CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg appears on a monitor as he testifies remotely during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing 'Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?', on Capitol Hill, October 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
In the space of a week, it seems as if the whole world decided the idea that COVID-19 leaked from a lab in China was a possibility that suddenly needed to be taken very seriously. There’s no new hard evidence to support this theory, but even so, the White House ordered a new investigation and Congress is considering a new inquiry.And then, on Thursday, Facebook made a remarkable decision: It announced it will not only allow people to say COVID-19 may have accidentally leaked from a Wuhan lab but also let them claim it was man-made or deliberately leaked.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
The result of this sudden embrace of the virus conspiracy theory, which until now has been widely dismissed by scientists, is that conspiracy theorists are using it as “proof” that everything from election fraud to QAnon is real.“The same media people who told you the Wuhan lab leak was a conspiracy theory are the same media people who told you Hunter Biden's laptop was Russian disinformation are the same media people who told you there was no election fraud,” tweeted Emerald Robinson, a reporter for right-wing outlet Newsmax on Thursday. The post has been liked 10,000 times.China’s lack of openness and transparency about how COVID-19 emerged has led governments and scientists to raise reasonable questions about the origins of a virus that has overwhelmed the globe for the last 18 months. But no new evidence has emerged in recent days to back up this renewed debate about COVID-19 originating in a lab—and certainly nothing to suggest it was man-made or leaked on purpose.In recent weeks, scientists have been calling for a more robust re-examination of the origins of COVID-19. Earlier this month 18 prominent scientists published a letter in the medical journal Science saying a new investigation is needed because “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.” But the letter contained no actual new evidence for those theories.
Then, last weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that 3 scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with the virus.But some experts quickly pointed out that the claims made in the article are based on a document that the reporters were unable to verify.
“Most documents of this nature self-describe their origin. If the origin is plausibly disputed and can't be resolved decisively by the journalist, then this is a very irregular document which is a huuuuge red flag to taking it at face value,” tweeted Matt Tait, a senior cybersecurity fellow at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.Yet, despite this lack of certainty, this week saw President Joe Biden order the intelligence community to “redouble” its efforts to find out the virus’ origin and report back in 90 days. And there is growing bipartisan consensus for a Congressional inquiry.And now Facebook has decided that it won’t just allow people to raise the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from the lab in Wuhan, but they can also freely claim that it was man-made.Back in February, Facebook announced an update to its misinformation policy, banning posts that said “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.” It took over a year after the outbreak was first reported for Facebook to make that change—and it has taken just three months for the company to reverse its stance.
Facebook’s reversal came “in light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts,” the company said in a statement. But the claims made in the Wall Street Journal article this week are not really new. As fact-checking organization First Draft News pointed out this week, back in January the U.S. State Department published a fact sheet that said it had “reason to believe” that several researchers at the Wuhan lab became sick “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”Despite this, Facebook updated its own policy a month later to explicitly forbid claims about COVID-19 leaking from a lab. In March, a World Health Organization adviser told NBC that workers at the lab became sick in the autumn of 2019, which she attributed to a seasonal illness, not COVID-19.But at the time, Facebook didn’t take action.Facebook did not respond to VICE News’ questions about the specific evidence that led to its decision to change its policy now, but whatever the reason, the reversal, together with the White House investigation and mainstream media coverage, has been music to far-right conspiracists’ ears. George Papadopoulos, a former adviser to Donald Trump, tweeted that “it has been confirmed that COVID emerged out of the Wuhan lab in China.” The post has been liked over 18,000 times.
Jordan Schachtel, a self-described “independent journalist” who has repeatedly shared anti-vax content, baselessly suggested that the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines were conspiratorially developed with the help of the Chinese government. “How could Moderna+BioNtech have vax candidate ready to go within days of 1st case? Plausible theory: they knew everything about virus bc China+NIH already studying it,” he tweeted. Schachtel has over 115,000 Twitter followers.On fringe message boards and QAnon Telegram channels, these arguments are now being widely shared as evidence of a mass cover-up by the government and mainstream media.Right-wing Trump supporters and QAnon followers see the widespread acceptance that COVID-19 may have leaked from a lab as evidence that everything they believed but were told was a lie, is actually true.Others went further, with one doctor drawing links between the “lab leak” hypothesis and the Big Lie about the 2020 election being stolen from former President Trump.