"Disinformation" is the New Disinformation
The media's dismissal of the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis tells us much more about the media than about the hypothesis.
There was no Facebook back in 2003. YouTube wouldn’t exist for another two years, Twitter for another three. In that era, people still got their news primarily from their televisions: from CNN — cable news’ mainstay — and from the upstart Fox News, which had only recently surpassed it in ratings.
That year, coverage on those two networks was dominated by a single story: Weapons of Mass Destruction. Did Saddam Hussein have them? (The answer from both networks: of course.) How much of a threat were they? (The Bush administration’s answer, endlessly on loop on cable news: “a mushroom cloud.”) How do you know? (The answer to that question: a months-long spectacle of sensational programming, surpassing even Russiagate in its obsessive fixation on minutiae.)
As it turned out, of course, the whole fiasco was a conspiracy theory. Believing that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs meant believing in the existence of a literal global conspiracy. So, a global conspiracy is what we were sold. Cable news in 2003 was a constant stream of juicy, fabricated details, reminiscent of the OJ Simpson trial in its preoccupation with technicalities. 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague! Saddam’s government had procured yellowcake uranium in Niger! Iraq had purchased Chinese aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment, and had 18 trailers that were biological weapons factories on wheels!
The rest of the story is familiar: the hype worked. We went to war. It was a world historical catastrophe that killed hundreds of thousands, turned the region into hell and created a cascade of disasters that eventually spawned ISIS, the Syrian civil war, the European refugee crisis and the imminent collapse of the EU.
Now it’s 2021, and all of that online stuff we didn’t have 18 years ago is at our fingertips. We live our lives on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Tiktok. The legacy media is hemorrhaging market share to those digital platforms. The newspapers, the networks and the cable outlets no longer hold a monopoly on the construction of the public narrative; the public has the means to talk amongst ourselves, to explore alternative storylines.
So with their shrinking soapbox, the legacy media organizations — the ones that spun us the grand conspiracy theory that led to the Iraq War — have something to say about their social media competitors: They’re cesspools of disinformation! They’re full of naive dupes being fed conspiracy theories by politicians and their compliant right-wing media toadies! They are not to be trusted! Democracy dies in darkness!
It’s a narrative that serves their business model impeccably. It allows them to package their own conspiracy theories as serious, professionally vetted news, while banishing any dissenting narratives, no matter how plausible, to the lunatic fringe of the terminally online, simply by declaring it so.
Of course, they're not entirely wrong. Social media is, indeed, a rat’s nest of conspiracy theories, so infested with falsehoods it’s become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between legitimate reporting and outright fabrication. From Pizzagate to QAnon to the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis, we are overwhelmed by lunatic-baiting bullshit online.
Did you notice how I just shoehorned the Wuhan lab leak in there with Pizzagate and QAnon? If you’re following the Covid origin debate closely, that might have set off alarm bells. But if, like most people, you have better things to do, you probably barely noticed.
We’ve been told so many times by trusted news sources that the lab leak hypothesis is a conspiracy theory that by now we just take it for granted, with barely a critical thought. Reputable people whose bylines we know and whose faces we see on TV all the time have relegated the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis into that putrid category of fake news in our minds, alongside chemtrails, anti-vaxx hysteria, and Hillary Clinton pedophile rings. We have been exposed to so much of this ambient noise it is imprinted onto our brains.
But the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis is not, in fact, a conspiracy theory. It is an eminently plausible hypothesis of the origin of Covid-19.
Here’s some background on the lab leak hypothesis. Pay attention to how it strikes you. Depending on how steeped in legacy media you are, the next few italicized paragraphs may strike you, viscerally, as either interesting or repulsive:
For years, researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have collected naturally occurring bat coronaviruses from distant locales and tinkered with them in a lab, fusing them with other viruses that are more highly transmissible and deadlier to humans, in order to create synthetic hybrid superviruses. This type of work is called “gain-of-function” research. The justification behind it is that it allows us to stay one step ahead of either bioterrorists or natural selection, either of which could, theoretically, generate such a virus. By making it ourselves in a lab, the rationale goes, scientists can develop the knowledge base to rapidly create a vaccine should such a nightmare scenario at some point unfold.
This kind of research was undertaken for years in the United States, beginning shortly after 9/11. It continued until the Obama administration banned it. At the University of North Carolina, scientists even synthesized human airway tissues with which to, essentially, train SARS viruses to attack the human respiratory system (interestingly, the scientist who pioneered that work now supports a full investigation into the lab leak hypothesis). Once it was prohibited in the U.S., much of this research shifted to China, with American funding attached to it, with the approval of Anthony Fauci. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was the primary site of this research in China, and its security protocols were lax enough to draw the alarm of the U.S. Embassy two years before the outbreak.
One of the first people on the planet to worry that Covid-19 had emerged from an accidental leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was Shi Zhengli, the lead bat coronavirus researcher at that very lab. We know this because she said so in an interview with Scientific American. But, she reassured the interviewer, she ran tests and checked her records and is now certain that it did not, in fact, come from her lab. Yet the Chinese government has prohibited any outsiders, including the World Health Organization, from seeing those lab logs.
From the beginning, the possibility of a lab leak was dismissed almost immediately by most brand name media outlets. One of the major reasons for this was an open letter signed by numerous renowned scientists and published in The Lancet in February of 2020 that called any hypothesis of a non-natural origin of Covid-19 a “conspiracy theory.”
That letter was drafted and organized by Peter Daszak. Peter Daszak heads a New York-based non-profit called EcoHealth Alliance. EcoHealth Alliance was the conduit for NIH funding of field collection of bat coronaviruses for the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The last sentence of Daszak’s letter asserts that the signers have “no competing interests.” Reasonable minds might disagree with that characterization.
How did those paragraphs strike you? Were they a revelation, or a bunch of inane Reddit conspiracy theory gibberish?
If it struck you as the latter, that may be because The New York Times, the Daily Beast, Huff Post, Wikipedia, and dozens of other outlets told you that’s what they were, for close to a year. Journalist Michael Tracey has compiled a collection of those headlines. For almost the entire duration of the pandemic, the media has been telling us that if you even entertain the lab leak hypothesis, you’re in good company with Sandy Hook denialists and people who think Jews control the weather. And yet, factually speaking, nothing in those italicized paragraphs is particularly controversial.
So look again: based on those facts, is an accidental lab leak a reasonable hypothesis of the origins of Covid-19? And if the answer is yes, what does that say about the media organizations that have been telling you for months that you’d be a MAGA-brainwashed lunatic to take it seriously?
Conspiracy theories abound on the internet; that’s obvious to anyone. But they abound everywhere, including on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and The New York Times. Legacy media outlets just spent four years informing us of a Russian plot to cultivate a Manchurian candidate to hijack the U.S. government. Then they turn around and tell us we’d be fools to question the World Health Organization’s dismissal of the lab leak hypothesis as nothing more than online crackpot lunacy.
The reality of mass media today is this: it is produced and disseminated by political activists, on both the left and the right. This is as true of The New York Times as it is of The Daily Caller, as true of CNN as of Fox News. Producers, editors and journalists have not only a point of view, but a team they’re gunning for. Their opinion pieces conform to this bias, as they always have, but so, now, does their “straight” reporting.
And among their most potent weapons is a simple allegation: disinformation. Like “racism,” it is a label that is typically deployed not to elucidate, but to obscure, suppress, and shut down debate. And, as with “racism,” sometimes it’s accurate; other times it’s cynical deflection. It used to be the task of journalists to sort one from the other. Now they’re paid to conflate them.