Arbiters of Truth? The Case of the Wuhan Lab Leak Hypothesis
Should Big Tech companies view their platforms as gatekeepers of truth or as digital incarnations of the liberal ideal of public discourse?
Since the days when it was still commonplace and relatively uncontroversial to refer to it as the “Wuhan virus,” there have been questions about the official explanation of COVID-19’s origin offered by Chinese authorities and rubber-stamped by the World Health Organization: that it made the leap from bats to humans through an intermediary animal, perhaps one bought at a so-called wet market.
After all, the purported zoological culprits originated in rural hinterlands hundreds of miles from Wuhan proper, where the first cases were reported. And Wuhan just so happens to be one of three top-flight facilities in the world doing high-end--and risky--research on these types of pathogens. If that’s all you knew about the facts of the case, nobody could blame you for suspecting the official account wasn’t the most plausible one.
If you further knew what the phrase “gain of function” meant, and understood the justified controversy around it, you’d be even more suspicious. And if you had a basic grasp of the Chinese Communist Party’s complicated relationship with transparency, well...
But no sooner were these questions raised than a broad array of media figures, medical experts, and politicians labeled them the elements of a conspiracy theory, and suggested it was racist to even entertain them.
Senator Tom Cotton was one of the most prominent to feel the wrath of these self-appointed arbiters, but the net was cast far wider, culminating in Facebook’s announcement in February 2021 that it would remove “debunked claims” from its platform, including ones that suggested “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.”
(Notice this guidance contains a conflation that censors would use as a kind of motte and bailey: between the idea that the coronavirus might have been the result of gain of function research and the idea that it might have been designed as a weapon, or even purposefully released. But being open to the first idea does not require buying the second).
Just a few months later, in May, Facebook reversed its earlier decision and determined that such theories were bunked once more. Facebook’s statement was brief and included no details, simply justifying the change “[in] light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts…”
But this wrongly suggests that it was the evidence that changed, rather than the attitude of these gatekeepers towards it. The reality is that in the months preceding the change, even before Facebook’s February announcement, credible sources had laid out the “lab leak” case in detail. It was there for all to see. It just wasn’t fashionable to see it.
In January 2021, the U.S. State Department issued a Fact Sheet laying out the evidence that could support this theory of the virus’ origins, including that researchers at the Wuhan lab fell ill in the Fall of 2019. That same month, former U.S. National Security advisor Matthew Pottinger - certainly someone with more credibility than a Facebook moderator - argued that a “growing body of evidence” supported the hypothesis. On the center-left, New York Magazine published a lengthy article laying out the evidence for the plausibility of the lab leak theory.
Then in May, The Wall Street Journal broke news that intelligence officials had further evidence supporting the hypothesis and the dam seemed to break, compelling the Biden administration to take this version of COVID’s origin story more seriously.
So what changed? The pithiest explanation comes from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who described a Trump-era epistemology in which left-of-center thinkers assessed the truth or falsity of reports not on the evidence, but on whether those stories’ truth or falsity could be put to malevolent use by their enemies on the Right. And so the lab leak, pushed by Tom Cotton and Trump administration officials, simply had to be false -- until, at least, those people who might gain advantage from its truth were safely removed from majority power.
But even if something like this is what was happening, it’s worth dwelling in the details, and understanding precisely how, mechanically, it worked in practice.
Clearly, Facebook and other platforms took their cues on what constituted acceptable discourse from the media. Thankfully, a number of media critics have recently published detailed accounts of this dissemination at work, including the WSJ Editorial Board, Jesse Singal, Caroline Downey, Drew Holden and Glenn Greenwald. We’d like to highlight some of the most salient arguments.
Jonathan Chait explored this question in two pieces in New York Magazine, providing a thorough accounting of why the media fumbled this story so badly. In his first piece, Chait noted that the media immediately conflated the lab leak theory with other, more far-fetched claims:
In January 2020, the Washington Post wrote a story headlined, “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research.” This piece correctly refuted the claim that the virus was deliberately manufactured as a biological weapon. It did not distinguish the (highly unlikely) bioweapon theory from the related, more plausible theory that the disease escaped from the Wuhan lab without ever having been intended as a weapon.
The trend worsened in February when Senator Tom Cotton raised the theory as a possibility:
In February, Senator Tom Cotton appeared on television to raise questions about what China was hiding. Cotton kept his exact accusation vague, perhaps deliberately. “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there,” he said of the Wuhan lab, “but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all.”
Reporters immediately began accusing him of promoting the most extreme version of Trump’s charge. The New York Times labeled Cotton’s remarks a “conspiracy theory.” The Washington Post’s account was headlined, “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.” The Post quoted an expert denying the virus “was a deliberately released bioweapon,” but Cotton hadn’t said that.
Bolstering Chait’s case, Matt Yglesias compiled a very good timeline of events to explain why the media was so quick to dismiss the lab leak theory, namely that its primary advocate was Senator Tom Cotton:
Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom of the media shifted in the opposite direction — that the pandemic was a really big deal and people should take stern countermeasures against it. At the same time, the “fact check” complex started taking an increasingly hard line against laboratory origin theories that it claimed had been debunked by scientists.
In Chait’s piece, he argues that the main problem was the the media showed a complete lack of humility in evaluating the evidence for the lab leak hypothesis:
It is understandable that authorities, including public health experts and journalists, responded to the crisis with initial confusion. But they erred on the side of certainty when they ought to have erred on the side of uncertainty. And the false certainty they embraced at the outset of 2020 hardened into a dogma that they did not question for far too long.
The lab-leak hypothesis may well turn out to be wrong. But that won’t make any of these reports right. The origins of COVID-19 were always hazy, and China’s lack of transparency created significant doubt. Reporters looked at the uncertainty and fell back on an impulse to straightforwardly call out racist lies, even though the evidence to call it lies was quite threadbare.
It is true that most of these outlets were more faithful to the truth than Trump, whose gusher of lies vastly exceeded whatever false claims trickled out of the liberal media. But Trump is not the right standard for journalists. And those who chose to follow the ethos of moral clarity, at the expense of objectivity, misled their audiences.
Chait also notes in his follow up piece that, despite mounting evidence on the plausibility of the lab leak theory, many journalists doubled down on social media, or even began to link the lab leak story to outright racism, including New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli in a since deleted tweet. Some not willing to go as far as to charge racism still indicated Cotton’s association with the charges were enough to cast a shadow on them. Chait continues:
Watching this response unfold helps explain the mentality that produced the original failure. Progressive advocates will take strong positions on a factual question, such as whether COVID-19 originated inside or outside a laboratory, based entirely on how they believe political actors will use the answer.
The problem isn’t that they’re wrong; anybody can make an analytical error. It’s that they’re not even trying to be right.
Of course, the problem isn’t just elite users of social media platforms but often the platforms themselves. As Michael Brendan Dougherty points out at National Review, social media giants often seem quite willing to kowtow to mainstream narratives that automatically assume ideas associated with or promulgated by conservatives are suspect:
But here’s another policy difference that matters, but one that isn’t exactly related to the government of states: The major social media networks — Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter — have proven willing, over and over, to do the bidding of progressive Anglophone journalists who make a stink on Twitter. These journalists are formed by institutions that teach them deference to expertise, and a special deference to experts in fields that are socially coded as progressive. They expect that in a controversy, the experts are likely to agree upon the main points of contention and only argue about unimportant details. They expect that anyone coded as “conservative” who objects does so entirely for mercenary reasons, or out of bullheadedness.
As we highlighted recently in E-Pluribus, Robby Soave echoes the same concerns over Big Tech’s overeagerness to censor certain ideas. Part of the driving force behind Facebook’s impulse, as Soave points out on Twitter, is the looming spectre of regulation:
But a simpler question than whether Big Tech should be able to decide what is true is should they want to. Or should they view their platforms as digital incarnations of the liberal public discourse that, when it functions freely and without favor, is our best bet for arriving at the truth together?
“What is truth?” Pilate famously asked Christ during his interrogation, and infamously walked away before getting a reply. Men and women of faith trust in God’s eternal and immutable truths, but as mortals fortunate enough to live in a pluralistic, liberal society, we rely on all comers to help us sort the rest of it out.
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