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Salvo 06.09.2021 10 minutes

Zone of Repulsion

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Lab leak discourse disaster, searching for meaning in Chinese propaganda, and an uncomfortable question on the topic of trust.

Editors’ Note

This essay is reprinted from Pirate Wires, a Substack newsletter by Mike Solana. Subscribe here.

Schooled. In a split second, 50,000 shining silver fish in rapid forward motion lift up, pivot sharply to the right, and rocket in a new direction. The turn is so fast, with the shift of each fish so immediate, it looks to the human eye as if the school has taken a single action—as if it were itself a single organism. But a school of fish is not a hive mind. In fact, for the schooling adaptation to function no individual in the collective can really think at all. A few fish react to outside stimuli, usually some perceived threat, and veer into the thin space between neighbors called the zone of repulsion. This triggers a turn, the action is repeated immediately across the entire collective, and a new course is set. Last week, Facebook decided it would no longer censor claims that COVID-19 came from a lab, which a year ago the mysterious amalgamation of ‘serious’ sources from which Facebook absorbs its censorship instructions deemed beyond-the-pale disinformation and blacklisted from public discourse—a turn. Today, on the question of the lab leak hypothesis the media has turned once again, and the present threat is obvious: institutional credibility is at risk. Regardless of where the media’s head has been on the issue, serious scientists, working from respected labs, have been concerned about the origin of COVID-19 for over a year, and remain concerned. The lab leak hypothesis is compelling, of potentially paradigm-shifting importance in the realm of geopolitics, and is presently attracting bi-partisan curiosity. Any media institution that refuses to at least acknowledge this as worthy of consideration will, if the hypothesis proves out any further, irreparably shatter its last remaining bit of public trust. Simple. But a year ago, where was the threat in acknowledging a rare bat coronavirus could possibly have leaked from the rare lab conducting gain-of-function research on rare bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, the city of COVID-19’s origin? More importantly, who triggered the turn, and why? 

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported back in May 2020 the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California found it plausible COVID-19 leaked from a lab, which precipitated a State Department inquiry. Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019, immediately preceding the pandemic. But consensus gatekeeper discourse on COVID-19’s origin first cracked back in January of this year with a piece from New York Magazine, which is to say while a few supporting facts have very recently been added to the “wait a minute what’s happening over there at that evil government lab” column, media opinion on the subject has been largely decoupled from available information on the subject for over a year. The only thing that’s changed is how we talk about what has always been a compelling possibility of potentially incredible consequence. Did China do this, if even inadvertently? If so, how, and can this happen again? 

That the rules governing acceptable speech concerning topics of such monumental importance can so dramatically shift, for an entire nation, based on nothing, is of course damning of our entire media and, far more so, social media. This is especially true given the now-open thirst for national levers on speech that our gatekeepers would presumably themselves control—and in fact did control, if unofficially, on this particular issue. A year ago, the language used to describe the lab leak was purposely aggressive—“debunked,” “conspiracy,” “disinformation.” This was a signal to social media executives: remove this conversation from public, or be a part of the story, and just in time for summer tech hearings. As should come as no surprise, with the sharp shift in discourse there’s been a literal re-writing of the past, an increasingly-common practice in our newly-malleable internet reality (a broader topic I wrote about at length for my subscribers in a two-part piece called Tether back in December). After the media succeeded in stifling a national conversation, much of the press’ harshest language on the subject was simply scrubbed from existence. 

On May 24th, Paul Graham drew attention to the fact that Vox significantly altered an earlier March 2020 article on “debunked” COVID-19 conspiracy theories, including the lab leak hypothesis. There was no editor’s note on the alteration (though one has since been added).

Last week, the Washington Post edited a 15-month-old headline on the lab leak hypothesis, and a couple weeks before that Politifact entirely retracted a fact-check on the “debunked” theory. The latter two examples were at least acknowledged. How many, like Vox, will never be acknowledged until they’re discovered? Will anyone, anywhere, be held accountable for this? How has no one at any of these companies, especially including any of the tech companies that followed along, been fired? And in a world where no one is held to account for mistakes of this magnitude, how are we supposed to trust anything we read?  

Response to the media malfeasance has been predictable. From the boring left, Matt Yglesias formally transitions his tribe from “asking questions about the Wuhan Institute of Virology is bad” to “caring if the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is bad.” Sure, he admits, the media really got this one wrong. But even if the virus did come from a Wuhan lab, would it matter? If the hypothesis is proven out it means a presently-genocidal nuclear foreign superpower just pulled a Chernobyl at global scale and lied about it for months, leading directly to the death of millions of people who could have been saved had we known how serious this was in November 2019, then capitalized on the ensuing chaos by annexing Hong Kong, and is by the way still running research they clearly can’t manage. Separate even from the obvious military danger of a power so entirely deranged, we may well be at risk of another pandemic. But, like, does it really change anything?  

Food for thought!

From folks a little more aggressively keyed into media critique there’s been more of a focus on the obvious groupthink that just occurred, including the usual arguments concerning social media censorship, and the understandable question concerning whether or not our gatekeepers can be trusted to arbitrate truth (they can not, never could be, will never be—literally no one can be). Jonathan Chait sums this up over at New York Magazine. But Chait credits a lot of the media’s groupthink on the topic of COVID-19’s origin to a reflexive hatred of Donald Trump. Our then-President invoked the lab leak hypothesis, and it was, therefore, bad. I simply refuse to believe it’s this simple. The only people on the planet who stood to benefit from killing discussion of the lab leak hypothesis were members of the Chinese government, and while many Americans in media are clearly running block and tackle for the Democrats, which made them natural enemies of Trump, American media is not at all protective of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Broadly, the press has been critical of the CCP for years, and highly-critical over the last year. It is still critical. I’ve personally sourced most of my wires on China from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. All three of these institutions were kicked out of China last year. Over the last 16 months, mainstream American journalists have broken stories on everything from Uyghur to privacy to slave labor, and while I do still just wish the New York Times’ TikTok writers and tech columnists would read their colleague’s actually-very good work, it simply can’t be said with any kind of honesty that the media, in general, is anything other than highly-primed, if understandably so, in favor of critical CCP stories. 

So, next question: how hard would it be to hack the media’s zone of repulsion? 

We have a long, storied history of powerful, antagonistic foreign superpowers manipulating American culture, with specifically the use of race-related questions as a weapon. Race here is worth noting as it has confoundedly been injected, via “Stop Asian Hate,” into many recent articles on the lab leak hypothesis, for example this clunky recap of Facebook’s recent censorship decision from the Verge. But if you’ll be so kind as to remember, the lab leak hypothesis does not concern Asian Americans, but rather a genocidal foreign government possibly having botched a lab experiment that resulted in the death of some 3.75 million people. It’s sort of a big deal, which we obviously need to discuss. “Stop Asian Hate” is included in as many lab leak articles as it is because it has become a central part of the lab leak conversation on Twitter, where most journalists (along with your favorite billionaire mayor / media mogul) spend most of their time. And the conversation on Twitter is generated by…???

It’s all pretty nebulous. 

For a while now I’ve been interested in the presence of official Chinese disinformation on social media, admittedly too distracted by the fact of its existence to question its utility. In early 2020, the CCP directed public-facing state officials, including its ambassadors around the world, to assume the role of “wolf warrior” in order to “combat fake news.” In other words, their new job was to spread propaganda. One favorite lie of the party, spread by Zhao Lijian, was the U.S. military brought COVID-19 to Wuhan. This is of course insane, but not as surprising as the fact that Lijian had just been arguing the virus came from Italy. Chinese state actors operating across U.S. social media spread disinformation daily. The stuff is often outrageous, despicable, and tends to generate furious bi-partisan backlash. I have contributed to the backlash. But do we really believe the Chinese government is so…bad at propaganda? Or is it possible the purpose here is to leave us with the sense they’re bad at propaganda, while more successful disinformation strategies move forward largely unnoticed? 

The presence of clearly insane COVID disinformation, guaranteed to generate outrage by being spread openly and unapologetically by the Chinese state, altered the bounds of western discourse on the subject. With a U.S. military conspiracy in play, the zoonotic origin of COVID-19 was set safely in the moderate middle, and the Wuhan lab leak was framed in context as a kind of mirror to the craziest Chinese extremes—our own conspiracy to match the CCP’s. Let’s all of us reasonable people agree this happened naturally and move along, shall we? But separate from the CCP’s paid clowns, juggling conspiracies and culture war shock and awe for our attention, Chinese espionage is a real concern of the United States Government, and tech leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg, have stated their unequivocal belief that China steals technology from U.S. tech companies. Excluding Tim Cook, who runs a company that would certainly collapse were Chinese manufacturing suddenly compromised by for example pissing off Xi Jinping, this view is shared by most industry leaders. How exactly do you think our technology is being stolen? CCP agents aren’t dressing up like Tom Cruise and Mission Impossibling themselves into Google after dark. A small number of tech workers have probably been compromised by the Chinese government. This is how espionage works, both at home and abroad—and also when we do it. If the Chinese government is even remotely competent, it undoubtedly maintains contacts throughout all of our critical industries. They’re a part of us—a part of our school—and in the age of social media their voices are amplified. 

Our media’s reliance on its in-group web of trust is entirely human, and almost all of us rely on something similar. I would never have been early to the danger of COVID-19, for example, had I not trusted people like Balaji Srinivasan, my opinion of whom was and is enough to make me take a closer look. I think this kind of trust is useful, and in any case probably impossible to entirely adapt away from. We’re wired to love each other, and belief is a bond between men as much as it is between men and ideas. But in this new and rapid media environment we live inside, our disembodied schools of talking heads on Twitter are bigger than we’re built to manage, and we have wildly exposed ourselves to any bad faith actor smart enough to hack the dynamic.  

If six or seven months ago you felt the lab leak hypothesis was so terrible a thing to consider it needed to be censored from existence, you made a mistake. It’s not the end of the world. Just admit you made the mistake, and next step let’s attempt a little bit of self-reflection. How did you make the mistake? Who broke your trust? Who broke their trust? 

Who is breaking your trust right now?

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