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Facebook-Backed Group That Tracks Disinformation Dismisses Wuhan Lab Leak Theory As An ‘Outright False Narrative’

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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  • The Digital Forensics Research Lab released a report on Monday that called the theory that the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan an “outright false narrative.” 
  • The lab, which receives funding from Facebook, also asserted in its report that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton helped seed conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus by calling for an investigation into the lab leak theory. 
  • The lab theory is far from debunked. The Washington Post editorial board called it “plausible” in a Feb. 5 editorial, and called for the World Health Organization to investigate. 

A research group affiliated with a prominent foreign policy think tank and funded by Facebook released a report on Monday asserting that the theory that the coronavirus pandemic originated from a leak in a lab in Wuhan is disinformation, even though the theory has not been debunked.

“The report focuses on how varying, unverified, and outright false narratives that the virus was a bioweapon or the result of a lab accident spread globally on social media and beyond, and the geopolitical consequences of those narratives,” reads the report, from The Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFRLab).

DFRLab, which is affiliated with the Atlantic Council, conducted a study in conjunction with the Associated Press into the amplification of several theories about the origins of the virus.

In 2018, Reuters reported that Facebook was a major funder for the lab. The social media giant donated at least $1 million to the Atlantic Council in 2019, according to the think tank’s most recent annual report.

A spokesperson for the Atlantic Council told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Facebook was not involved in the latest study, entitled “Weaponized: How rumors about COVID-19’s origins led to a narrative arms race.”

For the study, DFRLab analyzed theories that the virus was created in a U.S. military lab in Maryland and released into China and, conversely, that the Chinese government created it as a bioweapon in a lab in Wuhan. (RELATED: A Study Touted As A Blow To Conservatives’ Complaints About Big Tech Was Funded By Biden Donor)

While those theories have been widely debunked, the researchers also looked into the origins of the theory that the virus first infected humans as the result of an accident in a lab in Wuhan, China.

While the lab leak theory was widely dismissed in the early days of the pandemic, it has gained traction even among liberal institutions as a possible explanation for how the coronavirus first infected humans.

On Feb. 5, the Washington Post editorial board called on the World Health Organization to investigate the lab theory during a fact-finding mission to China.

“We don’t know where the pandemic began. But a major step toward finding the answer is to examine all the relevant databases and laboratory records, including those at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and elsewhere, and the clues they may hold,” the editorial board wrote.

The board called the lab leak theory “plausible” and said that it “must be investigated.”

DFRLab’s report focuses mainly on disinformation pushed out by pro-Beijing operatives who sought to deflect blame for the pandemic away from the Chinese government.

The Associated Press noted in its write-up of the study that the Chinese government “took a leading role” in disseminating virus-related disinformation.

The most prominent example of Beijing-linked disinformation is from Lijian Zhao, the deputy director of China’s Foreign Ministry Information Department.

“It may be that the US military brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao tweeted on March 12, 2020.

While the report focuses on China, the DFRLab researchers also criticize prominent Republicans like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, an early proponent of investigating the lab leak theory.

The DFRLab researchers stop short of accusing Cotton of peddling disinformation. Instead, they assert that his calls for investigating the origins of the virus laid the groundwork for conspiracy theorists to float more extreme theories about the root cause of the pandemic.

“We still don’t know where coronavirus originated,” Cotton tweeted on Jan. 30, 2020.

Cotton acknowledged that the prevailing theory that the virus started at a food market in Wuhan was plausible. But he also noted that the Chinese government had withheld information about the virus, and that Wuhan was home to a research lab that studied coronaviruses.

“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,” he wrote.

Two weeks before Cotton sent the tweet, the World Health Organization published a now-debunked claim, based on information from the Chinese government, that the coronavirus did not spread via human-to-human contact. (RELATED: FLASHBACK: WHO Tells Everyone Don’t Worry, The Coronavirus Isn’t Contagious)

DFRLab asserts that while Cotton’s statements “would not meet the strict definition of disinformation,” his remarks “provided source material for others” to deliberately spread false information about the virus, including that it was created as a bioweapon.

Cotton has vehemently denied pushing the theory that the virus was a China-made bioweapon.

“The mainstream media are largely apologists for Chinese communists and they will accept Chinese communist propaganda,” Cotton told The Daily Caller News Foundation on April 1.

“They immediately try to accuse anyone who raises these reasonable questions as conspiracy theorists that are accusing China of creating a biological weapon.”

DFRLab provides little explanation for dismissing the lab leak theory beyond a citation from a World Health Organization official Peter Embarek, who said last week that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus started at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus walked back the assessment on Thursday, saying that “all hypotheses…remain open and require further study.”

The WHO investigation has come under intense scrutiny, and even earned rebuke from the Biden administration.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser for President Joe Biden, issued a statement on Saturday saying that the U.S. has “deep concerns” about the WHO investigation in the wake of reports that Chinese authorities had withheld raw data collected on early coronavirus patients.

One of the WHO team investigators has long fought against the lab leak theory, well before it was thoroughly investigated.

A science community watchdog group released an email on Monday in which Peter Daszak, a zoologist on the WHO investigative team, asked colleagues in February 2020 to sign a letter stating that the lab leak was a “conspiracy theory.”

A spokesman for the Atlantic Council defended the DFRLab report, telling the DCNF that it is “an important examination of the escalation of unverified or false narratives about the origins of COVID-19.

Alex Kisling, the think tank spokesman, said that the “bulk” of the study “focused on the attempts of malign foreign actors to cast blame on the United States for creating the virus.”

Regarding Cotton, Kisling said that the report “is clear that the senator’s comments on the origin of the virus were unverified.”

“Those speculative comments, however, were then amplified by others to support a false narrative, namely that the virus was developed as a bioweapon.”

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