How Fact-Checking Can Hide Needed Information From the PublicWhat role did fact-checking play in the suppression of inconvenient but essential facts about the origin of COVID-19?
Earlier this week, we looked at the recent news that Facebook has a special portal for government to look in and report “disinformation,” — as if government, in a highly charged political atmosphere, were some kind of neutral third party. The assignment of some sort of neutrality to power sources or experts who may not be neutral or have any reason to be is one of the characteristics of fact-checking, as it has developed over the last decade in mainstream and social media.
Why was the Wuhan lab leak theory supposed to be a conspiracy?
In that context, let’s look at the claim that COVID-19 originated in an accident at a high-level virus lab in the upcountry Chinese city of Wuhan. Assessing what happened was not helped by the fact that the Chinese Communist Party government concealed the outbreak for months while it stocked up on medical supplies. As the world began to face the consequences, much panic and many missteps ensued. One of the missteps seems to have been overreliance on fact checking done by persons and organizations with an interest in presenting a specific story.
For example, the assertion that the virus had originated in the Wuhan lab was widely dismissed as a conspiracy theory: “Fauci again dismisses conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was made in a Wuhan lab after Pompeo touted ‘enormous evidence’ of a cover-up” (Business Insider, May 4, 2020); “The Wuhan Lab Leak Hypothesis Is A Conspiracy Theory, Not Science” (Forbes, June 3, 2021); “Going viral: How a book on Amazon inspired the latest COVID conspiracy” (Sydney Morning Herald, May 13, 2021). And so forth.
Surely it is relevant that the United States had been helping to fund bat coronavirus research in China: “Dr. Anthony Fauci praised the “qualified, highly respected Chinese scientists” the National Institutes of Health collaborated with at the Wuhan Institute of Virology over the years, defending NIH’s funding of bat coronavirus research in China.” – Jerry Dunleavy, Yahoo! News (July 23, 2021) Was there no chance that the US health administration had a long term political interest in undermining any talk of a lab origin for the pandemic virus?
One obfuscation that detractors seem to have relied on was skilfully blending claims that the virus was intentionally released as a bioweapon with the view that the release was an embarrassing and highly damaging accident. The distinction is all the more obvious for the fact that it was not often clearly made.
At The Conversation (June 7, 2021), politicians were warned against “publicly pursuing the Wuhan lab-leak investigation” because “In doing so, they may accidentally lend credibility to the many COVID-19 conspiracy theories that also revolve around a laboratory origin.” An extraordinarily convenient problem for the politicians to have, don’t you think?
Nonetheless, there began to be a perceptible shift.
The lab leak theory survives
In mid-2021 Twitter wouldn’t confirm whether users were allowed to post on the theory but by then Facebook was ceasing to treat it as a crackpot idea.
Gradually, more sources are beginning to look at the question in an even-handed manner. For one thing, it has come out that the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom, privately “‘believes Covid DID leak from Wuhan lab’ after a ‘catastrophic accident’ in 2019 despite publicly maintaining ‘all hypotheses remain on the table.’” (Daily Mail, June 18, 2022) On October 27 of this year, the U.S. Senate released a report which stated,
A research-related incident is consistent with the early epidemiology showing rapid spread of the virus in Wuhan, with the earliest calls for assistance being located in the near the WIV’s original campus in central Wuhan. It also explains the low genetic diversity of the earliest known SARS-CoV-2 human infections in Wuhan, because the likely index case, would be an infected researcher, is the likely primary source of the virus in Wuhan. A research-related incident also explains the failure to find an intermediate host as well as the failure to find any animal infections pre-dating human COVID-19 cases. [The report is open access.]
Writers as disparate as Katherine Eban and Jeff Kao for Vanity Fair and Nicholas Wade for City Journal are willing to consider the theory at face value now.
Does it really matter where COVID originated? Yes, it certainly does — if we are not allowed to discuss it openly.
Beginning to discuss the high cost of censorship and shutdowns
One science publication is beginning to address the high cost of “fact checking” scientists and other experts when their proposed responses to the pandemic differed from those needed by senior politicians and bureaucrats:
In the effort to silence alternative voices, widespread use was made not only of censorship, but of tactics of suppression that damaged the reputations and careers of dissenting doctors and scientists, regardless of their academic or medical status and regardless of their stature prior to expressing a contrary position. In place of open and fair discussion, censorship and suppression of scientific dissent has deleterious and far-reaching implications for medicine, science, and public health.Shir-Raz, Y., Elisha, E., Martin, B. et al. Censorship and Suppression of Covid-19 Heterodoxy: Tactics and Counter-Tactics. Minerva (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-022-09479-4
At this point, are breezy admissions that, maybe, all this “fact-checking” is at war with science, medicine, and public health all we need? How about much more specific and thorough enquiry, redress of grievances, and the reform of persecuting institutions?
As the extent to which the reality differed from the fact checks has begun to sink in, a curious article has appeared in The Atlantic, pleading for “amnesty” for all the fact checkers, school shutdown enforcers, and people who wanted the government to jail their neighbors if they questioned the vaccines: “We have to put these fights aside and declare a pandemic amnesty.” (October 31, 2022)
Some responses to writer Emily Oster have been swift — and predictably cold: “[T]hose who drove Covid policy presented themselves not just as people doing their best, but as the sole bearers of rational truth and life-saving moral authority.” (Unherd, November 2, 2022)
Canadian columnist Laura Rosen Cohen is even more pointed: “ … the same people who taped up park benches, forced masks on toddlers, kicked autistic children off of planes, imprisoned frail and vulnerable senior citizens and disabled humans with sick and contagious covid patients in their respective nursing homes and homes for the developmentally disabled in order for them to die en masse, the ones who dragged pregnant women getting fresh air from park benches, kept people from getting regular medical care and disease treatment, refused organ transplants to the unvaccinated, forced old and sick people to die alone behind plastic barriers in hospitals, ripped families apart and destroyed friendships, businesses and economies, yes those people want an amnesty. Well screw that.” (Steyn Online, November 3, 2022)
Will those who claimed to be in charge of the facts when all others were in error now be expected to answer for failed predictions, disastrous policies, and unaccountable authority?
Next: Why fact-checking, as routinely practiced, is an enemy of the scientific method
You may also wish to read: Fact checking as the new censorship — surer than the old type. Apparently, Facebook has created a special portal for government to report “disinformation.” Just what constitutes disinformation/misinformation is often very subjective and quite often political as well. And governments are often not straightforward.