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How Powerful Forces Collaborated to Peddle Misinformation about the Origins of the Coronavirus

There’s “an overwhelming body of evidence” for scientists’ belief that the coronavirus originated in an animal before making the leap to humans, reports the New York Times. (Alternate URL here.) They add that U.S. intelligence agencies also “have not found any proof” for a fringe theory it somehow leaked from a lab.

Yet as recently as September, a Hong Kong researcher was appearing on Fox News “making the unsubstantiated claim to millions that the coronavirus was a bio-weapon manufactured by China.” The Times traces it to “a collaboration between two separate but increasingly allied groups that peddle misinformation: a small but active corner of the Chinese diaspora and the highly influential far right in the United States.”

Each saw an opportunity in the pandemic to push its agenda. For the diaspora, Dr. Yan and her unfounded claims provided a cudgel for those intent on bringing down China’s government. For American conservatives, they played to rising anti-Chinese sentiment and distracted from the Trump administration’s bungled handling of the outbreak.

Both sides took advantage of the dearth of information coming out of China, where the government has refused to share samples of the virus and has resisted a transparent, independent investigation. Its initial cover-up of the outbreak has further fueled suspicion about the origins of the virus… Dr. Yan’s trajectory was carefully crafted by Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese billionaire, and Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to Mr. Trump. They put Dr. Yan on a plane to the United States, gave her a place to stay, coached her on media appearances and helped her secure interviews with popular conservative television hosts like Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, who have shows on Fox. They nurtured her seemingly deep belief that the virus was genetically engineered, uncritically embracing what she provided as proof…

The media outlets that cater to the Chinese diaspora — a jumble of independent websites, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts with anti-Beijing leanings — have formed a fast-growing echo chamber for misinformation. With few reliable Chinese-language news sources to fact-check them, rumors can quickly harden into a distorted reality. Increasingly, they are feeding and being fed by far-right American media…

The Chinese government often punishes critics by harassing their families. But when The Times reached Dr. Yan’s mother on her cellphone in October, she said that she had never been arrested and was desperate to connect with her daughter, whom she had not spoken to in months. She declined to say more and asked not to be named, citing fears that Dr. Yan was being manipulated by her new allies. “They are blocking our daughter from talking to us,” her mother said, referring to Mr. Guo and Mr. Wang.

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