The sudden reemergence of the lab leak theory earlier this year — that COVID-19 was made in and escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — has hit international media and occasioned nervous reactions from the Biden administration, which demanded a conclusive report on the origins of the pandemic within 90 days. That deadline has just expired, with little result. As the head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergencies program, Michael Ryan, stated last week, “The current situation is that all of the hypotheses regarding to the origins of the virus are still on the table.”
The radical right has, in the meantime, become obsessed with the lab leak idea. Those of us who have experienced — and survived — coordinated campaigns of abuse on social media recognize the signs: Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, people you have never heard of begin to spam your email or social media accounts. Someone has pointed the trolls in your direction, and you start to wonder, who and why?
In the final days of May, “Mikael” emailed me: “So the most likely truth about Corona is a conspiracy idea that is a threat against democracy? What kind of nut are you that is so wrong? Who’s errands do you run?”
The background to his kind email, followed up by another a few days later, was an article published a week earlier in the right-leaning Swedish journal Kvartal. Here, journalist Ola Wong suggested that a report — I happen to be its author — published by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) aims to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In a gross simplification of what the report actually stated, Wong alleged that it “cautions against blaming China” and “goes so far as to claim that searching for an answer to the origin of the virus and the responsibility for its spread basically amounts to a desire to find a ‘scapegoat’. MSB says that this is the hallmark of conspiracy theories and a threat to democracy.”
What I did in my report was provide an overview of how conspiracy theories around COVID-19 are part of what the WHO has branded the “infodemic” — an infected infoscape in which different actors spread disinformation for various purposes, such as to denigrate their political opponents and attack expert knowledge. I distinguish between six areas of conspiratorial imagination in relation to the pandemic: origins, dissemination, morbidity and mortality, countermeasures in politics and public health, vaccination and metatheories.
Both separately or in various combinations, all these six categories have fueled conspiratorial meaning-making. In some cases, they have driven processes of radicalization toward violent extremism, such as attacks against 5G technology, mass demonstrations leading to political violence or disgusting displays of racist stereotypes.
Moreover, as a historian of ideas, I don’t study the root causes of or treatments for a contagious virus that has killed millions across the globe but rather the conceptions and discourses connected to it. In that sense, I am less interested in what really caused the pandemic and more invested in studying how different concepts — for instance about its origins — are used in (conspiratorial) rhetoric around the subject. It is also not my ambition or task to investigate the likeliness of a lab leak or the possibility that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a microchip. So, first of all, Wong — and, as we will see, others alongside him — has failed to capture the basic premises of the report. Just to make my case, the passage Wong reacted to (the MSB report will soon be available in an English translation), reads:
“The question about the origin of the virus and the disease is infected because there is an underlying accusation of guilt. Could anyone who might have known about the existence of the virus also have stopped its dissemination? Was the outbreak of the virus covered up? Was the virus created in a lab or by transmission from animal to human? Questions like these are of course reasonable to ask, but already early on they were connected to what is an attribute of conspiracy theories: to place blame on someone and point out scapegoats. … By calling COVID-19 ‘the China-virus’ a narrative was established in which China was made responsible for the pathogen, disease and in extension its dissemination. In the trail of imposing guilt, racist Sino/Asiaphobic stereotypes were expressed against people with Asian appearance across the globe.”
I then made a parallel to the famous claim made by former President Donald Trump and his followers that climate change is a “Chinese hoax to bring down the American economy” and that, in continuation of this line of thought, COVID-19 now is inserted into the narrative with the twist that it would benefit the Democrats in the 2020 election. I concluded that “in both conspiratorial narratives, scientific expertise is rejected.” Furthermore, I quoted an expert from Yale Medical School (Wong wrongly frames it as my opinion) stating that it is both incorrect and xenophobic to “attach locations or ethnicity to the disease.” I also mentioned that the spread of the virus was blamed on a cabal between the CCP and the Democrats.
Nowhere in the entire report is it ever claimed or even hinted at that it somehow would be wrong or illegitimate to investigate the origins of the virus as a lab leak. It is true that conspiracy theories typically use scapegoating as one of many rhetoric strategies, and that they are, by extension, threatening democracy for multiple reasons. But it is utterly wrong to suggest, as Wong does, that the report somehow alleges that it would be a threat to democracy to investigate the origins of the pandemic as a lab leak or that the report dismissed such claims as a conspiracy theory.
Wong writes: “But if you mention China, you risk being labeled as a racist or accused of spreading conspiracy theories. Why has the origin of the virus become such a contentious issue?” But anyway, “MSB’s message benefits the CCP” and its narrative “that the pandemic is a global problem” (well, isn’t it?) and “not a problem originating from China to which the world has the right to demand answers.”
Chinese Propaganda Machine
Wong identifies such deflection as an outcome of a cunning Chinese propaganda machine, quoting an article that remembers how the US was blamed for the origin of AIDS/HIV in the 1980s in a similar conspiracy mode. Well, had Wong turned a page of the MSB report, he would have found a passage with the heading “The US-virus,” which exactly explains that another conspiratorial narrative about the origin of the virus also exists. Consequently, it would have similarly been completely absurd to state that the report “serves the interests of the US” since it treats the narrative about the “US virus” as a typical conspiracy theory.
But such inconsistencies are of no interest to Wong. Instead, he now delves into the by now well-established “new evidence” (it was always suggested as a possibility) that he claims to have “disappeared from the global agenda” (did it really?) about the lab leak theory. The reason why the theory was suppressed, he argues, was because “The media’s aversion to Trump created a fear of association,” and “Because of the general derision for Trump, the established media chose to trust virologists such as [Dr. Peter] Daszak rather than investigating the laboratory hypothesis.”
Wong then extensively quotes from science journalist Nicholas Wade pushing for the explanation that “gain-of-function” experiments were carried out in Wuhan and that zoonotic transmission seems unlikely: “What Wade describes is not a conspiracy, but rather an accident for which no one has wanted to assume responsibility.” Wong is obsessed with responsibility and “the day of reckoning” that yet is to come, when China’s guilt finally will be revealed to the global audience. As much as he seems to long for this day when justice will prevail, he implores at the very end of his article to not “let sweeping allegations of conspiracy theories and racism undermine the work to trace the origins of the virus.”
Wong’s article left me puzzled in many ways, almost unimpressed. I did not state anything in my report that Wong purports I did, so it is difficult to understand why a journalist would find it worthwhile challenging the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency with an argument that has no basis whatsoever.
Lab Leak Whispers
Just two days later, Swedish public service radio P1 invited both myself a Wong to come on its morning program to address the question of “What are you allowed to say about the origin of COVID-19?” — stipulating that there is some sort of censorship around the subject. Wong was unable to produce any credible evidence that the CCP ever has called the lab leak theory a conspiracy. There might be, and I am interested to read more about this attribution and its rhetorical function; the Chinese embassy in Washington later used such terminology.
By then, the fringes of the Swedish radical right had already sniffed out the potential of the story, propelled by the tabloid Expressen, which in bold letters ran the story, “MSB dismisses the lab-leak entirely: follows the line of China.” The article reiterates Wong’s one, but manipulates the content of the MSB report further, alleging that accusations of racism and conspiracy theories stifle the investigation of the origins of COVID-19.
Radical-right agitator Christian Palme posted Wong’s article on one of Sweden’s Facebook pages for academics, Universitetsläckan, which kicked off a wave of conspiratorial debate. Per Gudmundsson, of the right-wing online news outlet Bulletin, stated in an op-ed that the MSB report made him suspicious. Hailing Hunter S. Thompson’s paranoid style of reporting, Gudmundsson alleges that the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency wants to pacify the people with calming messages. He ridiculed attempts to discuss what is reasonable to do when planning interventions and designing counternarratives to toxic disinformation that can act as drivers of radicalization while at the same time exercating Islamist extremism, without any interest in countering it.
Finally, the gross simplifications of Wong’s article had reached the outer orbits of the alternative radical-right media in Sweden, Fria Tider and Samnytt. Fria Tider referenced the controversial Swedish virologist Fredrik Elgh, stating that it is “senseless” that MSB had dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory (it did not). Samnytt, in turn, amplified the Chinese whispers started in Kvartal to a completely new level. In its own version of reality, the MSB report was allegedly released in order to prevent any investigation of China (not true). Under the heading “Prohibited to ask questions,” Samnytt states: “the message of the report is that it is not allowed to ask questions about the origin of the virus” (also not true).
Moreover, referring to and quoting Gudmundsson’s article on Bulletin, it goes on to state that “instead of questioning the established truths, the report recommends ‘to be in the present and to plant a tree’” — right quote but wrong context — “or to use other methods to calm your thoughts.” The author of the article is Egor Putilov, a pseudonym of a prolific character in the Swedish radical-right alternative media.
And now back to Mikael. Curious to drag out trolls from under their stones (they might explode in daylight), I answered the first email he sent to me; he replied. Mikael characterized himself as a disabled pensioner (Asperger’s) living in a Swedish suburb among “ISIS-fans, clans, psychopath-criminals and addicts etc. which you most likely have taken part in to create/import.” He asserted to have insights about what is happening behind the scenes related to COVID-19 and that the recent reemergence of the lab leak theory only demonstrated his superiority in analyzing world matters: “If I think something controversial, the rest of Sweden frequently thinks the same twenty years later.”
He recommended I look for knowledge outside the small circle of disinformed and obedient yes-people within the “system.” I must admit that Mikael’s email was one of the friendlier online abuses I have experienced. On the same day, I also received a message from “Sten” titled “C*ck” and containing a short yet threatening line, “beware of conspiracy theories and viruses… .”
What If the Scientists Were Wrong?
As historian and political analyst Thomas Frank eloquently has pointed out, we should expect a political earthquake if a lab leak is indeed confirmed. Frank claims that what is under attack is science itself. Science, we were told, held the answers on how to combat the pandemic. Experts in public health provided scientific evidence for political countermeasures, despised by those who routinely reject science or feel that their liberties have been infringed upon.
If it is proven that “science has failed the global population,” either by accident, by gain-of-function research getting out of control or, worse, by deliberately creating a bioweapon, both scientists and those who rely on their expertise will come under attack and their authority will be seriously undermined, with unpredictable consequences. Why would people have reasons to believe that climate change is real, that 5G technology is harmless or that cancer might be cured with rDNA treatment? Frank posits that what is at stake is a liberal “sort of cult” of science that was developed against the “fool Trump.” Should it turn out that scientists and experts were wrong, “we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.”
Frank and others, such as Wade and his Swedish apologist Wong, allege that it somehow was the media’s fault to cement the lab leak origin as a crazy conspiracy theory just because it was peddled by a president who made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims while in office. When the “common people of the world” find out that they might “have been forced into a real-life lab experiment,” a moral earthquake will be on its way since they will come to the ultimate realization “that here is no such thing as absolute expertise.”
In the end, this will imply that populism was right all along about the existence of an existential dualism between “the people” and the well-to-do, well-educated ruling “elite” minority that creates and manages an eternal cycle of disasters affecting the majority. I tend to agree: This dualism is in fact a strong driver of populist mobilization and one that reoccurs in most conspiracy theories: we, the suffering people, the victims, against them, the plotting elite, the perpetrators.
But I would like to add to Frank’s conclusions, that the (social) media outlets as much as the radical-right propagandists were immediately able to smell out the potential of the lab leak as a typical frame by which “the people” like Mikael, Sten, Martin and Per (more and more of them — all male — have started contacting me directly) could be pitched against “fake science,” government agencies and politicians.
I would say that this, in fact, is the real purpose. In reality, the radical right does not care one bit about the origins of the virus but has discovered a perfect trope with which public distrust in authority can be deepened further. This is the reason why Wong needed to unleash an unsubstantiated attack against the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. He, as much as Gudmundsson, despises any attempt to provide citizens with tools to decode disinformation and conspiracy theories as to allow informed members of society to judge the accuracy of various claims beyond populist apocalypticism. If media literacy and the ability to detect conspiratorial messages increase, sensationalist media outlets will lose their power.
One of the three key elements of populism as defined by Benjamin Moffit is a permanent invocation of crisis, breakdown or threat. If this perpetuum mobile is disrupted, the source of populist power is dismantled, which is why Wong and others have to target the firefighters, and why Gudmundsson doesn’t want to hear about how to counter radicalization. The eternal flame of catastrophe is the campfire of populist socialization. Right now, the lab leak theory is a giant burning log providing heat for all these gratifying marshmallows to be grilled and fed to “the people.”
But there might also be other reasons. By pushing the lab leak hypothesis, the radical right makes the case that “Trump was right” about the “China virus” and, if so, he might also be right about the “stolen” election and all other 29,998 lies uttered during his presidency. Moreover, it was the liberal mainstream media’s fault that the lab leak was “buried” (which it never was) because they are all agents of Chinese disinformation (and communism, as we all know, is the great evil of the 20th century), classical guilt by association. So, in the bigger picture, the lab leak is needed as proof of the infallibility of the great leader in his quest to “drain the swamp.” QAnon will celebrate on the ruins of Capitol Hill.
However, what worries me most is that the lab leak theory is used by the radical right as an attempt to minimize the danger of anti-Asian racism or any other racist attribution and abuse in case of earlier or later crises and catastrophes. Somehow, not only will science be proven wrong and the great leader right, but racism will be defended as a rational and normal reaction to pandemics. Wait, didn’t the Jews poison our wells at one point?
Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Professor in Intellectual History at the University of Erfurt, Germany. See full profile here.
© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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