The modern era is increasingly defined by a pandemic of conspiracy and misinformation. It is unsurprising that this misinformation coincides with a literal pandemic, when so little is still known about an evolving killer virus with mutating variants, and when humanity doesn’t know the full story of Covid-19’s origin. In this highly volatile environment, various narratives have emerged surrounding the pandemic, with terms like “lab leak,” “gain-of-function,” and even “bioweapon” entering the lexicon as related to Covid-19.
These terms have specific meanings, and not all of them necessarily suggest conspiratorial thinking. For example, “gain-of-function” is a widely recognized term among medical researchers relating to the creation of novel genotypes and arrangements of nucleic acids in scientific research – and has received increased attention as of late via allegations that Covid-19 may have been genetically engineered. The National Institutes of Health provide this context for understanding gain-of-function:
“The term gain-of-function (GOF) research describes a type of research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent. Some scientists use the term broadly to refer to any such modification. However, not all research described as GOF entails the same level of risk. For example, research that involves the modification of bacteria to allow production of human insulin, or the altering of the genetic program of immune cells in CAR-T cell therapy to treat cancer generally would be considered low risk. The subset of GOF research that is anticipated to enhance the transmissibility and/or virulence of potential pandemic pathogens, which are likely to make them more dangerous to humans, has been the subject of substantial scrutiny and deliberation. Such GOF approaches can sometimes be justified in laboratories with appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls to help us understand the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, assess the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, and inform public health and preparedness efforts, including surveillance and the development of vaccines and medical countermeasures. This research poses biosafety and biosecurity risks, and these risks must be carefully managed. When supported with NIH funds, this subset of GOF research may only be conducted in laboratories with stringent oversight and appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls to help protect researchers from infection and prevent the release of microorganisms into the environment.”
It is with virus-related research that “gain-of-function” becomes more salient to recent political discourse, pertaining to the exchange between Republican Senator Rand Paul and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s Anthony Fauci, in which Paul implied that the U.S. government-funded gain-of-function research through the National Institutes of Health and a federal grant to EcoHealth Alliance (a U.S.-based non-profit health research organization), funneled through the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). As Paul clearly insinuated in a tense back-and-forth with Fauci in July of this year before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, this research allegedly led to the creation of Covid-19 as a “gain-of-function” genetically modified experiment, which he implied was then somehow released from WIV into the world. The response from Fauci was swift, as he summarized of the WIV-related research funded by the U.S.: “If you look at the viruses, judged by qualified virologists and evolutionary biologists, that were used in the experiments that were given in the annual reports that were published in the literature, it is molecularly impossible to result in Sars-Covid-2.”
In its assessment of the Fauci-Paul altercation, The Washington Post’s fact-checkers reflected that the question of whether the U.S. funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan “depends on the definition of gain-of-function,” which it claimed is “open to dispute” when the term in question is “subject to different [scientific] definitions.” Setting this matter aside, the paper reported, and “based on what has been disclosed publicly by WIV, none of the virus samples used in the experiments” discussed by Paul and Fauci “were or could have been transformed to be the new coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19.” The Post reported a statement from Robert Kessler of EcoHealth Alliance summarizing its work funding the research in Wuhan in question, stating: “The NIH has not funded gain-of-function work…EcoHealth Alliance was funded by the NIH to conduct study of coronavirus diversity in China. From that award, we subcontracted work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology to help with sampling and lab capacity.” Speaking specifically of the paper that Fauci and Paul fought over related to EcoHealth Alliance virology grant funding and research at WIV, Kessler stated: “all but two of the viruses cultured in the lab failed to even replicate. None of them had been manipulated in order to increase their ability to spread, all the researchers did was insert S [spike] proteins in order to gauge their ability to infect human cells. Much of that work [described in the grant] wasn’t done because the grant was suspended. But GoF was never the goal here…[since] gain of function research is the specific process of altering human viruses in order to increase their ability (the titular gain of function) to spread amongst populations, to infect people, or to cause more severe illness.”
Independent of whether what the U.S. did in China technically qualifies as “gain-of-function,” the central question here is how it relates to the Covid-bioweapon conspiracy theory. While Rand Paul and other conspiracy theorists imply that Covid-19 was designed as a bioweapon, they present no tangible or compelling evidence that the federal government knowingly (or unknowingly) funded research in Wuhan that resulted in the creation of the Covid-19 virus, resulting in its release and the deaths of millions of people across the world. Paul openly admitted this in his interaction with Fauci, but then gaslights his would-be critics by insisting that he’s not making this claim, but simply asking questions about whether gain-of-function research was tied to producing Covid-19, as he threatens a criminal probe against Fauci for “lying to Congress” about what happened in Wuhan.
For the record, the conclusion of the overwhelming majority of scientific experts is that there is no evidence that Covid-19 was designed by humans (for reputable reporting on this, see here, and here, and here, and here, and here). The claim that governments, including the U.S. or China, knowingly engaged in the premeditated development of a killer virus to murder millions benefits from precisely zero evidence to date. And U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded there is no evidence Covid-19 was created as a bioweapon. Knowing that this burden of proof hasn’t been met, the typical response from conspiracy theorists is to insist that they’re “simply asking questions,” despite the baselessness of their claims. But the “just asking questions” defense has become so cliched at this point that it’s the subject of pop culture lampooning by critics lamenting it as way of offering up wild speculation while avoiding responsibility for engaging in said speculation.
Still, one need not be a conspiracy theorist to ask questions about the origin of Covid-19 and whether it escaped from WIV or has another point of origin. More than a dozen prominent scientists “with relevant expertise” in the study of virology argued in a letter published in the journal Science in May of this year that “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover [animal to human] both remain viable” in investigating Covid-19’s origin. And there is serious concern about “gain-of-function” research in terms of the possibility that deadly pathogens could potentially escape accidentally from controlled lab settings, as recent reporting from The Washington Post points to accounts from scientists working in this area who worry that the process through which this research occurs is not transparent enough, that there is not nearly enough oversight, and that this research is inherently risky in terms of the potential for catastrophic lab accidents and leaks.
Outside the above concerns, there is a growing body of evidence that questions whether Covid-19 had anything to do with a lab at all. Recent reporting suggests that Covid-19 cases were seemingly identified as early as September to November 2019 in Italy, which significantly complicates conventional claims about a Wuhan origin in November to December of 2019. Other research, for example one 2021 paper by 21 virologists published in the journal Cell, argues that “there is currently no evidence that SARS-Cov-2 has a laboratory origin,” a point that has been reinforced in reporting from The Los Angeles Times establishing that “recent scientific papers give more credence to ‘zoonotic’ origin of the virus – that is that it spread to humans from animal hosts, not through artificial means” such as a lab leak.
Reasonable minds may disagree regarding claims about an accidental lab leak versus the natural origin thesis, even as scientists gravitate toward the latter. These discussions aside, it’s disturbing that large numbers of Americans since the beginning of the pandemic have held the baseless and conspiratorial opinion that Covid-19 was genetically engineered as a bioweapon. As the Pew Research Center documented in April of 2020, 43 percent of Americans said Covid-19 “came about naturally,” compared to 23 percent who said it was “developed intentionally in a lab,” and 7 percent who believed it was “made accidentally in a lab.” Similarly, a September Ipsos-American Perspectives Survey found that 22 percent of Americans agreed, “based on what you have read or heard,” that “Covid-19 was intentionally planned by China as part of a biological weapons program.” Another 28 percent said they were “not sure” about the China bioweapons allegation, meaning that an incredible 50 percent of Americans either accepted or were susceptible to the conspiracy.
What is the source of this misinformation and confusion? Digging deeper into the matter, I examined the raw data from the September Ipsos survey to identify what factors were significant statistical predictors of support for the Covid-bioweapon conspiracy. Included in the survey were demographic factors, such as respondents’ partisan identification (Republican, Democratic, independent), ideology (conservative, moderate, liberal), age, race, education level, income, and gender; media consumption habits, including various venues that Americans “trust” and rely on for their “political” and “election news,” including mass media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and broadcast media (ABC, NBC, and CBS); right-wing media venues, including the Rush Limbaugh radio show, Infowars, Breitbart News, and One America News Network (OANN); reliance on “social media sites,” including “Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat”; and various attitudes, including:
* Agreement that “You can learn more about what is going on in the world by ignoring the mainstream news and doing your own research.”
* The belief that “major news organizations withhold information that is relevant to public health or public welfare.”
Utilizing statistical “regression” analysis, I analyze the predictive power of each of these factors in accounting for the likelihood that respondents agreed that Covid-19 was designed as a Chinese bioweapon, while statistically accounting (“controlling”) for all the other factors included in my analysis. This is a fancy way of saying that I hold all variables constant at their average values, while examining the predictive power of each individual factor in accounting for peoples’ beliefs about the bioweapon conspiracy.
Considering the discussion at the beginning of this piece about the role of the mass media – particularly The Washington Post – in undermining claims that the U.S. was responsible for “weaponizing” Covid-19 via “gain-of-function” research in Wuhan, we should expect that consumption of traditional professional news venues is associated with rejection of the bioweapon conspiracy. This is exactly what I find. Consumption of broadcast media, NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal are all associated with rejecting the bioweapon conspiracy, controlling for all the other factors included in my analysis. Other factors, however, are associated with Americans being more likely to support the conspiracy, including partisanship (being Republican), age (being older), rightwing media consumption (consuming Fox News and Infowars), and distrust of the mass media, via the view that one can “learn more” about “the world” through doing one’s “own research” outside of the “mainstream media,” and the belief that “major news” organizations are withholding information important to the public health.
These findings are important on numerous fronts. The point about doing one’s “own research” should be of no surprise to those familiar with the study of conspiracy theories. This is a common rhetorical refrain from conspiracy theorists, as they seek to build support for their claims, contrary to the “lies” pushed by the mass media. The Fox News and Infowars findings are also to be expected based upon Fox’s history of indulging in the Chinese lab-bioweapon conspiracy (for examples, see here, and here, and here, and here), and Infowars’ notorious history of being a conspiracy venue, including its trafficking in claims that Covid-19 was created as a bioweapon, and that the Covid-19 vaccines are themselves a bioweapon.
Outside of these right-wing venues, the bioweapon conspiracy has received attention on social media venues, and to some extent in alternative-left media (see here and here). But there is little evidence, perhaps surprisingly, that social media are used as primary venues for promoting the bioweapon claim. As my Ipsos analysis shows, reliance on social media venues for one’s political news is not associated with a greater likelihood of accepting the conspiracy. Nor are specific subgroups significantly more likely to accept the conspiracy, including Republicans who rely on social media for their political news.
In contrast to social media use, partisanship matters in predicting conspiracy support. Republicans are significantly more likely to embrace the bioweapon conspiracy than other Americans. This point overlaps with the reality that party leaders traffic in bioweapon conspiracy propaganda and ancillary claims. This includes not only Trump’s claim that he believes Covid-19 could have been leaked from a lab (which could by itself be compatible with an accidental leak), but his administration’s “embarrassing” attempt to use the U.S. State Department to accuse China of violating the international Biological Weapons Convention by “having deliberately engineered the coronavirus,” without presenting any evidence for this position. And of course, Rand Paul and other Republicans’ embrace of gain-of-function-bioweapons claims (see here, and here, and here) means that the party has been repeatedly associated with the conspiracy, opening up the party’s rank-and-file to increased susceptibility.
Some important lessons come out of this case study in relation to the rise of Covid-19 misinformation in America. For one, the bioweapon conspiracy has clear political propaganda value for the American right and the GOP via the effort to demonize China and mobilize the public in a reactionary direction, and direct attention away from the party’s own refusal to recognize the dire seriousness of the Covid crisis unfolding in Republican states. Second, the bioweapon conspiracy serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of a poisonous misinformation environment characterized by the embrace of dubious rightwing “alternative” and mass media sources that traffic in hateful and baseless conspiratorial information. As my national statistical analysis demonstrates, this theory is primarily associated with the Republican Party, Fox News, and the infamous Infowars and its reactionary conspiracy host Alex Jones. This is the company one keeps when they indulge in baseless claims about secret Chinese scheming to develop a bioweapon to kill millions, divorced from any evidential foundation, and reinforcing the rightwing Republicans’ xenophobic political agenda.
In an era of mass distrust of government and the news media, many Americans struggle to decipher fact from fiction, particularly when politicians and journalists are widely attacked for trafficking in propaganda and biased messaging. Rightwing pundits at Fox News claim to oppose the “lamestream” media and its corruption, while alternative venues like Infowars promise to give you the “truths” that the mass media will not tell. But these snake oil salesmen and their allies in the Republican Party have appropriated the rhetoric of faux dissent, in the case of the Covid-bioweapon conspiracy and countless other baseless rightwing conspiracies, to push reactionary disinformation. Disinformation – as in false information that is intended to deceive. This conclusion is hard to avoid with unsavory figures like Rand Paul, who admits in one breath that he has no evidence that Fauci and the U.S. government engineered Covid-19 and insists that he is not making this claim, and in the next sentence implies that they funded research that is responsible for the deaths of millions via the creation of Covid-19 as a bioweapon at Wuhan that was later unleashed upon the world.
More than 30 years ago, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote about government efforts to “manufacture” the “consent” of the mass public. Today, officials seek to manufacture dissent to stoke mass distrust of government, in the process fostering mass cynicism – and thereby stifling public expectations that government should be pressured to serve the public and the common good. Stoking faux dissent, it turns out, helps to reinforce plutocratic politics, because it relieves potential pressure on officials to represent the public interest. If the government is so corrupt that it would manufacture a mass pandemic and murder millions of people throughout the world and more than 600,000 of its own citizens, then surely there is little that can be done to pressure an institution so tyrannical when it comes to representing the wants and needs of the masses.
With the rise of the age of conspiracies, we see the poisoning of the public mind by way of the fostering of a mass commitment to fantastical, but ultimately nonsensical thinking. As Americans’ minds are turned to mush, the masses struggle to discern the difference between fact and fiction, imagination and reality, and actual arguments that draw on evidence from wild and baseless speculation. The embrace of these conspiracies speaks to the death of not only intellectualism but prospects for democratic empowerment. To quote James Madison, “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
September Ipsos-American Perspectives Survey
% of Americans saying it is “Completely” or “Mostly Accurate” that “Covid-19 was intentionally planned by China as part of a biological weapons program.”
Broadcast media consumers (ABC/NBC/CBS): 17%
All other respondents: 49%
NPR consumers: 10%
All other respondents: 48%
Washington Post consumers: 14%
All other respondents: 49%
New York Times consumers: 15%
All other respondents: 50%
MSNBC consumers: 15%
All other respondents: 43%
CNN consumers: 13%
All other respondents: 48%
Wall Street Journal consumers: 21%
All other respondents: 46%
USA Today consumers: 17%
All other respondents: 45%
Fox News consumers: 54%
All other respondents: 16%
Infowars consumers: 63%
All other respondents: 25%
Social media users: 26%
All other respondents: 31%
Republican social media users: 44%
All other respondents: 26%
All other respondents: 14%
Older Americans (50+): 32%
All other respondents (49 and younger): 24%
Agree one should ignore MSM and do “your own research”: 38%
All other respondents: 13%
Agree MSM “withhold information” that’s “relevant to public health”: 35%
All other respondents: 11%