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Tag Archives: Media

Chart: 2022 Media Literacy Index of Selected Countries

Source : BBC

Chart: Cost of Streaming vs Cable in the U.S.

In July, streaming surpassed cable consumption for the first time. Even so, the median price American consumers pay for streaming is $20-$30 per month, a far cry from the $79 per month the average cable plan costs.

Source : The Hustle

Infographic: 33 Problems with Media

See large image . . . . . .

Source : Vsual Capitalist

How China Uses Global Media to Spread Its Views — and Misinformation

See large image . . . . . .

Lili Pike wrote . . . . . . . . .

A small news website in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A popular South African digital media platform. A Spanish language newswire service. Over the past year, all three far-flung news organizations have run similar stories claiming that a U.S.-run lab had created covid-19 or, more recently, articles that said the U.S. was operating a secret bioweapons program in Ukraine.

That these theories have also been simultaneously promoted by Chinese government officials is no coincidence — all three of those media outlets have ties to the Chinese government.

Over the past couple of decades, China has built an international media empire: opening state media bureaus overseas, investing in foreign media companies and forging partnerships with others. It’s part of a broader campaign to build its global influence, especially in developing countries, as laid out in a recent report from the Atlantic Council.

“We see a lot about China’s financing and economic investment in these regions, but that’s only one side of the story of Chinese influence,” said Kenton Thibaut, a resident China fellow at the Atlantic Council and one of the report’s authors. China’s use of global media outlets and other forms of soft power to spread its views, Thibaut said, is underappreciated.

Over the past two years, China has put its international media network to work shaping public opinion on covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and its foreign policies and image more broadly. In many parts of the world, China is competing against more well-established European, American and local outlets, but Chinese media has already become a dominant news source in several countries.

That has raised red flags on many fronts. Recent examples of Chinese state media “reporting” for global audiences have been thinly veiled expressions of official Chinese policies regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong and other controversial areas. Other examples have involved blatant cases of misinformation — vis-à-vis Ukraine and the pandemic in particular. There are also concerns that China, which is ranked in the bottom 10 countries for press freedom, is spreading its restrictive approach to journalism.

“If Chinese media is going to gain some form of hegemony in Africa, it will have negative consequences for freedom of information and democracy in Africa,” said Emeka Umejei, a lecturer in communications at the University of Ghana.

The messages: What Chinese-backed media is saying

One side of China’s overseas media campaign is purely promotional. Chinese media outlets and their local partners around the world often highlight the successes of China’s diplomats and the latest megaprojects in the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s high-profile global infrastructure campaign. Readers of China Daily Africa, for example, might find these stories: “Ghana’s students enjoy benefits of Chinese language”; “Marathon staged on Chinese-built expressway, reviving Kenyans’ hope for economic vitality”; and “Liberian official hails China for helping vulnerable groups.” Such articles are a staple of the Chinese approach, blended in with more typical examples of global news stories.

People stand outside the Idu train station during the official test run of the newly completed Abuja-Kaduna night railway line in Abuja, Nigeria, on July 21, 2016. (STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)
After the outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan, Chinese media outlets around the world also played a prominent role as China sought to restore its global image, touting its response to the crisis. Coverage during this period included stories about China’s donation of critical medical equipment to poorer nations. For readers of Xinhua Español in Latin America, there were stories about China’s largesse in sharing its vaccines: “Sinovac supplies 260 million COVID-19 vaccines globally,” one headline read.

Another side of China’s global coverage veers from these promotional, PR-style stories to cases of flat-out misinformation. After the March 2021 release of a World Health Organization report on covid’s origins, China made a concerted effort to spread a false narrative. The Atlantic Council documented how China-backed media outlets in multiple countries helped push the theory that covid had originated from Fort Detrick, a U.S. military base in Maryland.

Independent Online (IOL), a partially Chinese-owned South African outlet, joined the chorus. In September 2021, the publication’s foreign editor wrote an op-ed that repeated messaging from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “China has made a request for the WHO to investigate Fort Detrick,” she wrote. “Given the many questions that still exist around the origins of Covid-19, such investigations are imperative in order to make proper and accurate findings.” In a tactic the Atlantic Council’s Thibaut described as “information laundering,” the Chinese Embassy in South Africa and Chinese media then used the editor’s piece to amplify its own point. The headline in China’s People’s Daily read, “Investigation of US labs necessary for COVID-19 origins tracing: S. African media.”

“It’s using this veneer of local reporting to pretend that there’s this preponderance of evidence for China’s conspiracy when it’s really all coming from Chinese media,” Thibaut told Grid.

Similar articles appeared in many outlets across the world, and the theory also ricocheted on social media. In one instance, a Chinese diplomat in Iran translated a People’s Daily article on the topic into Persian and shared it on Twitter.

“Normally they aren’t huge peddlers of conspiracy theories, they mostly focus on positive messages of China, preventing criticism and criticizing geopolitical rivals,” said Thibaut. “They’re usually not like, as Russia is, these active disseminators of disinformation. But this was in response to a crisis where they saw they really had to try to move public opinion quickly and really diffuse the issue quickly.”

The Ukraine war has been another case in point. China has backed the Kremlin line on the war in its own state media around the world, including the repetition of clearly false narratives about the conflict.

In late March, a South African student leader penned an op-ed in IOL titled, “We should all be concerned about U.S. biolabs in Ukraine.” The piece echoed Russian and Chinese government talking points, falsely accusing the U.S. of running bioweapons labs in Ukraine. “Over the years, there have been deadly leaks linked to US military biolabs in Ukraine, South Korea, Kazakhstan and Georgia,” the article said. “All this seems to indicate an aggressive ‘biological appetite’ from the US and the development of bio-weaponry.” Once again, it wasn’t just that the article appeared in a media outlet backed by China; Chinese media took the additional step of “information laundering” — using the story to create the illusion of global support for the theory. On April 1, Chinese news agency Xinhua ran an article citing the original essay under the heading: “U.S. biolabs in Ukraine raise worldwide concerns: S. African youth leader.”

An op-ed in the partially Chinese-owned South African media site IOL was cited in a subsequent article on the same topic in Xinhua, an example of what experts call China’s “information laundering.”
Recently, Dani Madrid-Morales, a lecturer in journalism at the University of Sheffield, identified several other cases in which China spread this misinformation. In April, Interfax, a Russian media outlet, published an article stating that Ukraine had tried to hide a U.S.-funded military biolab program. The Chinese news agency Xinhua translated that piece into French, and it appeared word for word on a small news website in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Chinese misinformation that targets the West may hold more appeal in the Global South. Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor of global communication at Georgia State University, said recently that “a lot of these countries, including their leaders and publics, have preexisting skepticism toward the West and preexisting critiques of kind of this positioning of this war as this good vs. evil. They take a stance where they also critique the United States and its own unaccountable wars, and as a result, they may echo some of these Chinese messages.”

How China spreads the word

China’s overseas media push began several decades ago as an accessory to its booming international business deals. It is only recently, since the ascension of Xi Jinping as president in 2012, that these efforts have taken on a more aggressively political flavor.

In 2013, Xi said in a speech, “[We] must meticulously and properly conduct external propaganda, innovating external propaganda methods, working hard to create new concepts, new categories and new expressions that integrate the Chinese and the foreign, telling China’s story well, communicating China’s voice well.”

China has set out to “tell its story well” in several ways.

One method simply involves setting up shop overseas. As other global news organizations have downsized, China’s biggest state-owned media companies have established bureaus and hired correspondents all over the world. Xinhua, for instance, set up an Africa bureau in Nairobi in 2004, and CCTV (now CGTN) followed suit in 2012. These outlets and other state media radio stations and newspapers publish in dozens of languages worldwide.

Other methods have been more innovative. StarTimes, a Chinese television company, provides cheap cable TV packages in Africa that come with Chinese state-run TV channels. Their service now reaches more than 10 million customers across 30 African countries. Influence has also been purchased: In 2012, Chinese state-owned companies bought a 20 percent stake in IOL, the South African media platform that has since published several pieces toeing the Chinese party line — including the Fort Detrick theory. Researchers at Freedom House also found that GBTimes, a Chinese news organization, has acquired stakes in radio stations in Europe through which it spreads pro-China content.

These acquisitions are representative of what the government describes as “borrowing a boat out to sea” — in other words, China using established local media organizations to disseminate its messages. Another version of the practice involves Chinese state media allowing local publications to republish their content for a steep discount — or even for free. Xinhua has led the way: Its articles are syndicated throughout the world, including via the African News Agency. That’s how a small newspaper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to publish a story on the supposed U.S. bioweapons labs in Ukraine. Chinese outlets also piggyback on local media by buying ad inserts that blend in with the local content.

China isn’t alone in establishing a worldwide media presence. Russia famously spreads state messages — and disinformation. Under a different umbrella — to support democracy and freedom of the press — Western countries have long backed media development initiatives in foreign countries along with funding their own media outlets such as Voice of America, which are editorially independent by charter. But China is unique. “I don’t think you can find any country that has this breadth of activities and diversity” that China does, said Madrid-Morales. The range of activities, he added, from media trainings for foreign journalists to content production abroad, hasn’t been seen since the Cold War.

Who is reading?

Of course, China’s global media push — no matter its scope — is influential only if it can find an audience.

Madrid-Morales and Herman Wasserman, a professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town, have observed a range of responses to Chinese-sponsored media in Africa. Some South African and Kenyan students they interviewed were glad to see more positive coverage of the continent compared with Western coverage, which many feel has a negative bias. But the researchers say they’ve seen limited uptake. Just 2 percent of South Africans and Kenyans tune into China Radio International and read the China Daily Africa edition, they found.

“There’s a stigma and the fact that [they are] so heavily censored … you just think to yourself: ‘It’s biased reporting, I’m going somewhere else,’” one student at the University of Cape Town told the researchers, echoing a sentiment held by others.

In some parts of the world, Chinese media has made significant inroads. Madrid-Morales found that Xinhua was responsible for more than 80 percent of the newswire content on covid-19 and China in Congo and 80 percent in Sierra Leone. In the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine, his research showed that 75 percent of the coverage in the Ugandan magazine the Independent was from Xinhua, likely because the free content was appealing for a publication with a tight budget.

Readers of the publication have seen the war through the lens of the Chinese government, which has tacitly supported Russia. They would have read about the financial consequences of the war — which are blamed on Western sanctions — but not the death, crimes or the flow of refugees, which are all due to the Russian invasion. “None of that appears in this coverage,” he said in a recent lecture.

It is through these content partnerships, where republication of Chinese sources often goes unlabeled, that Umejie believes China is gaining the most traction. “There’s some level of acceptance happening here, because they are not coming through a Chinese platform,” he said. “Most likely, they’re coming through a local platform.” This was true in Nigeria and Ghana, he said, which have partnerships with Xinhua.

Researchers worry that poorer countries, which are less able to support independent journalism, and those that already have a restricted media space due to authoritarian regimes, may be the most susceptible to China’s media influence.

And China’s global media ambitions are growing. “If you look at this longitudinally, definitely, China has made huge progress over the last 10 years, from being a marginal actor in the media space to being part of the media space — in some countries, a very small presence; in some countries, a larger presence,” said Madrid-Morales. “So in that sense, there is progress, and if we look at the future, that presence is likely to grow.”

Source : GRID

Orwell Was Right

Matt Taibbi wrote . . . . . . . . .

This weekend I re-read 1984, a book I tend to reach for when I get Defcon-1 depressed about the state of the world. Well into the novel, Winston ponders the intricacies of doublethink:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them… To forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again… that was the ultimate subtlety.

In the last weeks, Russia took an already exacting speech environment to new extremes. A law was passed that would impose prison sentences for anyone spreading “fake news” about the Ukraine invasion; access was cut to Facebook and Twitter; stations like Echo Moskvi and TV Rain as well as BBC Russia, Radio Liberty, the New Times, Deutsche Welle, Doxa, and Latvia-based Meduza were effectively shut down; Wikipedia was threatened with a block over its invasion page; and national authorities have appeared to step in to prevent coverage of soldiers killed in the war, requiring local outlets to use terms like “special operation” instead. The latter development is connected to the state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, issuing a remarkably desperate dictum requiring news outlets to “use information and data received by them only from official Russian sources.”

Russia also appears in the middle of a general crackdown on local media, not so much because those outlets are dissenting, but because they’re more likely to provide indirect evidence of war failures or the effect of sanctions. The desperation to control news has grown to the point where Russian diplomats in foreign countries are pressuring state outlets in countries like Iran to stop using the term “war” to describe what’s going on in Ukraine.

On the flip side, a slew of actions have been taken to crack down on “fake news” and “misinformation” in the West. The big one was the European Union banning RT and Sputnik.

Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube also cut access to all Russian state media, because the EU sanctions also required that internet platforms delist any RT or Sputnik content, even from individuals. The statute reads, “As regards the posts made by individuals that reproduce the content of RT and Sputnik, those posts shall not be published, and if published, shall be deleted.”

Other governments across the West, from Australia to Canada, have taken similar actions. In the U.S., Google and YouTube disallowed Russian state media ads (following a request by Senator Mark Warner) and demonetized “a number of Russian channels,” including RT but also many non-Russian individuals, before proceeding to demonetize all individual Russian content creators, even the individuals opposing the invasion. Even DuckDuckGo, the speechier, more pro-privacy alternative to Google, announced it was de-ranking “sites associated with Russian disinformation.” A growing list of Westerners have seen accounts frozen for supposed parroting of Russian talking points or “abusive” commentary.

YouTube flagged* Oliver Stone’s documentary Ukraine on Fire, while Netflix is going so far as to shelve a production of Anna Karenina. In what might have been the craziest move of all, Meta reportedly followed up a decision to un-ban the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion with a mind-blowing decision to alter its hate speech policies to “allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion,” according to internal emails seen by Reuters.

One would hope there would be at least a few Americans left who’d hear about Russia barring the BBC and Voice of America and at least recognize the sameness of the issue involved with banning RT and Sputnik. Or, seeing how pathetic and manipulative it is for Russians to prevent reporting on war casualties, we’d recall the folly of the ban we had for nearly twenty years on photographs of military coffins, or the continuing pressure on embeds to avoid publishing images of American deaths from our own war zones. We should be able to read that Twitter and Facebook are cracking down on the “fake accounts” spreading “misinformation” that “Ukraine isn’t doing well” and notice that Russia’s measures against “fake news” and “disinformation” about its own military failures — though far more draconian and carrying much more severe penalties — are rooted in the same concept.

We don’t, however, because we long ago reached the doublethink phase predicted by Orwell, where most of the population is conscious of double standards but ignores them effortlessly. A healthy person should be able to be horrified by what’s happening in Russia and also see a warning about the degradation that ensues from using “pre-emptive” force, or from trying to control discontent by erasing expressions of it. But years of relentless propaganda have trained Americans to doublethink their way out of such insights.

Everybody knows if Russia had troops in Mexico or Canada there would be invasions tomorrow. [Biden] sends the Secretary of State, telling Russia, “You have no right to have a sphere of influence,” after the Monroe Doctrine, after the overthrowing of democratic regimes in Latin America for the last hundred-and-some years. Come on, America, do you think people are stupid? What kind of hypocrisy can anybody stand?

That doesn’t mean that Putin is not still a gangster—of course he is. But so were the folk promoting the Monroe Doctrine that had the U.S. sphere of influence for decade after decade after decade after decade, and anybody critical of you, you would demonize. Yet here are you, right at the door of Russia, and can’t see yourself in the mirror. That’s spiritual decay right there, brother, it really is.

We’ve been trained to rage against this thinking. We even have our own borrowed Newspeak word for the offense: Whataboutism. The offender supposedly does a bait-and-switch, distracting with charges of hypocrisy without refuting the actual argument. But a Soviet giving a professionally two-faced answer to questions about Gulags by saying, “And you lynch blacks” isn’t the same as the much more serious thing West is talking about. Lying to others is shameful, but lying to ourselves and not even realizing it, that’s hardcore spiritual decay. We’re being driven faster toward the cliff-edge of this moral insanity with each new act of mass forgetting.

The ideal citizen of Orwell’s Oceania bubbled with rage a mile wide and a millimeter deep and could forget in an instant passions that may have consumed him or her for years. We just did this, with a pandemic that had the country steaming with indignation until it was quietly declared over the moment Putin rolled over Ukraine’s borders. We switched from “the pandemic of the unvaccinated” to “Putin’s price hikes” in a snap. National outrage moved a few lobes over with zero fuss, and now we hate new people; instead of “anti-vax Barbie,” we’re barring Russian and Belarussian kids from the Paralympics.

It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grams a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? – 1984

A heartbeat ago politicians and pundits all over were denouncing Canadian trucker protests over reports of swastikas. “Conservative Party members can stand with people who wave swastikas,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This was despite the fact that even Snopes concluded the photographed “swastikas” weren’t expressions of neo-Nazi sentiment, but protesters comparing Justin Trudeau’s government to Nazis.

Now the swastika in the Ukrainian context has been un-banned by Facebook, you can buy Azov Battalion mugs and t-shirts on Amazon, and we have headlines like “Are there really neo-Nazis fighting for Ukraine? Well, yes — but it’s a long story.” In an effort to argue that Putin is worse than Hitler, we have people like Atlantic Council senior fellow Anders Aslund saying “Hitler had more arguments for his attack on Poland,” and former U.S. Ambassador and Stanford professor Michael McFaul saying on live TV that Hitler “didn’t kill ethnic Germans, German-speaking people.”

This isn’t to say the Russian propaganda about “deNazifying” Ukraine should be taken seriously, but it’s amazing, isn’t it, how quickly our conventional wisdom changes its stance even toward something like neo-Nazism — an absolute one day, an Amazon impulse buy the next.

Just a few days ago, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was hot for Poland to send MiG fighter jets to Ukraine. “That gets a green-light,” Blinken said. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki, when asked if Putin wouldn’t consider delivering jets to Ukraine an act of war, answered sharply, “First of all, there’s already a war going on in Ukraine.”

Then Poland called America’s bluff and said it was happy to send the planes, provided they were delivered through Germany by way of the U.S. Blinken immediately reversed course and said transporting the jets that way lacked a “substantive rationale.” We were reminded that “the transfer of combat aircraft could be mistaken for an escalatory step” and that Putin had said he would consider such a delivery an… act of war.

Moral panics erase memories. It’s their primary function. 9/11 wiped the national hard drive of everything from the third degree to My Lai to Operations Phoenix and Condor to the Church Committee to the School of the Americas to countless other shameful episodes, and the lessons learned from them. The Trump-Russia scandal blotted out Snowden, made the spooks the good guys again. 2016 rehabilitated neoconservatives, now reinvented as never-Trumpers, cleaning away the shame of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, etc.

The “misinformation” panic wiped out the WMD fiasco, restoring honor to credentialed press. The DNC leak erased “Collateral Murder.” After George Floyd we hated cops, after January 6th we loved them. Ukraine now is openly being sold as a blue-pill cure for everything that went wrong during the War on Terror, including the recent defeat in Afghanistan. “Realism” is in disgrace, and “leadership,” “regime change,” and the “universal appeal of freedom” are back, only this time their primary backers are the upper-class cosmopolitan Democrats who marched against the simplistic “freedom against evil” plot neoconservatives tried to sell them twenty years ago.

We’re at the end of a twenty-year cycle that has taken what was once the oppositional-skeptic portion of the American population and seen them rallied behind the people they once hated the most. This has been accomplished by keeping us in a rage that always escalates and is never watered down by contradictions, thanks to mastery of “reality control” via “an unending series of victories over your own memory.”

The relentless parade of panics listed above (just a small sample; we’ve had dozens just in the last few years) makes those victories easy, and every time we switch targets, from Russians to neo-Nazis to cops to transphobes to insurrectionists to the unvaccinated to truckers and back to Russians again, the Church of Forgetting picks up new converts.

When I first read 1984, it was difficult to imagine how Emmanuel Goldstein could be a villain for “advocating freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought” or for “demanding the immediate conclusion of peace with Eurasia.” Now free speech and peace advocacy are universally understood to be stalking horses for fascism. Anyone who advocates those things is a lesser or greater Goldstein, from Snowden to Jeremy Corbyn to Glenn Greenwald (just christened “right wing” by the Washington Post). Even I’ve been turned into a mini-Goldstein of sorts. Like Goldstein, every one of us is suspected of being under the protection of “foreign paymasters,” mainly for refusing to forget certain things.

The machine in which Orwell’s poor nebbishy Winston toiled worked tirelessly to create a language using terms from which “all ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged,” paring the lexicon until a heretical thought would be “literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

Once Russia invaded Ukraine the cultural vocabulary was whittled to one compound thought, approximately this: Putin is the ultimate evil, we hate him, war is good, and peace undesirable, even if necessary. Social media is now packed with what Orwell called bellyfeel agreement on these points, “a blind, enthusiastic acceptance” for the escalation rhetoric coming from the likes of old neocon warriors like Anne Appelbaum and Lindsay Graham and David Frum, who’s reprising his “Axis of Evil” performance by endlessly hammering at the singular evil of Putin.

It’s all yet another expert wiping away of memories, with Liz Cheney, the daughter of Frum’s old cohort in the White House, papering over the “Freedom Fries” and “looks French” era by denouncing the “Putin wing of the GOP.”

There’s a real tragedy unfolding on the other side of the earth. I don’t want to make light of it. But another of 1984’s predictions was a future where war would become a “purely internal affair,” where even when there’s real fighting going on in a faraway land, the real target is always the domestic population, whose memories and doubts and distracting emotional attachments are the real threats and must be constantly policed. It’s all coming true, with forever war and slogans like #CloseTheSky demanding primacy in our thoughts, and we’re asked to forget as patriotic duty. It isn’t. Never give up memories, no matter how hard you’re pushed.

Source : TK News

Chart: U.S. Ranks Last Among 46 Countries in Trust in Media

Inside The ‘Misinformation’ Wars

Diane Ackerman wrote . . . . . . . . .

This hints at a weakness of the new focus on misinformation: It’s a technocratic solution to a problem that’s as much about politics as technology. The new social media-fueled right-wing populists lie a lot, and stretch the truth more. But as American reporters quizzing Donald Trump’s fans on camera discovered, his audience was often in on the joke. And many of the most offensive things he said weren’t necessarily lies — they were just deeply ugly to half the country, including most of the people running news organizations and universities.

It’s more comfortable to reckon with an information crisis — if there’s anything we’re good at, it’s information — than a political one. If only responsible journalists and technologists could explain how misguided Mr. Trump’s statements were, surely the citizenry would come around. But these well-meaning communications experts never quite understood that the people who liked him knew what was going on, laughed about it and voted for him despite, or perhaps even because of, the times he went “too far.”

Harper’s Magazine recently published a broadside against “Big Disinfo,” contending that the think tanks raising money to focus on the topic were offering a simple solution to a political crisis that defies easy explanation and exaggerating the power of Facebook in a way that, ultimately, served Facebook most of all. The author, Joseph Bernstein, argued that the journalists and academics who specialize in exposing instances of disinformation seem to believe they have a particular claim on truth. “However well-intentioned these professionals are, they don’t have special access to the fabric of reality,” he wrote.

In fact, I’ve found many of the people worrying about our information diets are reassuringly modest about how far the new field of misinformation studies is going to take us. Ms. Donovan calls it “a new field of data journalism,” but said she agreed that “this part of the field needs to get better at figuring out what’s true or false.” The Aspen report acknowledged “that in a free society there are no ‘arbiters of truth.’” They’re putting healthy new pressure on tech platforms to be transparent in how claims — true and false — spread.

The editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, Sewell Chan, one of the Harvard course’s participants, said he didn’t think the program had a political slant, adding that it “helped me understand the new forms of mischief making and lie peddling that have emerged.”

“That said, like the term ‘fake news,’ misinformation is a loaded and somewhat subjective term,” he said. “I’m more comfortable with precise descriptions.”

I also feel the push and pull of the information ecosystem in my own journalism, as well as the temptation to evaluate a claim by its formal qualities — who is saying it and why — rather than its substance. Last April, for instance, I tweeted about what I saw as the sneaky way that anti-China Republicans around Donald Trump were pushing the idea that Covid-19 had leaked from a lab. There were informational red flags galore. But media criticism (and I’m sorry you’ve gotten this far into a media column to read this) is skin-deep. Below the partisan shouting match was a more interesting scientific shouting match (which also made liberal use of the word “misinformation”). And the state of that story now is that scientists’ understanding of the origins of Covid-19 is evolving and hotly debated, and we’re not going to be able to resolve it on Twitter.

Source : The New York Times

The Lab Leak Fiasco

Ashley Rindsberg wrote . . . . . . . . .

On Jan. 24, 2020, British peer-reviewed journal The Lancet published a study on a novel coronavirus it identified as 2019-nCoV. The study substantially contradicted the official Chinese government narrative about when and how the virus originated, placing its emergence months earlier. It also cast doubt on how the virus emerged. While the Chinese government had pointed to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the now-infamous wet market in Wuhan, the paper found that at least one-third of initial cases—including “patient zero,” the first person known to have been sick with the virus—had no connection to the market whatsoever.

In the United States, the media’s initial response to The Lancet paper was largely sober and serious. The New York Times ran a Jan. 25 article connecting the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism to an assortment of prior botched efforts to manage major crises. The next day, Science magazine ran a story questioning the CCP narrative about the origins of the virus, citing The Lancet study’s discovery that of the 41 initial patients, 13 had no link to the wet market. The day after that, Vox ran a piece calling into question many of the assumptions formed in the earliest days of the pandemic, including those that had been shaped by Chinese officials.

On the heels of this spate of coverage from the Times, Science, Vox and others, a U.S. public official added a similar viewpoint. On Jan. 30, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton cited the same Lancet paper in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in the course of making what seemed to be—by the standards of contemporaneous mainstream and expert coverage—a fairly unobjectionable point:

We still don’t know where coronavirus originated. Could have been a market, a farm, a food processing company. I would note that Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus.

The backlash to Cotton’s comment, swift and vociferous, would mark a turning point in the media’s approach to covering and investigating the origins of the virus. On Feb. 17, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran twin reports accusing Cotton of repeating a noncredible “fringe theory” about the origins of the virus, and taking particular issue with his comments on Fox News the previous day that “we don’t have evidence that this disease originated [in the Wuhan lab], but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says. And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all.” Both stories claimed that there was a consensus among experts that the so-called lab leak theory had been comprehensively dismissed.

Cotton’s line at the time was difficult to distinguish from mainstream coverage of The Lancet paper, and from presidential candidate Joe Biden’s later insistence to CNN that “I would not be taking China’s word for it. I would insist that China allow our scientists in to make a hard determination of how it started, where it’s from, how far along it is. Because that is not happening now.” So what was wrong with what Cotton said?

While the top-line reporting was the same from the Post and the Times, each paper took a different approach to the nuances of the story. The Post conflated Cotton’s remarks about a possible accidental leak from a scientific lab with an assertion that the virus might have been connected to a Chinese bioweapons program—something Cotton never claimed, and which no statement from anyone on or off the record had even suggested. (The Post issued a correction to the article over a year later, removing the terms “debunked” and “conspiracy theory” and noting that “then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus.”)

The Post had previously stitched together claims about the lab leak theory with expert statements on the question of a possible bioweapons connection. Most prominently, in its first article on the topic on Jan. 29, 2020, the Post ran a report that included a quote by professor Richard Ebright, a renowned professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, directly after the article noted a “fringe theory” about how the virus could have been the “accidental result of biological weapons research.” “Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus,” the Post quoted from Ebright.

Ebright himself, however, was never opposed to exploring the possibility of a scientific lab leak. A few days after the Post piece ran, Ebright tweeted out a story about Chinese researchers from other biosafety labs who sold their lab test animals to meat markets. At the bottom of his tweet, Ebright made a simple statement: “Coronavirus may have leaked from lab.”

The Post’s January article citing Ebright was specifically focused on the “fringe theory” that the virus was part of a Chinese bioweapons program. But in that piece, the Post included prominent mention of an article by the Daily Mail that reported on a 2014 Nature paper documenting serious safety issues at China’s scientific biosafety labs. Directly beneath that paragraph referencing the Daily Mail article on an accidental scientific lab leak, the Post focused on a Washington Times article explicitly theorizing that the virus might emerged from a Chinese bioweapons program.

By couching the Daily Mail article—one of the very first, if not the first major news story to raise the possibility of an accidental lab leak—in a piece about fringe theories with thinly backed claims of a bioweapons program, the Post set off a chain of events that would lead to the creation of the bioweapons straw man: the conflation of an accidental lab leak, a theory considered plausible by scientists, then and now, with the actually fringe bioweapons release theory.

Days later, on Feb. 4, 2020, Business Insider’s David Choi picked up this thread, injecting Cotton into the picture by connecting his Senate remarks—which had made no mention of China’s biowarfare program—to “conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins—including one that says the virus ‘originated in lab [sic] linked to China’s biowarfare program.’”

The New York Times would elevate the bioweapons straw man as news media gospel when it reported on Feb. 17 that “The idea of the coronavirus as an escaped weapon has been carried through international news outlets like the British tabloid the Daily Mail and the Washington Times”—even though the Daily Mail article focused exclusively on an accidental lab leak and made no mention of the word “weapon.” This would have been plainly clear to anyone who had even casually perused the two articles, let alone an experienced New York Times reporter and numerous editors. (The New York Times did not respond to a request for comment.)

What accounted for the speed of the media’s about-face? One might posit that hatred of Cotton and the GOP among mainstream reporters and editors is so intense that if the Arkansas senator had said the sky was blue, the entire U.S. press corps would have declared it red. Yet blind partisanship alone couldn’t have guaranteed a rapid, simultaneous, and near-unanimous change in coverage. There was something else.

By now it’s a truism that China wields extraordinary influence over American business, but it’s often forgotten that “American business” includes, of course, the national news media. The nature of that influence does not necessarily entail paying off journalists or news organizations for desired coverage. There is simply an awareness that when the CCP bares its teeth, or, if necessary, goes on the attack, it can alter the fortunes of billion-dollar companies, thousands of employees, and millions of shareholders in the United States and elsewhere.

Consider The Washington Post, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, has enough money to fund the newspaper in perpetuity—an argument against Chinese influence directly shaping coverage. (Who needs China when the richest man on the planet, an American, is your sugar daddy?) But when we take into account that China plays a determining role in Amazon’s profitability, the picture starts to shift. For example, given that half of Amazon’s top 10,000 sellers are Chinese, it’s not hard to understand what would happen to the company’s balance sheet if the CCP decided to disrupt Amazon’s access to those sellers. Similarly, access to the Chinese market will likely be the determining factor in the ability of Amazon’s AWS division to maintain its top spot in the fiercely competitive global cloud computing market. AWS, which recently expanded its presence in China, accounts for nearly half of Amazon’s annual profit.

The Post is not alone. In May, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith penned a column on China’s “vast” strategy to create an alternate global news media and “to insert Chinese money, power and perspective into the media in almost every country in the world.” Smith wrote that China has leveraged its existing media influence to sway coverage, while ramping up that influence through partnerships in countries as far flung as Serbia, the Philippines, Italy, and Guinea-Bissau. Smith, however, never turned his attention to Chinese efforts to plant and harvest influence in its most valuable influence market, the United States, nor did he look at the Times’ own record on pandemic coverage in the context of the paper’s decadelong collaboration with the state-owned media organization China Daily.

The Times and the Post, two of America’s three leading newspapers, are not unique among media outlets in their China ties. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts publicly stated in 2017 that he expected the company’s Universal Studios theme park in China, which opened in September 2021, to generate at least $1 billion in annual operating cash for NBCUniversal’s Universal theme park unit, which saw around $6 billion in total revenue in 2019 (the latest pre-pandemic figure) and accounts for one-third of all of parent company NBCUniversal’s operating cash, making the park a highly lucrative investment for the company. Comcast, the media conglomerate that owns NBCUniversal, also owns NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, Sky News, and Telemundo, and holds major stakes in Vox Media (which owns Vox, The Verge, and New York Magazine, among others) and in BuzzFeed.

Ties between Disney—the parent of ABC News and Hearst Communications (which owns 33 TV news channels that, together, reach almost one-fifth of American viewers, in addition to 250 magazine editions)—and China are so cozy that the Chinese government recently called on the company to help improve ties with the United States government. In 2019, Reddit, an independent subsidiary of the parent company that owns Condé Nast, which in turns owns Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Wired, took $300 million of investment in a funding deal led by CCP-tied tech company Tencent. The list of major U.S. media companies with substantial ties to China is so long that it is more difficult to name one that isn’t dependent in one way or another on Chinese cash.

In addition to blind partisanship, then, all this can help explain why, for example, in a Feb. 9, 2020, interview with Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, CBS News’ Margaret Brennan asked a charged question based on a false premise: “Senator Tom Cotton … suggested the virus may have come from China’s biological warfare program. That’s an extraordinary charge, how do you respond to that?” In response, the ambassador declared that it was “harmful” and “dangerous” to stir up “suspicion” and “rumors” that could lead to “racial discrimination” and “xenophobia.” Brennan moved on.

The same day as that interview, Politico published an article that held Brennan as the source for the bioweapons straw man. “When asked about comments made last week by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)—who, according to Brennan, suggested the virus may have come from China’s biological warfare program—Cui did not mince words,” the article stated [emphasis added]. Note that Politico did not quote Cotton saying something he never actually said; it attributed the false Cotton quote to a presumably reputable source (Brennan) without actually correcting it for readers, who would simply consume it as fact. Politico Managing Editor Blake Hounshell then tweeted that “It was wild to see @SenTomCotton spreading rumors about a Chinese bioweapon that were easily debunked within minutes.”

In its own Feb. 17 story, The New York Times made largely the same assertions as the Post, including the patently false claim that Cotton had “walked back the idea that the coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon run amok.” But the Times report added another partisan twist, reporting that “the conspiracy theory … gained an audience with the help of well-connected critics of the Chinese government such as Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist. And on Sunday [after Cotton’s remarks], it got its biggest public boost yet.” By connecting a plausible lab leak theory first to an implausible bioweapons theory, and then to a hate figure like Steve Bannon, the Times was able to discredit the theory by claiming an association with Trump.

A Business Insider article published on the same day as the Times and Post pieces of Feb. 17 (though later in the day) presented a complete tableau, labeling lab leak a “conspiracy theory,” conflating it with a bioweapons program, claiming the theory had been “thoroughly debunked,” and turning to a Chinese government source (in this case, the editor of the Global Times) to suggest there were similarly credible rumors of a U.S. bioweapons leak. The one thing it couldn’t do was provide a quote about biological weapons from Tom Cotton.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik argued in a June 2021 interview that lab leak “was dismissed and ridiculed by the media” because, he claimed, the “source” of the theory was Trump. The problem with this explanation, as we’ve seen, is that America’s most influential news organizations had vehemently dismissed the lab leak theory as early as February 2020—back when Trump was still praising China for its handling of the virus, and well before he’d said anything at all about the Wuhan lab. It wasn’t until more than a month later, when it became clear that mounting deaths and lockdowns were going to have serious political consequences in the United States, that Trump adopted an anti-Chinese stance; and it wasn’t until two months later that he began making claims about a lab origin. So much for Folkenflik’s theory.

The other common explanation for the media’s anti-lab-leak effort, one still advanced by many members of the press, is that (a) there was no evidence for lab leak, while (b) there was substantial evidence that the virus jumped to humans from an animal. Both claims were rationalized by the now-infamous Lancet letter of February 2020 signed by 27 scientists, which stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”

The Lancet was later harshly criticized after it was revealed that the letter was organized by Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO that distributes U.S. government grant money (from the National Institutes of Health) to biosafety labs, including to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Like the excuse that Trumpian rhetoric had poisoned the well, however, the timeline of this explanation also doesn’t work: The Lancet letter ran on Feb. 19—after The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Business Insider, ABC News, and numerous others had run reporting that definitively labeled lab leak a conspiracy theory.

For Daszak, The Lancet letter was only the opening salvo in a yearlong media campaign in which the EcoHealth Alliance head would become an Ahmed Chalabi-like presence, leading the media with claims of evidence of zoonotic spillover. Daszak would become almost as ubiquitous a media figure as Dr. Anthony Fauci, his government benefactor. This blitz included Daszak being uncritically interviewed, cited, or tapped as a talking head by The Guardian, CNN (on multiple occasions), The New York Times (on multiple occasions), NPR, Slate, The Washington Post, 60 Minutes, Wired US and Wired UK, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, CBS News (on multiple occasions), Science magazine, the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Vox, Now This, ABC News, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and many others.

In these appearances, Daszak, a zoologist who studies zoonosis, advanced three other important threads of the broader media narrative about the coronavirus pandemic. The first was that the virus jumped to humans from animals, almost certainly, he claimed, from bats. This was a point Daszak really hammered home, and which the media accepted as all-but-proven, despite an ongoing lively debate among scientists who are experts in these fields.

The second was that the pandemic is directly related to humanity’s problematic relationship with the natural environment. Daszak penned one of The New York Times’ first COVID-related op-eds, in which he attributed pandemics like COVID-19 to “spillover” from animals as a result of humanity’s collision with nature in the form of “road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development.”

Third, Daszak would claim repeatedly that China was continuing to do exemplary work in the fight against zoonotic viruses—and that anyone who denied it was motivated by an anti-Chinese agenda. “China has done a lot to deal with this virus before us. They know a lot about how to control it,” Daszak told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in an interview subsequently cited by Chinese propaganda outlets. “I think we started to see the conspiracy theories, the pointing of the finger at China, and just this sort of politicization which means countries cramp up and it’s really unfortunate.”

The media enthusiastically embraced this notion as it reported on China as a global model for fighting the pandemic and handling major crises more generally. Outlets as diverse as business analysis company Gartner (“How Chinese Companies Successfully Adapted to COVID-19”), NBC (“As Covid-19 runs riot across the world, China controls the pandemic”), The New Yorker (“How China Controlled the Coronavirus”), Wired (“How China Crushed Coronavirus”), and even The New York Review of Books (“How Did China Beat Its Covid Crisis?”) pursued the storyline that China had beaten the virus not in spite of the authoritarian state, but because of it. In one representative piece, “Power, Patriotism and 1.4 Billion People: How China Beat the Virus and Roared Back,” The New York Times reported on Feb. 5, 2021:

In the year since the coronavirus began its march around the world, China has done what many other countries would not or could not do. With equal measures of coercion and persuasion, it has mobilized its vast Communist Party apparatus to reach deep into the private sector and the broader population, in what the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, has called a “people’s war” against the pandemic—and won.

Why the media, in its coverage of China’s real and perceived successes, would go as far as to declare the fight against the pandemic essentially over, and that China “won,” when the country is still seeing outbreaks and refuses to release real national health data (if it exists) is unclear. It may just be the combination of corporate media heads who don’t want to run afoul of Chinese business or authorities, and the desire of reporters to be “on the right side,” which means that if “Republicans” are for it, then all right-thinking people must be against it.

And if Republicans are against China, then why not uncritically present even the most questionable claims by the CCP? One New York Times article from August 2020 admiringly pointed to China’s official reports of a death toll as low as 4,634, with no further explanation for the statistic. In February 2021, the Times repeated the CCP’s official pandemic statistics, claiming that the total number of dead stood at 4,636 (where it still stands today)—meaning, in a country of 1.4 billion people, there had been a total of two coronavirus deaths in a six-month period.

While Daszak was promoted by the media, those with views about lab leak that diverged from Daszak’s were consistently ignored. For example, on topics related to public health, lockdowns, virus transmission, and vaccines, The New York Times had previously cited Stanford microbiologist David Relman at least 20 times, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at least 64 times, and Yale immunobiologist Akiko Iwasaki at least 67 times. But it did not turn to any of these experts—all of whom were in favor of exploring the lab leak hypothesis—on the question of the virus’s origins. By contrast, in 2020 Peter Daszak was cited by the Times at least a dozen times as an authority on the virus’s origins.

With Daszak leading the way, the media successfully couched lab leak as a conspiracy theory with roots in Trumpian politics, environmental denialism, and anti-Chinese sentiment. Together, these formed what we might call Daszak’s triangle, a mental model that made lab leak a social and political impossibility for anyone who did not want to be branded as an anti-science, right-wing xenophobe. Conversely, the “correct” (as distinct from “true”) theory of the pandemic’s origins was tied to animal spillover through the well-accepted notion of catastrophic environmental damage caused by human greed. The lead sentence of a September 2020 New York Times piece (which quoted extensively from Daszak) about a Times documentary, “Who’s to Blame for the Pandemic?” answered the question by stating: “The pandemic is your fault. Yes, yours.”

Daszak’s triangle made it impossible to even consider that partial responsibility for the origins of the pandemic might rest with the Chinese government. With reports of a global backlash of anti-Asian racism, some proponents of the anti-lab-leak narrative began claiming that any investigation into the origins and course of the pandemic was an act of pure bigotry. This narrative was able to conflate anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism (a very real and disturbing phenomenon) with a desire to question CCP claims concerning the pandemic’s origins.

In late February 2020, Slate published an article, “Where the Coronavirus Bioweapons Theory Really Came From,” which stated, “It does not matter how effectively we counter conspiracies claiming evidence that the virus shows signs of being engineered. That’s because the rumors of a lab escape or a bioweapon stem from historical amnesia, a caricatured villain, and good old-fashioned racism.”

As late as spring and summer of 2021—after the media had started to moderate its anti-lab-leak stance—journalists and commentators were still making the case that the theory is an inherently racist idea. In May, New York Times science and health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli tweeted (and later deleted): “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots.” A month later, CNN medical analyst Leana Wen similarly tweeted that “speculation over the lab leak theory will increase anti-Asian hate.”

In May 2021, Donald G. McNeil Jr., previously The New York Times’ lead pandemic reporter but ousted from the paper in February for an unrelated incident, penned an apologia, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lab-Leak Theory,” including an explanation of why he thought the media worked so hard to discredit lab leak. McNeil, who has decades of experience in science and medical reporting (including on pandemics), dove into the rationale, including the relevant science, for why he and many of his colleagues had considered lab leak implausible, and zoonotic spillover the more credible answer.

McNeil demonstrated much of the flawed argumentation from Daszak’s triangle, including the idea that “the leak idea was just too conveniently conspiratorial” and that the Trump administration’s perceived lack of credibility was the real obstacle, but he was not able to explain the immediate, simultaneous, and almost reflexive reaction by the media—including but certainly not limited to the Times—to cast lab leak as unscientific and fringe. Which theory is more likely—lab leak or zoonotic spillover—is of course the key question for science. The question for the media is why it chose sides so quickly, so vigorously, and so collectively, before there was enough evidence either way.

The day after Mandavilli’s tweet about the racist roots of lab leak, Nature published a news article stating that “rhetoric around an alleged lab leak has grown so toxic that it’s fueling online bullying of scientists and anti-Asian harassment in the United States …” The article provided no evidence for the latter claim, not even a glance at statistics involving cases of anti-Asian hate crimes in the relevant timeframe.

Why would a scientific journal (of all things) make a charged claim it couldn’t bother to support? The answer lies in the second half of the sentence quoted above. In addition to fueling anti-Asian hate, Nature averred that exploring lab leak risked “offending researchers and authorities in China whose cooperation is needed” [emphasis added]. In these few words—more ham-fisted but also more revealing than anything you’d find in a leading consumer news outlet—Nature drew back the curtain on not just the connection the media drew between lab leak and racism, but the media’s broader take on the role that China played in the pandemic.

As Paul D. Thacker, the investigative journalist who conducts extensive scientific, medical, and environmental reporting (including for many of the outlets mentioned above) and now authors the DisInformation Chronicle, explained to me in an email exchange:

When it comes to the science media, I rarely refer to many of them as “science reporters.” They are “science writers” because their job is to tell a story that makes science look good, not to do actual reporting. That’s why so many of them have done such a terrible job and called the lab leak a “conspiracy theory” or said that it was anti-Asian bias. Why is it anti-Asian to say that the pandemic started in a Wuhan lab, but not anti-Asian to say it started in a Wuhan wet market?

While this might explain the false narrative that emerged about lab leak in the science media, it still leaves us wondering why the consumer news media took much the same approach.

This question is at the core of what might be one of the greatest journalistic scandals of our generation. That there appears to be no accountability, self-reflection, or Iraq-WMD-style reckoning on the horizon only compounds the problem. If and when it does, we are likely to conclude that the false narrative around the pandemic’s origins represented a tipping point—a comprehensive failure in journalistic quality and mores in a time of national emergency, caused in large part by an overconcentration of corporate power in media, decades of economic and technological turbulence, and a disturbingly supine approach to an authoritarian hegemon. We might also discover that public trust in an institution essential to democracy was damaged beyond repair.

Source : Tablet

Chart: Where The Most Journalists Are Imprisoned Worldwide

Source : Statista

Chart: Global Demand for Original Contents of Streaming Media Platforms in Q1 2021