‘Chinese bioweapon’: News channels revive Covid conspiracy theories to protect Modi

Why question the government on its failures when you can use convenient narratives instead?

‘Chinese bioweapon’: News channels revive Covid conspiracy theories to protect Modi
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Last year’s “Covid is a Chinese bioweapon created in a Wuhan lab” conspiracy is just refusing to go away. It’s not surprising though, because in India, our government-friendly TV news channels are busy superspreading it.

The second wave of the pandemic clearly caught the Modi government off-guard – even if their own parliamentary panel predicted it back in November. In response, the government is engaging in some good old image management. Far from admitting their failure, union ministers spent a day sharing a story from a questionable website.

This piece basically said the prime minister HAS BEEN WORKING HARD SO STFU OK? The third paragraph began like this, “Very few are talking about China and the possibility that the virus has been unleashed to weaken India.”

This raises many questions but the piece doesn’t elaborate any further. It just casually plants the seed and the author – a BJP spokesperson, by the way – walks away.

But hey, why bother elaborating when your friendly TV news channels will pick it up and run with it for hours on live TV?

Over the past week, channels like India Today and Zee News have been tooting their toots about how China is out to destroy India by releasing a virus in the country. But the worst offender of all is the Republic network.

On Republic Bharat, anchor Sucharita proclaimed that Covid was made in a lab in Wuhan and that, for the first time ever, a Chinese scientist has revealed this to be true.

Ticker on Republic Bharat which says, 'Not a pandemic, it is an explosive Chinese weapon!'

Ticker on Republic Bharat which says, 'Not a pandemic, it is an explosive Chinese weapon!'

The scientist she propped up is a woman called Li-Meng Yan, who’s been used as a flagbearer of this theory by nutty conspiracy groups like QAnon since last year. Even Fox News’s Tucker Carlson – aka American Sudhir Chaudhary – featured her on his show last September. In October, several leading news channels interviewed her.

But the recent spike in interest in this conspiracy theory came from the Australian five days ago, which claimed that the US state department obtained documents which show the Chinese army commanders making a sinister prediction. Way back in 2015, these papers reveal, Chinese military men discussed how coronaviruses can be used as a bioweapon during World War 3, and how the healthcare system of an entire country would collapse if such a virus was released.

Cybersecurity expert Robert Potter examined these “bombshell” documents and wrote in the Australian: “We reached a high confidence conclusion that it was genuine...It’s not fake but it’s up to someone else to interpret how serious it is.”

Of course, our TV newswallahs ran with it. And guess who Times Now decided to interview?

But who is Li-Meng Yan?

Last September, she wrote a paper about how Covid was created in a lab. Ten days later, an online journal – set up by MIT Press to vet claims related to SARS-CoV-2 – reported that her claims were “at times baseless and are not supported by the data”.

But Yan’s work, which was posted to the scientific research repository Zenodo without any peer review, exploded on Twitter, YouTube and far-right websites. Conservative influencers like Republican strategist Steve Bannon repeatedly pushed her work on his online show War Room: Pandemic. (His YouTube channel does not exist anymore but you can get a gist of what he said on our very own Times Now.) Yan then expanded her claims on October 8 to explicitly blame the Chinese government for developing coronavirus as a “bioweapon”.

As Harvard University’s Media Manipulation Casebook noted, Yan’s work was systematically seeded to muddy the work of the scientific community and was pushed on social media by Trump fanboys for their own political agendas.

As Dr Angela Rasumussen, a virologist at Columbia University, explained, Yan’s paper “looks legitimate because they use a lot of technical jargon. But in reality, a lot of what they're saying doesn't really make any sense.”

But hey, that’s the kind of research that Zee News doesn’t believe in. Sudhir Chaudhary used it to straight up claim that China murdered Indians using Covid and they are to blame.

His “report” essentially began with him telling his audience, “You guys, did you even see the pictures coming out of Wuhan? They’re chilling, you guys. Look! They are partying it up!"

I’m paraphrasing a bit but you get the gist. Not just that, he also gave out some helpful pointers like these.

Ticker on Sudhir Chaudhary’s show which says, 'Problems occurred while developing the virus'.

Ticker on Sudhir Chaudhary’s show which says, 'Problems occurred while developing the virus'.

Here’s the thing. Our government has been struggling to deal with the imagery of the devastation caused by this pandemic, both in the national and international media. There’s been talk about a campaign to “spread positivity”. Right-wing influenzas have been talking about how burning pyres is a holy Hindu thing and must not be shown while ministers are busy propping up this image of a hardworking Modi who is doing everything he can. Poor helpless Modiji.

All this while our government-friendly, ad-funded media has settled on a nice little narrative just waiting to be exploited and used to divert the attention of citizens from the government’s mismanagement. This conspiracy theory of a “Chinese bioweapon” is just that – a conspiracy theory.

By giving space to convenient faces like Li-Meng Yan, they’re taking away the space of citizens struggling to breathe, running around trying to save their loved ones.

Watch this week’s episode of TV Newsance on Republic Bharat’s coverage on coronavirus as a “bioweapon”.

Addendum: Currently there are two main theories doing the rounds about the emergence of COVID-19, and one conspiracy theory. One, that it emerged naturally and was first transmitted to humans via a wet market in Wuhan, China. Two, that there were experiments going on in a virology lab in Wuhan and the virus somehow 'escaped' from the lab due to negligence, thus spreading to the public. Third, that China deliberately released the virus as a 'bioweapon' to consolidate its position of a superpower is in the realm of a conspiracy theory.

This piece debunks the third conspiracy. So far, there is no merit to indulge that possibility. However, till date, there is no real proof of either the natural emergence theory or the lab leak theory. Official investigations into both these possibilities have fallen short and have not yielded conclusive proof either way. For further reading on these two theories, we recommend you read this and this.

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