Tracing the origins of US media’s disinformation campaign against China on COVID-19

By Qing Ming (People's Daily Online) 16:47, September 03, 2021

Graphic: People's Daily Online

For more than one and a half years into this pandemic, the US media have performed horribly in terms of informing a confused and devastated public, under whose eyes the nation has registered a harrowing 39 million cases and 643 thousand deaths and still surging. They have done an incredible job, though, in diverting the public’s ire away from the country’s inept politicians (and of course from media themselves) to China, which has spilled over to the entire Asian community.

Just type “China” plus “COVID-19” into the search boxes on any US-based news website, and the results will turn out to be unmistakably uniform. Not the kind of uniformity you wish would appear on issues like vaccine mandates, racial equality, or gun control. Rather, it’s a chorus of anti-China antagonism, taking the form of conspiracy theories, baseless accusations, and blatant biases.

The larger picture

The People’s Daily Online examined 966 pieces of news articles and videos clips regarding China and COVID-19 from five American mainstream news outlets – namely, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN – spanning from March 2020 to August 2021 and has found that, overall, nearly five-to-ten pieces (46.6%) have clung onto conspiracy theories, while 45.7% are inherently or explicitly biased, and less than one-in-ten pieces (7.7%) can be considered as objective reporting. (See Chart 1)

In manufacturing conspiracy theories, for example, that the SARS-CoV-2 was “leaked” from a Wuhan lab, that the coronavirus was “engineered” or “man-made,” that the virus was deployed as a “bioweapon”, etc., Fox News unsurprisingly leads the pack, with an astonishing 77.9% of its articles and video clips surveyed falling into the basket of conspiracy theories. Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal is right behind in second place with over half of its articles surveyed being mixed up with conspiracy theories.

The Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times, on the other hand, have poured more of their respective energies into biased reporting, a more subtle and oblique form of disinformation. Instead of solely focusing on lab leak theories, which they rejected vehemently during the Trump era to draw a clear line between themselves and those Trump-leaning outlets like Fox News, they have turned around to attack China’s COVID-19 response, belittle Chinese vaccines, meanwhile labeling China’s benevolent actions of providing vaccines and donating medical aid to low-income nations as nothing more than so-called vaccine diplomacy.

Zooming in on conspiracies

The frequency of media coverage on lab leak conspiracies, dating from March 2020 to August 2021, tends to fluctuate alongside major events involving those conspiracies, People’s Daily Online has found. After analyzing coverage of lab leak conspiracies by multiple media outlets – mainly American ones, excluding Chinese media outlets – it was found that news articles on lab leak conspiracies have peaked at several “pivotal moments.” (See Chart 2)

Former US President Donald Trump’s claim that he had access to “evidence” linking the coronavirus with a Chinese lab back in April 2020, engendered the first wave of conspiracy-based coverage. But at that time, many media outlets, apart from Fox News and other Republican-leaning media, were prone to dismiss those conspiracies: the New York Times once slammed Trump’s move to order spy agencies to initiate a probe on the lab leak theory, suggesting that the act could “distort” scientific assessments of coronavirus. In the meantime, CNN weighed in saying that the conspiracy that coronavirus was likely created in a lab, in which a Pew research poll conducted on April 2020 found almost 30% Americans believed, is “almost certainly not true.”

Then came Biden’s presidency, one that outsiders had falsely hoped would replace his predecessor’s science-defying approach. Instead, in Biden’s America, conspiracies have flared up again, much like America’s COVID-19 outbreak that has never been fully contained.

Despite the WHO report on the origins of COVID-19 having concluded that a lab leak is “unlikely,” many US news outlets haven’t been weaned off from their obsession with conspiracies as they continue to accuse China, without evidence, of obstructing WHO’s origin-tracing probe and putting pressure on the WHO. On May 23, the Wall Street Journal, quoting a farcical source, claimed that, in November 2019, three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell sick, and associated the “intelligence” they acquired with widely-debunked lab leak conspiracies. One week later, Joe Biden ordered the same spy agency Trump intended to order to ramp up efforts on origins probe, which has reignited a fresh and fierce wave of press coverage on conspiracies. Even after the report of that 90-day probe on COVID-19 origins came out with no conclusive results, the resurgence of lab leak conspiracies has shown no sign of abating.

Fox News, in particular, has run amok with disseminating conspiracy theories. As their peers in the WSJ are busy groping for “evidence” in piles of intelligence documents, Fox News’ producers and editors don’t even bother displaying “evidence”, they simply hired a whole bunch of political figures (Mike Pompeo, Tom Cotton, Rand Paul…you name it) and celebrities, which included their own TV personalities, including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Jesse Watters, and many others. Of the 87 video clips Fox News posted on its official YouTube channel regarding COVID-19’s origins, 52.9% clips involved incumbent or veteran politicians preaching the same old lab leak or bio-weapon conspiracy theories (See Chart 3); when politicians are absent, celebrity hosts come in to fill the void (44.8%); as for the remaining two clips in which at last there is a scientist (sort of) who is speaking in front of the camera, the rhetoric behind the lines has nothing to do with evidence-based science.

Fox News’ conspiracy-abundant news articles and YouTube clips, however, are merely the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface of its Sinophobia-driven propaganda, in which the lab leak conspiracy is a perfect excuse, is an avalanche of racist name-calling, scapegoating, and accusations concealed in its all-platform posts and 24/7 shows, the latter of which boasts the widest reach and greatest popularity in the US.

Other US media outlets like the Washington Post aren’t innocent from hyping up conspiracies either. Not only did the Post reverse course and “self-correct” its headline by saying Tom Cotton “keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy” into the US senator “keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory,” a departure from the journalism ethics of accuracy and evidence-driven reporting that it purports to value, the newspaper also “accidentally” quoted a mistranslated interview of Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist who led the WHO’s Wuhan mission on COVID-19 origins, and twisted it into a verdict that China had “pressured” WHO’s investigation into lab leak conspiracies.

A pedestrian wearing a face mask passes in front of Pfizer's World Headquarters in New York, United States, on Aug. 23, 2021. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Xinhua)

Hypocrisy behind vaccine coverage

Undoubtedly, the global pandemic has led to a time of great difficulty, sorrow, and frustration, but it also offers a rare showcase for different nations’ varied attitudes towards the lives of their own people, as well as their distinctive philosophies on how to address a global problem as members of a whole. As for the former, nothing is more convincing than statistics that are scrolling on headlines every day; for the latter, one needs to look no further than how do countries view vaccines—the most valuable “assets” during a pandemic.

Apparently, when it comes to Chinese vaccines and American ones, which don’t necessarily need to be developed by American companies, US media have two sets of standards, and they often take an unapologetically biased posture.

In spite of the fact that the US is the nation that has scrambled for vaccines (disproportionately compared with the rest of the world), withheld raw materials, hoarded and wasted millions of doses, only to fill its vacuum of responsibly months after China’s initiatives to make vaccines public goods, China has still been the country on the receiving end of the fiercest attacks and unreasonable defamations by US media.

Whenever the US media write something (anything) about Chinese vaccines, whether it’s China’s vaccination drive or China’s vaccine donations, they would, out of thin air, bring up data from a clinical trial somewhere to prove that Chinese vaccines are “substandard,” despite a host of trials saying otherwise and despite the WHO’s own expert team having validated that two Chinese vaccine brands (Sinopharm and Sinovac) are safe and effective.

With the rampant spread of the Delta variant, some US media seem to have found new gimmicks to besmirch Chinese vaccines, claiming they are impotent to shield people against the new variant, which leaves their hypocrisy and double standards completely unmasked.

“They Relied on Chinese Vaccines. Now They’re Battling Outbreaks,” read one New York Times article published on June 22, 2021. By juxtaposing Chinese vaccines and epidemic situations in Mongolia, the Seychelles, and Chile, the New York Times intended to convey a biased and even heinous message that China was to blame for the resurgence of cases in multiple countries, regardless of the vaccination rate and other factors such as the emergence of new variants.

Graphic/People's Daily Online

Unfortunately, it didn’t take very long for the New York Times and a mob of other biased American media to realize that the American vaccines they are so proud of and which purported to show American superiority are in reality not that effective against the Delta variant. Breakthrough cases, in which fully vaccinated persons later still got infected, have continued to plague the US, accompanied by over 100,000 cases for roughly a month and soaring hospitalization rates since August (to say nothing of the scenarios in the UK, Japan, and a host of countries who are using American vaccines).

“New data confirm Covid vaccines provide strong protection against hospitalization,” also read one article published by the New York Times on August 30, in a bid to soothe the public puzzled by the breakthrough cases, created another reason for them to join the bandwagon of anti-vaxxers. But where is all their broken logic when it comes to linking the resurgence with the potency of Made in America vaccines?

In a letter written to Joe Biden on August 19, leaders of 20 Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations urged the American president to redouble efforts to fight anti-Asian bias. They blame Biden for ordering a probe into the lab leak conspiracy, which has prompted a resurgence in anti-Asian bias and pointed to a chilling figure wherein over 9,000 hate incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate.

But if Biden’s decision to order the US intelligence community to track down COVID-19’s origins, which should be carried out by scientists, was just a trigger, then the avalanche of articles, videos, and TV shows surrounding conspiracy theories and the 24/7 broadcasting of biased information on China is the main force behind the anti-China disinformation campaign (and sometimes rippling out into the entire Asian community). Some American media should grasp the stark truth that, in their nonstop epidemic of disinformation against other nations, they are the initial originator and also the superspreader, whether they admit it or not. 

(Web editor: Meng Bin, Du Mingming)


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