the national interest

How Twitter Cultivated the Media’s Lab-Leak Fiasco

Photo: Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Get

Yesterday, the Biden administration promised to redouble its efforts to investigate the origin of COVID-19, which many leading scientists believe may well have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Democrats in Congress are also proposing an investigation.

I don’t know if this hypothesis will ever be proven. I don’t care, and I’ve never cared. There’s no important policy question riding on the answer, nor would confirming the thesis in any way vindicate former president Trump’s horrific mismanagement of the pandemic.

What the episode does reveal is the vulnerabilities in the mainstream- and liberal-media ecosystem. Media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis was a debacle, and a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter.

The basic factual contours of this episode are pretty simple. There has never been a clear expert consensus on the virus’s origins. There were a handful of scientists with unusually robust social-media profiles expressing strong views:

But if you actually dug into the quotes that experts were giving reporters, many of them were fairly restrained, indicating that they leaned toward the hypothesis that the virus emerged through natural contact.

While some journalists took the question seriously, many of them bluntly conflated the lab-leak hypothesis with different claims made by Trump and his allies: that the virus was originally created as a biological weapon, or even that China intentionally started the pandemic. Story after story depicted the lab-leak hypothesis as clearly false and even racist.

The outlets that fared worst were those like the Guardian, Slate, and Vox (which is owned by the same company that owns New York Media), which embraced a “moral clarity” ethos of forgoing traditional journalistic norms of restraint and objectivity in favor of calling out lies and bigotry.

In recent days, as the scientific groundswell behind the lab-leak hypothesis has grown louder, it has been possible to watch the objections form on Twitter, where the motivated reasoning is often undisguised.

Some progressive journalists insisted that since the lab-leak theory was favored by some people who also endorsed different conspiracy theories, it was itself inherently tainted by racism:

Photo: Screenshot via Twitter

To other progressives, the fact that Tom Cotton had endorsed the lab-leak theory inherently proved its falsity:

Watching this response unfold helps explain the mentality that produced the original failure. Progressive advocates will take strong positions on a factual question, such as whether COVID-19 originated inside or outside a laboratory, based entirely on how they believe political actors will use the answer.

The problem isn’t that they’re wrong; anybody can make an analytical error. It’s that they’re not even trying to be right.

Not only will they reject a factual possibility that might flatter their political opponents, but they will assume anybody who takes a different view must also hold political motivations. Since many advocates of lab-leak theory also endorse racist beliefs, anybody who believes it might be true shares in their guilt. What’s completely absent from their thinking is any notion that the truth of the question could be abstracted from motive.

Not everybody who dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis as a debunked crank obsession was this indifferent to the facts of the case. Far from it. The problem is that the people with the strongest views had the weakest interest in the truth. An asymmetry of passion between their insistence that the lab-leak hypothesis was false and racist and the weaker feelings of others — who, at most, believed the hypothesis was only possibly true — created a stampede toward the most extreme denial.

Social media wasn’t the only reason the media botched this story. The question arose in an atmosphere of uncertainty, compounded by China’s lack of transparency and Trump’s long record of pathological lying.

But Twitter is the milieu in which the opinions of elite reporters take shape. And very often it is a petri dish of tribalism and confirmation bias. This dynamic is why conservative media is virtually devoid of serious journalism and overrun with propaganda. The idiotic conformity of the right’s pseudo-journalistic apparatus should inspire horror, not complacency or (worse still) envy. If progressive and mainstream media wish to avoid following this path, the lab-leak fiasco should be a case study.

How Twitter Cultivated the Media’s Lab-Leak Fiasco