Scientists said claims about China creating thecoronavirus were misleading. They went viral anyway
The spread of the unverified assertions by Chinese scholar Li-Meng Yan, widely dismissed as “flawed,” show how vulnerable scientific sites are to misuse and misunderstanding.
Virologist Li-Meng Yan's assertion that China created the coronavirus in a lab in Wuhan was quickly challenged by major scientific journals. (Jackie Molloy for The Washington Post)
Feb. 13, 2021 at 7:48 a.m. GMT+8
Scientists from Johns Hopkins, Columbia and other leading American universities moved with rare speed when a Chinese virologist, Li-Meng Yan, published an explosive paper in September claiming that China had created the deadly coronavirus in a research lab.
The paper, the American scientists concluded, was deeply flawed. And a new online journal from MIT Press — created specifically to vet claims related to SARS-CoV-2 — reported Yan’s claims were “at times baseless and are not supported by the data” 10 days after she posted them.
But in an age when anyone can publish anything online with a few clicks, this response was not fast enough to keep Yan’s disputed allegations from going viral, reaching an audience in the millions on social media and Fox News. It was a development, according to experts on misinformation, that underscored how systems built to advance scientific understanding can be used to spread politically charged claims dramatically at odds with scientific consensus.
Yan’s work, which was posted to the scientific research repository Zenodo without any review on Sept. 14, exploded on Twitter, YouTube and far-right websites with the help of such conservative influencers as Republican strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who repeatedly pushed it on his online show “War Room: Pandemic,” according to a report published Friday by Harvard researchers studying media manipulation. Yan expanded her claims, on Oct. 8, to blame the Chinese government explicitly for developing the coronavirus as a “bioweapon.”
Online research repositories have become key forums for revelation and debate about the pandemic. Built to advance science more nimbly, they have been at the forefront of reporting discoveries about masks, vaccines, new coronavirus variants and more. But the sites lack protections inherent to the traditional — and much slower — world of peer-reviewed scientific journals, where articles are published only after they have been critiqued by other scientists. Research shows papers posted to online sites also can be hijacked to fuel conspiracy theories.
Yan’s paper on Zenodo — despite several blistering scientific critiques and widespread news coverage of its alleged flaws — now has been viewed more than 1 million times, probably making it the most widely read research on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Harvard misinformation researchers. They concluded that online scientific sites are vulnerable to what they called “cloaked science,” efforts to give dubious work “the veneer of scientific legitimacy.”
“They’re many years behind in realizing the capacity of this platform to be abused,” said Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which produced the report. “At this point, everything open will be exploited.”
Yan, who previously was a postdoctoral fellow at Hong Kong University but fled to the United States in April, agreed in an interview with The Washington Post that online scientific sites are vulnerable to abuse, but she rejected the argument that her story is a case study in this problem.
Rather, Yan said, she is a dissident trying to warn the world about what she says is China’s role in creating the coronavirus. She used Zenodo, with its ability to instantly publish information without restrictions, because she feared the Chinese government would obstruct publication of her work. Her academic critics, she argued, will be proven wrong.
“None of them can rebut from real, solid, scientific evidence,” Yan said. “They can only attack me.”
Zenodo acknowledged that the furor has prompted reforms, including the posting of a label Thursday above Yan’s paper saying, “Caution: Potentially Misleading Contents” after The Washington Post asked whether Zenodo would remove it. The site also prominently features links to critiques from a Georgetown University virologist and the MIT Press.
“We take misinformation really seriously, so it is something that we want to address,” said Anais Rassat, a spokeswoman for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which operates Zenodoas a general purpose scientific site. “We don’t think taking down the report is the best solution. We want it to stay and indicate why experts think it’s wrong.”
But mainstream researchers who watched Yan’s claims race across the Internet far more quickly than they could counter them have been left troubled by the experience — newly convinced that the capacity for spreading misinformation goes far beyond the big-name social media sites. Any online platform without robust and potentially expensive safeguards is equally vulnerable.
“This is similar to the debate we’re having with Facebook and Twitter. To what degree are we creating an instrument that speeds disinformation, and to what extent are you contributing to that?” said Stefano M. Bertozzi, editor in chief of the MIT Press online journal “Rapid Reviews: COVID-19,” which challenged Yan’s claims.
Bertozzi added, “Most scientists have no interest in getting in a pissing match in cyberspace.”