The Virus Came From A Chinese Lab? Headlines and Pre-pubs, Oh My! Documenting The News Literacy Process

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

By Nolan Higdon

It was just another day in 2020: COVID-19 continued ravaging communities; we were still on lockdown; police and protesters were clashing in cities across the US; and the air quality from wildfires made stepping outside of my California residence an experience that included tasting metal and choking. As I stared at the dusting of ash on the windowsill, my biologist friend asked, “What are your feelings on The New York Post?”

“It is a right-wing rag that occasionally stumbles into journalism,” I replied. I incorrectly assumed this would lead to a conversation about news ownership and ideology. However, she quickly exclaimed, “Oh! They are reporting that “Chinese virologist posts report claiming COVID-19 was made in Wuhan lab.”

My non-existent scientific training left me poorly positioned to respond with a substantive comment. So I remained silent. I am uncomfortable offering an opinion about something that I have not researched. From my perspective, I am not a scientist, so that means I do not lecture about illnesses, lab work, medicines, or vaccines. That would be as ignorant as someone coming into my classroom with no experience in educational research, let alone holding a job as an educator, and telling me how I should run a classroom. Sigh.

That said, the headline she shared left me thinking about a conversation we had months earlier about this very same claim. At the time, my biologist friend told me that there was no known evidence that the COVID-19 virus was started in a Chinese lab. While I was recounting our previous dialogue, she had already navigated to the “paper” referenced in The New York Post article. She said, “It is a pre-pub.”

“What is a pre-pub?” I asked.

She explained that a pre-pub is academic jargon for an open-access repository where scientific scholars can submit a study before it undergoes peer review. Once it passes peer review, a process of ensuring rigor and reproducibility, it is considered acceptable science.

By submitting a paper to a pre-pub, the researchers, after the sometimes lengthy peer review process, can point back to their original submission as evidence that their lab was the first to complete the research. In the sciences, where funding is competitive, being first is crucial. If a lab is the first to publish breakthrough research, funding becomes easier to attain. However, until it undergoes peer review, such a  paper can be considered anything from interest to pure conjecture, but not sound science. Of course, it’s not only important to be first, it’s also important to be accurate.

She then blurted, “Wait! What is the Rule of Law Society & Rule of Law Foundation.” Apparently, the four authors of the pre-pub paper in question had received funding or some sort of support from the organizations – which turned out to be the same organization – evidenced by the fact that the authors listed “the Rule of Law Society & Rule of Law Foundation” in their paper. I quickly did an internet search, and saw a familiar face: Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman and conservative political activist behind Breitbart News. Now, I had something to add to the conversation. This was becoming a conversation about news ownership and ideology after all!

Bannon is a well-known right-wing propagandist who chaired the ultra-White nationalist Breitbart website (known for publishing false and misleading information) and masterminded then-candidate Donald Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric (at a time when the Republican Party had determined such rhetoric was election suicide). Bannon has recently been indicted on fraud charges for allegedly laundering money from Trump supporters who thought they were donating to construct a wall on the US/Mexican border.

His presence would make me skeptical of any publication, but so, too, did the rhetoric found on this other website. The Rule of Society and Law reports their vision statement thusly: “To permit the people of China to live under a national system based on the rule of law, independent of the political system of the People’s Republic of China (“China”).”

Similarly, their mission is “To expose corruption, obstruction, illegality, brutality, false imprisonment, excessive sentencing, harassment, and inhumanity pervasive in the political, legal, business and financial systems of China.” It should also be noted that in these endeavors, Bannon works closely with exiled Chinese billionaire and regime change activist Guo Wengui (in whose yacht Bannon was arrested for aforementioned fraud charges off the coast of Connecticut). In short, it seemed like an organization hell-bent on destroying China’s image as a means for destabilizing their government.

Did any of this background make the pre-pub research paper wrong or false? No. That remains to be seen. But it did demonstrate the recklessness of the New York Post headline. They reported without context on an unverified paper funded by an ideologically driven foundation whose opinions were conveniently further supported by the supposedly objective conclusions in the pre-pub report.

The Bannon’s and New York Posts of the world have been rightly chided for spreading false content. As I noted in my latest book, The Anatomy of Fake News, traditional and alternative news organizations, along with the US and many other governments, big tech companies such as those in Silicon Valley, and adherents to either liberal or conservative ideologies all create and disseminate fake news and propaganda to some degree.

As the case of the New York Post demonstrates, if we spend time investigating and analyzing the actual content of news stories rather than believing and sharing or dismissing and ignoring them based on headlines, we can come to a better understanding of said content and their producers’ intent. This is a fundamental process in becoming a more news-literate citizen, which in our current political climate is something we should all strive to become. Our future as a self-governing society depends on it.

Thanks to Project Censored director Mickey Huff for consultation and assistance on this article.

Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author and university lecturer of history and media studies. Higdon’s areas of concentration include youth culture, news media history, and critical media literacy. He sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) and Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. His most recent publications include United States of Distraction (co-author with Mickey Huff, City Lights, 2019) and The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education (University of California Press, 2020). 

He is co-host of the Along the Line podcast with “Dr. Dreadlocks” Nicholas Baham III, and a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. In addition, he has been a contributor to Truthout Counter-punch; and a guest commentator for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets.