMSM and /r/darkenlightenment. Though posts to the larger, more moderated subreddits were either met with ridicule and sarcasm or just quietly removed by page admins, on the smaller subreddits, the posts generated fervent discussion about the truthfulness of the article’s claims - being treated with a level of sincerity that indicated belief in the possibility of it all being true.
More traction was found on the ‘chans’ - with far less moderated communities who are hostile to mainstream adoption, 4chan and 8chan are breeding grounds for wild geopolitical speculation (such as the QAnon conspiracy). Threads on these platforms are impermanent, meaning tracing rumours back to these sites or greeting speculation with the same incredulity as it finds on Reddit is a far harder task.
Further spread was from further websites republishing the article in the weeks after Zero Hedge first boosted it. Numerous Blogspot and fringe news outlets picked up on the article, as did a litany of “mirroring” websites designed to simply repost and preserve the content.
This boost in traffic can be seen in the graph below:
The dramatic spikes here are from forums such as ‘the chans’ along with message boards associated with fringe journalistic outlets. From here discussion spills outwards to Twitter.
In the graph below, the high level of mentions for Great Game India on Twitter can be seen in the remarkably active light blue line. Its mirroring of the forum mention spikes in the graph above shows how conversation in forums is sustained and spread into far higher numbers on Twitter. This also takes into account spread from Great Game India’s own pinned tweet of the article (which has enjoyed 964 retweets) as well as other news sites promoting their versions.
An analysis through Hoaxy - a tool from the Observatory on Social Media analysing ‘bot-like’ properties in Twitter accounts - further reveals the coronavirus bioweapon myth being pushed through Great Game India’s reporting was amplified by bots such as PatriotM1A777.
The proliferation of Great Game India’s article and the origin story for coronavirus has since now slowed, but through the data above, we can see how rapidly the rumour spread from little-known sites and far from legitimate forums to becoming a widely entertained, and in some cases, fully accepted theory.
Possibly the most striking thing about Great Game India and its role in the spread of arguably the most alarming conspiracy theory surrounding COVID-19 is how relatively unimpactful their relatively consistent output had been up until this point. More research is needed to establish whether Great Game India’s framing of this story in such a way as to get immediately picked up by Zero Hedge was coordinated to any degree, or if they just happened upon the right viral conspiracy at the right time. Regardless, it should be stressed that Great Game India was able to play such a pivotal role in spreading the ‘COVID-19-as-bioweapon’ narrative only because it had hitherto been regarded as insufficiently impactful to be targeted by misinformation prevention measures on major platforms.
In addition, though Shelley Kasli’s involvement in Russian interests is not wholly known, it is not hard to see the parallels between Great Game India’s story and the Soviet misinformation campaign, Operation Infektion. Both began in fringe news outlets in India before being pushed by ever-larger media outlets before taking root in the cultural psyche. Ultimately, their address by established media, in an attempt to debunk the theories, further amplify their message as both serve to destabilise trust in established narratives and generate a general suspicion in authority.
Finally, in times as fragmented as these, with competing narratives espousing the truth, it can be hard to navigate the media landscape to find firm ground. Great Game India’s story weaves together a cinematic and compelling narrative that may, at first, seem far more plausible than “somebody ate the wrong Pangolin”, but media savviness must always be at the forefront of one’s mind when seeking answers. Great Game India could easily be a textbook illustration of seeding misinformation and watching it naturally radiate outwards in our current media ecology. The parallels between this story and Operation Infektion don’t just stop at how the stories spread and the bioweapon slant. Chances are, if the truth travels virally, it warrants a far closer inspection.