Great power competition in the age of the attention economy

Is the Wuhan lab talk an inescapable rabbit hole for Joe Biden?

President Joe Biden has asked US intelligence agencies for information that “could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” on whether COVID-19 “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident” at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

No one disputes that many questions remain unanswered about the emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19. While Biden’s order seeks to answer only whether the lab was involved in an accident, reasoned questions don’t make the internet go ‘round: unreasoned suspicion and sensation do.

The problem is that these legitimate questions capture attention by surfing on a mountainous wave of Wuhan lab leak conspiracy theories. Much of this conspiracy content intertwines with the more reasoned questions. The strange life-cycle that results sees Wuhan lab leak conspiracy theories confer a patina of legitimacy on themselves through this parasitic relationship with legitimate inquiry. This pulls yet more attention in a sensationalist direction, yielding more articles, posts and commentary containing the apparent logic: ‘it could be true, so it must be true.’ If there is any doubt, the rising web traffic provides justification. In the process, the real and frankly unreal questions blend together in a haze of unlimited algorithmic interest.

After Biden’s announcement, it’s impossible to decouple legitimate inquiry from conspiracy. Any attempt to address those lingering questions just inflates the fantastical parts that can almost never be disproved.

It’s the Benghazi effect — but for much of the global public.  

In this instance, though, Biden risks losing control of his own agenda on China. Rather than discuss human rights in Xinjiang or the economic future of Americans or US posture in the Pacific, he has brought future Wuhan lab leak talk inside the halls of power, where questions of whether or not he is “ignoring” those conspiracies that cannot easily be disproven can undermine the rest of what he hopes to achieve.

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Since it became clear a pandemic was under way that would significantly disrupt the world, conspiracy theories have been everywhere. Some of the usual suspects leaned heavily on standard conspiracy: China tried to blame the US, Russia blamed the US, so did Iran, and frequently these rehashed older conspiracies about US-made bioweapons. Then-President Trump and other members of his administration blamed China for the “China virus,” as Trump so eloquently called it, helping fuel a rash of anti-Asian sentiment at home.

But then there were other conspiracy theories. The idea that COVID-19 began as a Chinese bioweapon looms in the background. So are conspiracies about Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates intentionally creating the virus for a variety of diabolical world domination plots. It gets darker and more convoluted the deeper you go, connecting efficiently to other conspiracy subgenres.

So despite more recent expressions of doubt by some virologists and the accompanying calls for a renewed investigation of the lab leak theory, it’s hard to ignore that the theory’s loudest champions and amplifiers have long been the likes of the Trump White House, Fox News, Epoch Times, Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui’s GNews, other Murdoch media, and Republicans in search of causes to coalesce around — including, more recently, subjects to attack the new administration on.

And this is how we have arrived at this moment, where every major news outlet is running pieces questioning whether the “lab leak theory” has been ignored — not because there is any new evidence, but simply because it is being engaged more online in this broader conspiracy universe.

It’s unclear that the US intelligence community will be able to offer anything decisive on the matter of what role, if any, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had in the creation or emergence of COVID-19. Conclusive answers will be hard to come by this far after the events they hope to explore. The White House has noted that two major intelligence agencies favor the natural emergence explanation, while one favors the lab accident explanation — though in all three cases, they rate this analysis with “low confidence.” This indicates that the information currently available is vague or unverifiable. And as several allied intelligence heads have said, at this point, it’s likely that much of the potential evidence has been destroyed. 

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Biden’s idea is likely that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but decoupling the serious questions of grown-ups from bad-but-viral content may be harder than he hopes. 

For example, questions about the safety record of the lab in Wuhan have been muddled with conspiratorial views from the beginning.

In February 2020, Epoch Times interviewed Tim Trevan, a biosecurity expert, who cited concerns about the safety of the lab in 2017. (Founded by the Falun Gong, Epoch Times has “evolved from a nonprofit newspaper that carried a Chinese-American religious movement’s anti-communism message into a conservative online news behemoth that embraced President Donald Trump and conspiracy content.” It is now impossible to escape Epoch Times content — served up as ads on YouTube, promoted by conservative politicians and influencers.) 

The February 2020 interview was titled: “There Exist Systemic Problems With China’s Virus Research Labs.—Tim Trevan,” and in it an Epoch Times interviewer repeatedly asked Trevan about chemical weapons developed at Chinese biosafety research labs.

“I have not seen any evidence of that,” Trevan says.

The next question: “Tell me why don’t you think China is developing biological weapons.”

Trevan explains that biological weapons have been banned internationally since 1972 and China was an original signatory and a signed-on member for that convention.

“By the way, that wouldn’t persuade me,” the interviewer replies.

The Youtube video of the interview, which is represented as expert testimony to these conspiratorial facts, was seen over 100,000 times. 

Since the start of 2020, the dynamo of fear and suspicion has been so strong that we seem to forget that many articles discussing the SARS and MERS outbreaks routinely ended with warnings from experts that humanity was overdue for a pandemic.

But with 175 million infected and 3.5 million dead globally, emotion has steamrolled reason.

In our global commons, the idea that a more nefarious explanation must exist to explain the strange events of the past year expands like architectural creations on Minecraft: the structures take shape almost effortlessly, filling the public’s view.

One logically flawed suspicion — “China was creating a bioweapon” — serves as a foundation to another equally large flawed structure — say, that the National Institutes of Health under Anthony Fauci purposely funded the virus’ creation, which has been a popular conspiracy theory from the earliest days of the pandemic.

The endless expanse of the internet can be filled with endless content, integrating the latest information as it goes.

After more than a year of rightwing partisans hammering away at this suspicion, at least in part as a punishment for Fauci’s public questioning of Trump’s actions and statements on the pandemic, Biden directing the US intelligence community to explore the question of the lab won’t tamp down the other chatter.

Anticipation of the report will only fuel discussion, and the absence of answers to conspiracies will be seen as evidence itself. The process will consume valuable White House attention and energy. The entire quest for answers is framed by what, for the foreseeable future, are non-disprovable theories. 

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Nonetheless, this process and the inescapable shadow of undisprovable theories can eventually affect the real-world options for Biden. 

For example, what happened in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 was never an insider plan by the Clinton-led State Department to kill American diplomats — yet the endless hearings and investigations amplified this as a go-to topic in the conspiratorial rightwing media, as well as more mainstream news. It’s just as likely now that “Benghazi” elicits thoughts of the conspiracy as thoughts of the actual event. 

The Wuhan lab probe is already having a similar Benghazi effect. The conspiracies that won't be answered — because they are not being explored — will gain prominence, accompanied by the usual claims that the real questions are being ignored. 

Since Biden’s announcement, for example, the cadre of conspiracy amplifiers, many of whom themselves muddle what questions they are seeking to answer about the lab, have used the investigation to attack the credibility of the media and experts who weren’t discussing it before. 

A Washington Post columnist who was an earlier promoter of a range of theories on Wuhan tweeted: “Most MSM reporters didn’t ‘ignore’ the lab leak theory, they actively crapped all over it for over a year while pretending to be objective out of a toxic mix of confirmation bias, source bias (their scientist sources lied to them), group think, [Trump derangement syndrome] and general incompetence.”

And more: “Also, the lab leak theory didn’t change. It didn’t suddenly become credible. It didn’t jump from crazy to reasonable. The theory has always been the same. The people who got it wrong changed their minds. They are writing about themselves, with zero self awareness.”

But this is the part worth paying attention to: the facts didn’t change. They’re still scant. 

What’s changed is the feelings around the facts, the social acceptance of them, the sort of sentiment that can be altered through a conscious effort of messaging — and the amplification of that message in our feeds by the algorithms picking up on all this active noise.

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Biden’s willingness to wade into this topic in such a forthright way is surprising. But real caution is warranted. Biden wouldn’t be the first president to have their agenda co-opted or swayed by noise driven by social media, including in ways that ultimately undermined their stated policies.

During his time in office, for example, a domestically-minded President Obama thought he could run the clock down on the Syrian Civil War until it was no longer an issue for him. From the first days of the conflict, when Syrian partisans tried to inform the world of events on the ground using social media, a different network of online partisans emerged and worked tirelessly to dominate and shape Western views on Syria. This network, which enjoyed amplification by Kremlin networks and aligned influencers, aimed to drive and shape understanding of Syria into the idea that it was a hopeless conflict with no heroes that Western powers had no place in. 

This network worked to help block a British resolution for action, and it worked to get Americans to believe that the Syrian War was “another Iraq.” Some of the points weren’t so different from what Obama’s White House was saying — so it was a matter of amplifying them for tactical gain. Obama responded to diplomatic, political, and online pressure by giving Syria just enough attention to keep it on his agenda — first by drawing a red-line on the use of chemical weapons (which the Syrians promptly crossed), then by giving the Kremlin a star role as magnanimous international peacemaker in the conflict. 

Attention absorbed by the Mideast helped prevent the US from carrying out its long-promised Pivot to Asia in earnest, which then gave China more time and room to move in the region. I watched this play out in news cycle after news cycle from my vantage in Australian news. 

Obama’s actions, sensitive to online pressure, came to define his foreign policy legacy in ways he could not have predicted. Once the online partisans saw they had a lever with the White House, they kept pulling it. 

Later, when Syrian refugees streamed into Europe in 2015, the anti-West chorus described them as an “invasion” of “rape-ugees,” creating a crisis of confidence in trans-Atlantic alliance. At the same time, the Obama administration had just spent considerable energy downplaying talk of ‘”death panels” and a “missing” birth certificate, and would later do the same on Jade Helm 15. All of this culminated in a presidential campaign that hinged on “her emails.”

The subjects seem disconnected — but they are part of the same game. Biden must recognize that these distracting diversions to a degree are the game — meant to capture and dominate the attention economy of the White House.

Jade Helm 15 was never about any Obama administration plan to impose martial law, but the public fear ginned up online to amplify that make-believe scenario in the affected states consumed real time in the White House.

President Biden may be trying to wait out the issue of interest in the origins of COVID, or to hope that a report from the intelligence agencies will quash the conspiracies by seeking to address the legitimate questions — but really it’s just more time for suspicions to be reinforced, and for more Minecraft cities of flawed information to be built.

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Team Biden must be cautious not to be ingested by an issue they cannot influence: the almost non-disprovable suspicion that the Wuhan Lab birthed the pandemic, and all the tentacles that come with it.  

Ronald Reagan’s principle that “if you are explaining, you are losing” still holds true. The question is: in three months will China be explaining itself on the pandemic’s origins? Or will Biden be explaining himself on China? 

Allowing the Wuhan lab theory top billing in the US discussion on China creates a detour from the all-important framing of the issue.

It’s possible the IC, working with US National Labs, will shake loose some consequential yet incomplete piece of information.

But how would the world be different if China hatched or botched the virus in a laboratory? How does it change our geopolitical situation? How does it change the US relationship with or policy toward China? Don’t we already have enough information to know how we should view China?

China is still an authoritarian superpower. It still poses a fundamental challenge to open democracies. China is still a large strategic peer competitor. The pandemic still spreads and evolves as they obfuscate the data that may help us understand why. 

And US policy still doesn’t have sharp enough answers about strategic competition with authoritarian powers. That’s where we should be focused. 

In the first hundred days of his administration, Biden has surprised the world with a fulsome program of rebuilding the middle class, addressing racial inequality, and facing up to climate change. 

But there are only so many minutes in the attention economy of a presidency.

The “Wuhan lab leak” theory rode to prominence on a wave of conspiracy theories. What happens when control of the public’s attention becomes the new strategic high ground? 

The new old game of great power competition isn’t just about trade, or diplomacy, or technology. It’s also about time, attention and focus in a digital world.

Either Biden understood this when he announced the 90 day review, or he’s about to learn this, possibly in a hard way.

— CZ