Revealing four-step US misinformation campaign against China on virus origins tracing
The rumor-mongering loop
Published: Aug 25, 2021 08:13 PM
Editor's Note: 

On tracing COVID-19 origins, the US government has been making groundless accusations targeting China based on speculation and disinformation, but never on science and facts. The virus origins tracing mission in the US has been led by intelligence departments, which have a notorious record of creating disinformation for politicization purposes, and most of the rumors concocted by the US surround the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Focusing on the rumors and those who are behind the defamation campaign, the Global Times shall publish two in-depth reports on Wednesday and Thursday to expose the lowdown tricks employed in the West' COVID-19 origins campaign.

US President Joe Biden is seen through a curtain as he waits backstage before coming out to deliver remarks on the COVID-19 response and the vaccination program on August 23, in Washington, DC.
Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden is seen through a curtain as he waits backstage before coming out to deliver remarks on the COVID-19 response and the vaccination program on August 23, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

The US-waged conspiracy theories warfare against China on virus origins tracing has clearly witnessed two stages. Former president Donald Trump jumped on the virus origins issue to blatantly blame China for the virus but social media platforms were reluctant to cooperate with him. The Biden administration followed Trump's strategy to drill on the "lab leak theory" to politicize the pandemic and stigmatize China.

How did the US' rumor campaign manifest itself? The typical process has been: The media first cites unfounded sources to propose conspiracy theories, and influential politicians hype up the theories with web trolls widely spreading it on social media platforms. Scientists then come out with hedged explanations to give room for conspiracy theory growth, and finally the top administrators pressure intelligence agencies to launch so called investigations against China. 

Experts have said it is a sustained blow by the US political elites, media, and intelligence agencies.

Trump's virus rumor offensive

The US started vigorously carrying forward misleading assertions against China as early as January 2020, when the US-based newspaper the Washington Times published a report with a sensational headline meant to link the coronavirus disease origin with "China's biowarfare program." 

The report attracted global attention soon after and triggered the first wave of the US' campaign to claim China's culpability by introducing the conspiracy that the coronavirus disease had originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Republican Senator Tom Cotton became the first in a batch of high-profile US politicians to fuel the fringe theories across the media starting in February 2020. 

He introduced various potential scenarios of the virus origin on his Twitter account, from a manmade possibility to a lab accident, despite a group of 27 senior international scientists having publicly condemned the conspiracy of a manmade virus while overwhelmingly supporting the natural spread theory in The Lancet on February 18.

On April 18, 2020, then US president Donald Trump said at a White House briefing that the US government had probed the "Wuhan lab-leak" claim, but failed to provide any evidence to substantiate the unproven theory.

The claim then gathered momentum among many senior US politicians who wrote op-eds calling for a response from the Chinese government and a so-called "serious investigations" into it. Mike Pompeo, then US secretary of state and former CIA director, a well-known hard-liner against China, took the lead in pushing the US intelligence circle to launch investigation.

With mounting pressure from top politicians, the campaign next compelled US intelligence into the campaign to launch a so-called serious investigation, though there remained skepticism about there being any possible evidence to support it.

The Inspector General of the Intelligence Community released a statement declaring that the intelligence community "concurs with the scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified," but stressed that they would continue to "rigorously examine emerging information" to determine the conclusion's accuracy.

US media has reported that senior Trump administration officials then pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan was the origin of the coronavirus disease outbreak, The New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, powerful voices in the US were ramping up efforts to rebrand COVID-19 as "the China virus," amplifying the conspiracies. 

Twitter accounts of Trump supporters and US conspiracy-mongers endorsing the QAnon movement have been at the center of a coordinated blatant campaign to spread rumors about the coronavirus disease, particularly the conspiracy theory that China created the virus as a bioweapon. This unverified accusation repeatedly embraced by the US president and his administration led many to suspect the far-right's motivations behind the coordinated Twitter campaign.

Although the rumor war was successfully waged by a combination of politicians, the media, and right-wing internet users, worldwide mainstream scientists remained skeptical about it. They argued its negligible probability, emphasizing the higher likelihood of the virus having transmitted naturally to humans from animals as other types of challenging viruses including Ebola and SARS.

Mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook have also since banned relevant posts containing rumors like "coronavirus is manmade."

What steps did the US take to stigmatize China on virus origins tracing, and who is behind it? GT reveals four-step US misinformation campaign on the virus origins tracing. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

What steps did the US take to stigmatize China on virus origins tracing, and who is behind it? GT reveals four-step US misinformation campaign on the virus origins tracing. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

Lab leak theory campaign 2.0

As Joe Biden won US presidency, the "lab leak theory" was quickly reignited, with a new round of mudslinging among US politicians and media. This time, it was again geared up to become a well-prepared and closely coordinated one-two punch against China by the US media and the US political establishment.

The second round of "lab leak" conspiracy war against China was triggered by the Wall Street Journal's report on May 23. The story cited an unpublished report coming from the final days of the Trump administration, alleging several researchers at the Wuhan lab had fallen ill in the autumn of 2019 and displayed symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses. 

WIV lab director Yuan Guoyong in an interview with the Global Times clearly refuted the WSJ's report on sick staff, calling the US intelligence document "a complete lie." The institute, as early as on March 23, publically clarified that it had no contact with the SARS-CoV-2 before December 30, 2019, and as of that date, the staff and researchers at the lab had revealed no COVID-19 infection. Chinese health authorities also clarified on March 31 that the three patients were not WIV staffers, but patients being treated at a local hospital that WIV worked with.

The WSJ's report was published on the eve of the World Health Assembly, which was expected to discuss the next phase of the research into COVID-19's origins, with speculation that such media hypes had aimed to redirect the trajectory of the next phase of investigations.

Soon CNN also followed suit and set up a special "Wuhan Lab" column on the upper right corner of its homepage on May 26 during the WHA.

Concurrently, social media platforms started "unblocking" conspiracy theories.  Facebook on May 28 claimed that it would no longer be removing posts that claim the coronavirus disease was manmade amid renewed debate over its origins. The policy change came as Biden announced he had ordered aides to find answers to the origin of the virus. 

The academic arena stepped in to collaborate as well. Even Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, had shifted his long-held position that the COVID-19 virus developed naturally, and he then changed course to claim that relevant authorities "should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened." 

Fauci's shifting stand on the virus origins issue, though perplexing, diminished doubts about US elites betraying their conscience due to political pressure.

As many international scientists loath the US' politicization of the issue, they oppose the US' stance and refuse to support the US government.  However, the US government still continued its onslaught of threats, including doxing of scientists and their families, censoring of papers, and forcing employers to apply pressure on targeted scientists, a source close to the matter told the Global Times.

Under the attack of the US media and US academia, the US government quickly stoked up and demanded an investigation into the alleged truth.

On the day before Biden ordered an expedited investigation into the novel coronavirus disease source, US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on May 25 urged the WHO to follow a "transparent" probe in the origins issues, pressing Biden for further investigation. 

Biden then doubled down on his request that intelligence community redouble their efforts in investigating and report back to him within 90 days.

At the same time, countries attending WHOs annual meeting of member states including European Union member states, Australia and Japan on May 25 called for a need to solve the mystery of how COVID-19 first began spreading among humans.

China rejected WHO's phase-2 COVID-19 origins study plan that was proposed as the US-led West intensified the politically driven conspiracy about a "lab leak" theory, due to the plan's "lack of respect for common sense and arrogance toward science."

Experts point out that the current US government, while criticizing Trump for spreading conspiracy theories about the virus, is continuing Trump's strategy of politicizing the epidemic.

"This campaign against China connected the basic components of the American mainstream political establishment - the government, the media, and members of Congress. The media created those claims citing alleged 'exclusive sources' which are most likely confidential leaks of presumed conclusions by senior politicians. This is a typical American political operation - power overtops the truth," Li Haidong, professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times.

The US intelligence arena itself has been highly politicized since the 1970s. Far from being an institution that provides balanced and objective analysis to decision makers, it offers conclusions that cater to the mainstream political atmosphere, Li said. The virus origins probe campaign by the US reflects a typical politically manipulated American decisionmaking process, which is bound to be a tragedy in the end.

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