The American far right and members of the Chinese diaspora tapped into social media to give a Hong Kong researcher a vast audience for peddling unsubstantiated pandemic claims.
Dr. Li-Meng Yan wanted to remain anonymous. It was mid-January, and Dr. Yan, a researcher in Hong Kong, had been hearing rumors about a dangerous new virus in mainland China that the government was playing down. Terrified for her personal safety and career, she reached out to her favorite Chinese YouTube host, known for criticizing the Chinese government.
Within days, the host was telling his 100,000 followers that the coronavirus had been deliberately released by the Chinese Communist Party. He wouldn’t name the whistle-blower, he said, because officials could make the person “disappear.”
By September, Dr. Yan had abandoned caution. She appeared in the United States on Fox News making the unsubstantiated claim to millions that the coronavirus was a bio-weapon manufactured by China.
Overnight, Dr. Yan became a right-wing media sensation, with top advisers to President Trump and conservative pundits hailing her as a hero. Nearly as quickly, her interview was labeled on social media as containing “false information,” while scientists rejected her research as a polemic dressed up in jargon.
Her evolution was the product of 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.ImageDr. Li-Meng Yan’s interview on Tucker Carlson’s show in September racked up at least 8.8 million views online. Facebook and Instagram flagged it as false information.Credit…Fox News
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 sentimentand 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.
An overwhelming body of evidence shows that the virus almost certainly originated in an animal, most likely a bat, before evolving to make the leap into humans. While U.S. intelligence agencies have not ruled out the possibility of a lab leak, they have not found any proof so far to back up that theory.
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.
“I said from Day 1, there’s no conspiracies,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview. “But there are also no coincidences.”
Mr. Bannon noted that unlike Dr. Yan, he did not believe the Chinese government “purposely did this.” But he has pushed the theory about an accidental leak of risky laboratory research and has been intent on creating a debate about the new coronavirus’s origins.
“Dr. Yan is one small voice, but at least she’s a voice,” he said.
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.
Wang Dinggang, the YouTube host contacted by Dr. Yan and a close associate of Mr. Guo, appears to have been the first to seed rumors related to Hunter Biden, a son of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. A site owned by Mr. Guo amplified the baseless claims about Hunter Biden’s involvement in a child abuse conspiracy. They were picked up by Infowars and other fringe American outlets. Mr. Bannon, Mr. Wang and Mr. Guo are now all promoting the false idea that the presidential election was rigged.
Big technology companies have started to push back, as Facebook and Twitter try to better police content. Twitter permanently banned one of Mr. Bannon’s accounts for violating its rules on glorifying violence after he suggested on his podcast that the heads of the F.B.I. director and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, should be put on pikes.
But such mainstream notoriety has only bolstered their anti-establishment credentials. Mr. Wang’s YouTube following has nearly doubled since January. Traffic for two of Mr. Guo’s websites soared to more than 135 million last month, up from fewer than five million visits last December, according to SimilarWeb, an online data provider. Many conservatives who claim Facebook and Twitter censor right-wing voices are also flocking to new social media platforms such as Parler — and Dr. Yan, Mr. Wang and Mr. Guo have already joined them.
Dr. Yan, through representatives for Mr. Bannon and Mr. Guo, declined multiple requests for an interview. So did Mr. Wang, citing The New York Times’s “reputation for fake news.”
In a statement sent through a lawyer, Mr. Guo said he had only offered “encouragement” for Dr. Yan’s efforts “to stand up against the C.C.P. mafia and tell the world the truth about Covid-19.”
“I would gladly assist others seeking to tell the world the truth,” he said.
As the new year began, Mr. Wang was doing what he did best: attacking the Chinese Communist Party on YouTube. He railed against China’s crackdown on Muslims and pontificated on the U.S. trade war.
Then on Jan. 19, he suddenly shifted to the emerging outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. It was early in the crisis, before the lockdown in the city, before China had disclosed that the virus was spreading among humans, before the world was paying attention.
In an 80-minute show devoted to an unnamed whistle-blower, Mr. Wang said that he had heard from “the world’s absolute top coronavirus expert,” who had told him China was not being transparent. “I think this is very believable, and very scary,” he said.
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