The Corner

Science & Tech

Lab Leak and Censorship

Security personnel outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Hubei Province, China, February 3, 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Rich Lowry points to Matt Yglesias’s tick-tock account of the development of the consensus that the lab-leak theory was a bonkers and unscientific conspiracy theory.

I remember it well, because last April, as I started adding up the circumstantial evidence, I ventured publicly that this was where my hunch was leading me.

If you click through, you’ll find that the responses often took the form of a joke that I meant the lab was in the basement of a pizza shop in D.C. Haha!

Yglesias gets many of the broad stokes correct, though I think the account lacks some texture. Even on April 1, 2020, saying that the virus “escaped from the virology” lab was often confused as a claim that the virus was intentionally designed in the lab, or intentionally released as a weapon. At the time, I still thought the simplest explanation didn’t involve gain-of-function research, but simply the study of bat coronaviruses in lab conditions that were not ideal.

Yglesias ends his account with asking, like Hillary Clinton, “What difference at this point does it make?” Because Yglesias already agreed with tighter restrictions of gain-of-function research, he doesn’t see how this could be a big deal. Most people didn’t know much about gain-of-function research, and if such research were responsible for the worst manmade disaster in history, you bet it makes a difference whether or not it escaped from a lab doing that research.

But here’s another policy difference that matters, but one that isn’t exactly related to the government of states: The major social media networks — Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter — have proven willing, over and over, to do the bidding of progressive Anglophone journalists who make a stink on Twitter. These journalists are formed by institutions that teach them deference to expertise, and a special deference to experts in fields that are socially coded as progressive. They expect that in a controversy, the experts are likely to agree upon the main points of contention and only argue about unimportant details. They expect that anyone coded as “conservative” who objects does so entirely for mercenary reasons, or out of bullheadedness. And since Brexit and Donald Trump, these journalists have demanded that the social-media companies act as powerful social censors. The lab-leak theory was deemed a conspiracy theory and misinformation, and the social-media companies treated it as such. This means that YouTube demonitized or deleted content that entertained the idea. Facebook took down posts, and penalized pages for publishing information bolstering this theory. And Twitter deleted tweets, or attached warnings to them redirecting users to government agencies. These institutions have incredible power to financially punish traditional- and digital-media institutions that spread “misinformation.”

In my view, these networks need to abandon this editorial function — or they need to be regulated like traditional media.

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