Backstage manipulators: Western press’ guide to creating anti-China rumors on hot issues, or out of nothing
Published: May 25, 2021 09:38 PM
As some Western media spread more rumors about China, their formula of creating such misinformation becomes clearer.

The latest report from the Wall Street Journal on Sunday revealed an "undisclosed US intelligence report" indicating that several researchers in the lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in November 2019 displaying symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and other common seasonal illnesses, implying the possibility of the so-called virus "lab leak theory."

Yuan Zhiming, director of the institute's Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, told the Global Times on Monday that the report is an outright lie that came from nowhere. 

In fact, China's National Health Commission had publicly clarified the matter at a press conference as early as March 31: The institute has reviewed samples collected from patients in Wuhan with influenza symptoms from January 2019 to January 2020 and found that four of them (three adults and one elderly patient) were positive for SARS-CoV-2, but none of them were workers at the Institute. The three positives were revealed in January 2020, not "November 2019" as the WSJ claimed. But most of the Western media continued to turn a blind eye to such a clarification.

US politicians and media outlets have again been pursuing the lab leak theory as the origin of COVID-19, despite scientists from the WHO-China joint study team concluding in a full report that a lab leak is extremely unlikely.

Behind this highly conspiratorial report by the Wall Street Journal, more clues and characters working in collusion emerged to piece together how such COVID-19-related rumors were produced and disseminated.

The production line of concocting such anti-China rumors has become clear: Taking an unidentified source of information, labeling it as a "top secret intelligence document" to create "mystical credibility," and then using a distorted and exaggerated interpretation in the report to attack China.

Right-wing conservatives in the US are hyping and amplifying these unscientific conspiracy theories. This directly led many American scientists who originally opposed the conspiracy theory, such as top epidemiologist Anthony Fauci, to betray science under political pressure and turn to calling for an "investigation" of Chinese laboratories in searching for the virus' origins.

A screenshot of Australian journalist Sharri Markson, who was found spreading rumors about China

A screenshot of Australian journalist Sharri Markson, who was found spreading rumors about China

'Celebrity journalist'

The Global Times found the rumor that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology contracted the disease in November 2019 had been circulated in the Australian media more than two months ago.

On March 21, Australian journalist Sharri Markson published a widely circulated "exclusive report" in The Australian, citing a chief researcher at the US State Department named David Asher as a source, claiming that the novel coronavirus disease may be a "biological weapon" developed by China and that vaccine is the "antidote" being developed.

This is not the first time that Markson has made a "scoop" about the plot "Novel coronavirus [disease] leaked from Wuhan Institute of Virology lab."

On May 7, Markson published another article in The Australian claiming that the Chinese government had discussed "the possibility of using the SARS virus as a biochemical weapon" as early as 2015, and thus drew the inference that COVID-19 may come from laboratory leak.

Sky News reported that Markson assessed "chilling" details from a "document produced by Chinese military scientists." However, the document is in fact a widely available book.

This book entitled The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons, published in 2015, speculates that SARS may not be of natural origins but may be a man-made disease. Due to its radical views, this book has not been accepted by China's mainstream scientific community, nor has it been widely circulated in China. The book actually concludes that SARS may be a weapon for the United States to attack China, but this point is deliberately downplayed by Markson.

According to Fox News, in May 2020, Markson had already concocted fake news in another right-wing Australian tabloid, The Daily Telegraph. She claimed that she had exclusive access to a 15-page "China dossier" showing "China deliberately covered up evidence of the virus [COVID-19] early on in a pure case of negligence."

In the report, Markson depicted the source in a vague, misleading, and mysterious way, saying it was compiled by the so-called "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance. But the so-called dossier was verified by several news outlets as just a research report based on publicly available information, including news reports. 

However, Markson dismissed the mainstream media's criticism of her work on the origin of the virus and claimed to have been savaged by the left-wing Australian media.

Several facts prove that Markson has a clear "formula" for fabricating anti-China rumors: first, find or create a piece of information out of nothing, second, package it into "top-secret intelligence documents" to create a sense of mystery and credibility, and third, interpret and distort it wildly to slander China … now a rumor that is easy to be welcomed by Western anti-China forces is born.



'China observer' and 'cybersecurity specialist'

Sharri Markson has two close partners; Robert Potter, a so-called "network security specialist" and Christopher Balding, "a China observer." Both of them appeared regularly on Markson's show, accepting her interviews, endorsing the so-called "intelligence" documents, becoming the "exclusive sources" of her reports.

For example, in the above-mentioned conspiracy "China has discussed the weaponization of SARS since 2015," Potter said in Markson's interview that the document was authentic.

In another rumor, "China purged a database about the coronavirus [disease] from the Wuhan lab," he and Balding became "informed persons," saying that there were "reliable sources" who told them hackers were able to get into the institution's systems and found that there were major differences between the data stored in the institution and the data reported by China to the WHO.

From May to September 2020, Potter and Balding tirelessly told the same story in the media, including The Australian, Sky News Australia, and The Sun in the UK, to spread the rumor. But they failed to provide any evidence about "data obtained from the database," so even Western media themselves were reluctant to hype this topic anymore.

Another rumor about China is the work of Markson and Potter. In December 2020, Markson, again on Sky News Australia, hyped that "a leaked list of 1.9 million members of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai showed that many of them were working in foreign consulates in China and large multinational companies such as Boeing, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca," while Potter stood by this fake news and analyzed the "Chinese infiltration" revealed in the list.

The purpose of this rumor is very obvious. On the one hand, it is used to publicize the theory of the "China threat" and "Chinese infiltration." On the other hand, it also implied that China could have possibly stolen COVID-19 vaccine technology from the West.

The list was later dismissed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China. Some people on the list reached by the Global Times also proved that the list was completely forged. Hyping that "CPC members are found in consulates and multinational companies" also exposed their ignorance of China, as the number of CPC members in China has exceeded 90 million. However, this rumor was still heavily quoted and further hyped by the British and American media.

Balding, another black hand, often spread conspiracy theories about China with Potter, but he has become quieter lately after holding American feet to the fire while attempting to spread more rumors about China. 

In August and September 2020, before the US elections, a rumor about "Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, having business with China" went viral on the internet, which came from a 64-page so-called "intelligence" document. The document appeared to be the work of a fake "intelligence firm" called Typhoon Investigations. And the author of the document is a self-identified Swiss security analyst named Martin Aspen, an identity found to be a fabrication, according to an in-depth analysis by technical experts. 

According to a report by NBC, Aspen's profile picture was created with an artificial intelligence face generator, and the intelligence firm that Aspen lists as his previous employer said that no one by that name had ever worked for the company.

Later, the media found that the original poster of the document was Christopher Balding. In the beginning, Balding denied that he had fabricated the document, saying it was just a report he was "handed."

Balding later admitted that he wrote some of the document, Aspen is "an entirely fictional individual," and the document was commissioned by Apple Daily, a Hong Kong-based tabloid led by separatist Jimmy Lai who is now serving prison terms.

The release of fake news about then-presidential candidate Joe Biden by balding was seen to be disturbing presidential elections and had crossed the "red line" of Western political rules.

Since then, Balding has appeared less frequently in right-wing Western media, though he is still active on Twitter churning out conspiracy theories about China.

Notably, Markson was invited to appear on the media program created by Steve Bannon, who used to advise former US president Donald Trump, several times to re-disseminate almost all of the above conspiracy theories about China and COVID-19. Perhaps, in this outbreak, the "chain" behind the creation of China-related rumors runs even longer than what meets the eye.