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Lab Leaks, Contrarians and the Semiotics of Lying Your Ass Off

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 23: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement, in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump announced that Sudan will start to norma... WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 23: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement, in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump announced that Sudan will start to normalize ties with Israel. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) MORE LESS
June 10, 2021 5:19 p.m.

Probably unwisely, I have waded back into the ‘media got it wrong about a lab leak’ debate with my friends Matt Yglesias and and Jon Chait. They’re not the worst on this. But as is often the case in life you’re most ticked by people you think should know better but apparently don’t. As I’ve noted, it’s a complicated question because the informed consensus has shifted a bit. Just not that much. The best informed discussion of the state of play is here.

To the extent there’s a problem with the media coverage on this topic from last year it’s that some commentators went from saying this was a claim with zero evidence, that actual experts didn’t agree with it, that it was very unlikely to calling it a ‘conspiracy theory’ which had been ‘debunked’. These aren’t the same things. But they aren’t terribly far apart either. That is especially so when the people making the claims have a history of being chronic liars.

Still, they’re not precisely the same.

One of the dynamics about the early version of this story is that a mix of China hawks and people trying to distract from President Trump’s failures first claimed that COVID might be a bioweapon engineered by China and either intentionally or unintentionally unleashed on the world. When this claim ran into strong genomic evidence against it they made a tactical retreat to a ‘lab leak’. Over the course of 2020 these claims always played fast and loose with hints of bioweapons research or intentional leaks in the background.

This is one reason it’s so important to keep tabs on the discussions in right wing media. Today they’re not pushing the ‘lab leak’ idea. They’re on to something much more advanced: the idea that Anthony Fauci was behind the research that caused the alleged lab leak and then conspired with China to cover up the origins of virus. That’s why he should definitely be fired and possibly imprisoned, they say. Look at what Rand Paul and Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley are arguing now when they demand Fauci resign and be investigated. Most reporters don’t know the storyline so the hints and accusations fly over their heads.

But this gets us to a more general point that Jeet Heer helped clarify for me in a conversation we had this afternoon. Part of this is a bigger challenge of fact-checking in the Trump Era. If one side is constantly flooding the zone with disinformation – with a mix of straight up lies, baseless claims, highly unlikely scenarios and various kinds of defamation and character assassination – it’s actually pretty hard to keep up with that if you’re doing journalism or fact checking. It’s difficult to be litigating where each claim falls on the spectrum from willful lies, baseless claims, highly unlikely things that are presented as obvious fact. As I said above, this is the one place where I think the ‘lab leak’ contrarians have a small point – that some journalists collapsed the distinction between claim for which you have no evidence but are presenting as true to ‘conspiracy theory’. So people are going to make mistakes like that, as you’re trying to process for people what’s true and what belongs in the bucket of Trump BS.

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This is even more the case because for the authoritarian right, high velocity lying is not only a tactic. It’s strategic. John-Paul Sartre captures some of this in a passage from his 1946 book Anti-Semite and Jew.

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

Right-wing authoritarians are not identical to anti-Semites. But they’re closely related. There’s a reason for the overlap. People who care about making sense of ideas, who have a basically empirical approach to the world around them, who care about language are at some inherent disadvantage against people who don’t. Not everyone uses language to understand the world as accurately as possible and then convey that understanding to others. This is the essence of Trumpism. We know this. Lying isn’t a failure of Trumpism. It’s the essence of it: a high velocity of lies and nonsense to generate confusion and demoralization, talking as a weapon.

This all gets pretty abstract. We’re back to a basic point. Trump backers made confident and aggressive claims for which they had no evidence. They did so because it was helpful politically to do so. They confused the matter by making a range of assertions ranging from the possible but unlikely to the defamatory and nonsensical. Reporters trying to make sense of this for their readers discounted these claims because experts said they were very unlikely and the accusers were known as habitual liars.

None of this is terribly surprising. And yes, some of those people got a bit over their skis by not making clear enough – I guess? – that one version of these claims with no evidence could possibly turn out to be true even though there was no evidence that it was true. There is definitely a tendency among some media commentators – having dealt with the bullshit avalanche of Trumpism – to be hyped up and on the hunt for all the things that come from the Trump bullshit mill and get them stowed away in the Trump bullshit basket. But this again is sort of par for the course when fallible people are charged with making sense of and litigating the work of liars who by design use a high volume of lies to overwhelm people and confuse them. Sometimes they’re bound to say something that is at least connected to something that might turn out to be true.

Even now they’ve managed to give a lot of people the idea that is all but proven when it at best something that knowledgable are deeply divide over and which there remains very little real evidence. It’s hardly some big black eye for the ‘liberal media’ unless you have some deep need for it to be.

At the end of the day it no seems more possible that COVID’s origin could have been through a lab and an accidental leak. There’s still very little evidence for it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It could be true. And if it is true there’s a good chance we’ll never know because the Chinese government would almost certainly resist disclosing the information and in all likelihood has already destroyed it.

It’s hardly some big failure of ‘liberal media’. How to deal with lying and dissimulation at scale is still something that journalists are trying to get a handle on. We should seriously examine this possibility. I personally think it’s much more likely than I once did. But we’d be fools not to be cautious because the loudest voices are still the habitual liars.

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