Cloaked Science: The Yan Reports
The Yan Report is a misleading article masquerading as science, which falsely claims that the novel coronavirus was made in a Chinese lab. An example of cloaked science, it was released during a time of intense uncertainty; as scientists raced for answers about COVID-19, sharing unvetted data as preprints in open science repositories became an essential mode of international collaboration. The increasing openness of the scientific community, though, is a vulnerability that can be leveraged by media manipulators, especially during times of crisis. On April 28, 2020, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), fled to the United States with support from Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui. They used Yan’s story — that she was a whistleblower — to exploit the contentious wedge issue of the unknown origin of COVID-19.
This media manipulation campaign involved planting misleading evidence into the scientific literature, muddying the waters about COVID-19 and providing the veneer of scientific legitimacy for the political claim that coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon. Subsequently, the Yan Report was amplified through right-wing media networks, leading to nearly a million views of the report on Zenodo, an open-access research data repository. While social media platforms moderated information about the Yan Report after scientists at several universities debunked it, two follow-up Yan Reports were uploaded to open science repositories that even more bluntly pushed the bioweapon narrative, while also refuting the academic responses to the first report. Seeding the Yan reports in the scientific community as cloaked science allowed those who linked to them on social media to claim legitimacy, while also providing the empirical basis for furthering the political aims of the funders of the reports.
Stage 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins
Within a few weeks of the novel coronavirus spreading from China to the rest of the world, a pernicious narrative began to take root online: the suggestion that the virus SARS-CoV-2 was a biological weapon created in a lab.1
In mid-January 2020, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), gave credence to this idea when she told her favorite YouTuber — Wang Dinggang, a vocal critic of the Chinese government, and close associate of exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui2 — about rumors she had heard about the virus’ origins. Wang repeated the conversations on his channel without naming her “because officials could make the person disappear. ”3
On January 25, 2020, a hyperpartisan news outlet called G News published an article further pushing the bioweapon conspiracy theory. It was titled, “Breaking news: China will admit coronavirus coming from its P4 lab.”4 G News was not the only media outlet pushing the narrative, but its involvement was significant because G News is a media outlet associated with Guo and Steve Bannon, former Breitbart executive and ally of President Trump. The two have formed a partisan alliance to push their shared anti-CCP agenda through the Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society, which they founded in October 2017.5 Funded by Guo and managed by Bannon, Rule of Law aims to “protect and assist individuals victimized in China, particularly those penalized for speaking out against injustice.”6 Guo and Bannon were drawn together because both “naturally despise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),”7 according to Guo. They also both have media backgrounds. Bannon was previously Trump's chief strategist, and, before that he ran the right-wing news site Breitbart. Guo founded and funds G News,8 which often posts anti-CCP stories across social media platforms, and prominently on the social media platform, Parler.
Prior to the first Yan report being released, Bannon said Wang’s YouTube episode featuring Yan was shown to and translated for him.9 As doubts about the origins of COVID-19 continued to proliferate across right-wing media networks, Guo and Bannon connected with Yan. This is when the pieces fell into place for what would become the Yan Report media manipulation campaign.
In interviews, Yan had been arguing that both China and the World Health Organization knew about the novel coronavirus earlier than they admitted. This is not a unique claim. Similar narratives, for example, were also circulating using the hashtag #chinaliedpeopledied, which went viral in March and April 2020.10 Yan put forward that she had evidence that the notion that the virus transferred from animals to humans was a “smokescreen” to hide its true origin, which she claims is a lab in Wuhan with close connections to the Chinese Communist Party.11 These claims are unfounded and have been debunked.12
While similar claims had been made by others, Yan stands out due to her background in science. Her CV says she has a medical degree from Xiangya Medical College of Central South University and a PhD from Southern Medical University.13 Prior to joining Bannon and Guo, Yan held a postdoctoral fellowship at Hong Kong University (HKU), where she was the first author on a COVID research paper that was published by Nature — one of the most prestigious biology journals in the world.14
Guo flew Yan to the US on April 28, 2020.15 In her most recent articles, she lists the Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society as her formal affiliations.
In late April and early May, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fanned the flames of the January rumor that COVID-19 was made in a lab.16 Trump contradicted his own intelligence team by saying he had seen evidence and that he had a “high degree of confidence” that it was created and released in Wuhan.17
On July 10, 2020, Yan traded her story up the chain from online and hyperpartisan news outlets to an interview on Fox News.18 During the interview she said she was in hiding from the Chinese government and referred to herself as a whistleblower, claiming to have worked on human-to-human COVID transmission as early as December 2019.19 Fox, in turn, called her a whistleblower in its article about the interview.20 It is the earliest article labeling her as such.
The interview garnered a lot of attention online with over 2.7 million views on YouTube and 18K reactions on Facebook.21 The YouTube video has since been removed by Facebook according to data from CrowdTangle, a “public insights tool” owned by Facebook.22 The day after this interview, HKU put out a press release refuting what Yan told Fox News about her research.23
Yan continued to ramp up media appearances. On September 9, she repeated her claims to Raheem Kassam, co-host of Bannon’s popular podcast and YouTube show War Room: Pandemic, editor-in-chief of the conservative news site National Pulse and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart London.24 On September 11, Yan told Loose Women, a British talk show, that she would publish the evidence.25 The interview is available on YouTube, and has over 1.4M views.26 Then the New York Post quoted Yan’s interview with Loose Women,27 as did Tech Times (8.8K followers on Twitter),28 the Daily Mail (2.6M followers),29 and Mint (1.9M followers).30
With Yan, Guo and Bannon were able to effectively exploit the active crisis of the coronavirus by spreading her claims about its origins and the wedge issue of mistrust of the CCP. However, reporters were still skeptical of her claims and comments across social media repeatedly clamored for evidence.
- 1Bill Gertz, “Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program,” The Washington Times, January 26, 2020, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/jan/26/coronavirus-link-to-china-biowarfare-program-possi/; Ken Webster, “Coronavirus May Have Links to Biowarfare Program: Analysts,” KPRC AM 950, January 28, 2020, https://kprcradio.iheart.com/featured/the-pursuit-of-happiness/content/2020-01-28-coronavirus-may-have-links-to-biowarfare-program-analysts/; Alex, Kasprak, “The Origins and Scientific Failings of the COVID-19 ‘Bioweapon’ Conspiracy Theory,” Snopes, April 1, 2020, https://www.snopes.com/news/2020/04/01/covid-19-bioweapon/.
- 2Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, and Danny Hakim, “How Steve Bannon and a Chinese Billionaire Created a Right-Wing Coronavirus Media Sensation,” The New York Times, November 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/20/business/media/steve-bannon-china.html.
- 3Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, and Danny Hakim, “How Steve Bannon and a Chinese Billionaire Created a Right-Wing Coronavirus Media Sensation.”
- 4GM35, “Breaking News: China Will Admit Coronavirus Coming from Its P4 Lab,” G News, January 25, 2020, https://gnews.org/89749/.
- 5Brian Spegele, Sha Hua, and Aruna Viswanatha, “Fundraising at Company Tied to Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui Faces Probe,” The Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/fundraising-at-company-tied-to-steve-bannon-and-guo-wengui-faces-probe-11597857467; David Barboza, “Steve Bannon and a Fugitive Billionaire Target a Common Enemy: China,” The New York Times, December 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/business/stephen-bannon-guo-wengui-china.html.
- 6“Rule of Law Society - Home,” accessed January 2, 2021, https://rolsociety.org/.
- 7David Barboza, “Steve Bannon and a Fugitive Billionaire Target a Common Enemy: China.”
- 8Jane Lytvynenko, “A Site Tied To Steve Bannon Is Writing Fake News About The Coronavirus,” BuzzFeed News, February 3, 2020, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/janelytvynenko/a-site-tied-to-steve-bannon-is-writing-fake-news-about-the.
- 9Qin et al., “How Steve Bannon and a Chinese Billionaire Created a Right-Wing Coronavirus Media Sensation.”
- 10This data was tracked by TaSC.
- 11Vikash Aiyappa, “Wuhan Wet Market a Smokescreen by Chinese Government Says Virologist Dr. Li-Meng,” Yahoo! News, September 22, 2020, https://in.news.yahoo.com/wuhan-wet-market-smokescreen-chinese-024117205.html.
- 12 Melissa Healy, “Was the Coronavirus Made in a Wuhan Lab? Here’s What the Genetic Evidence Shows,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-05-09/was-the-coronavirus-made-in-a-wuhan-lab-heres-what-the-genetic-evidence-shows.
- 13“Virtual Keystone Symposia: Li-Meng Yan, MD, PhD,” https://virtual.keystonesymposia.org/ks/speakers/view/1097.
- 14Sin Fun Sia, Li-Meng Yan, Alex W. H. Chin, Kevin Fung, Ka-Tim Choy, Alvina Y. L. Wong, Prathanporn Kaewpreedee, Ranawaka A. P. M. Perera, Leo L. M. Poon, John M. Nicholls, Malik Peiris and Hui-Ling Yen. “Pathogenesis and Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Golden Hamsters.” Nature, 583 (May 14, 2020): 834–38, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2342-5.
- 15Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, and Danny Hakim, “How Steve Bannon and a Chinese Billionaire Created a Right-Wing Coronavirus Media Sensation.”
- 16Melissa Healy, “Was the Coronavirus Made in a Wuhan Lab? Here’s What the Genetic Evidence Shows;” Maanvi Singh, Helen Davidson and Julian Borger, “Trump Claims to Have Evidence Coronavirus Started in Chinese Lab but Offers No Details,” The Guardian, April 30, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/30/donald-trump-coronavirus-chinese-lab-claim.
- 17Zachary Cohen, Alex Marquardt, Kylie Atwood and Jim Acosta, “Trump Contradicts US Intel Community by Claiming He’s Seen Evidence Coronavirus Originated in Chinese Lab,” CNN, May 1, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/30/politics/trump-intelligence-community-china-coronavirus-origins/index.html.
- 18"Hong Kong Scientist Claiming China “covered up” Coronavirus Data Speaks Out," FOX News, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7voTUuVT5i4.; Barnini Chakraborty and Alex Diaz, “EXCLUSIVE: Chinese Virologist Accuses Beijing of Coronavirus Cover-up, Flees Hong Kong: ‘I Know How They Treat Whistleblowers,’” FOX News, July 10, 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/world/chinese-virologist-coronavirus-cover-up-flee-hong-kong-whistleblower.
- 19"Hong Kong Scientist Claiming China 'covered up' Coronavirus Data Speaks Out."
- 21"Hong Kong Scientist Claiming China “covered up” Coronavirus Data Speaks Out”, FOX News. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7voTUuVT5i4&t=2s; Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/FoxNews/posts/10159636053686336.
- 22Will Bleakley, “About Us,” CrowdTangle, accessed January 2, 2021, http://help.crowdtangle.com/en/articles/4201940-about-us.
- 23The University of Hong Kong, “HKU Responds to the Media Concerning a Former Staff Member’s TV Interview,” July 11, 2020, https://www.hku.hk/press/press-releases/detail/21274.html.
- 24Raheem Kassam Discusses the Origin of the CCP Virus, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOJDZFQ9NiI&feature=emb_logo. Note: The Twitter pages for War Room Pandemic and National Pulse have been suspended.
- 25Loose Women, Virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan Claims Coronavirus Lab “Cover-Up” Made Her Flee China, YouTube, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Lq3_rsBJ9w.
- 26Loose Women, Virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan Claims Coronavirus Lab “Cover-Up” Made Her Flee China.
- 27Natalie Musumeci, “Chinese Virologist Claims COVID Was Made in Lab — but US Studies Don’t Agree,” New York Post, September 11, 2020, https://nypost.com/2020/09/11/chinese-virologist-says-she-has-proof-covid-19-was-made-in-wuhan-lab/.
- 28CJ Robles, “Chinese Whistleblower, Dr. Li-Meng Yan to Release Scientific Proof that Coronavirus Came from Wuhan Lab, Not at a Wet Market,” Tech Times, September 11, 2020, https://www.techtimes.com/amp/articles/252484/20200911/chinese-whistleblower-dr-li-meng-yan-to-release-scientific-proof-that-coronavirus-came-from-wuhan-lab-not-at-a-wet-market.htm.
- 29Monica Greep, “Chinese Virologist Who Fled to the US after Claiming Beijing Covered up Covid-19 Vows to Publish Evidence PROVING the Virus Is Manmade - and Claims Even Non-Scientists Will Be Able to Verify the Data,” Daily Mail Online, September 11, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-8722519/Virologist-claims-publish-evidence-PROVING-coronavirus-manmade.html.
- 30Mint (@livemint), “Chinese Virologist Dr Li-Meng Yan Has Claimed That the Novel #coronavirus Was Made in a Government Controlled Laboratory in Wuhan,” Twitter, September 14, 2020, https://twitter.com/livemint/status/1305394599460913153.
STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web
All of this publicity put Yan’s name into circulation in the US and primed the public for the next phase of the campaign, which was the release of a preprint scientific paper.1 The paper exploited the vulnerability of open science to fuel rumors about the origin of COVID-19 and push an anti-CCP narrative. The paper is an example of cloaked science — a discrete piece of scientific-looking misinformation — which gave credibility to conspiracies suggesting that COVID-19 was a bioweapon and that it had been engineered by China.
On September 14, 2020, Yan, along with three other names,2 released a preprint paper on an open-access research data repository called Zenodo. The title of the paper used scientific keywords central to the bioweapon misinformation narrative: “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route.”3 Its entire claim is in its title: COVID-19 was created in a lab. She joined Twitter and tweeted the Zenodo link to her preprint.4
Once considered controversial, the publication of preprints during the pandemic has increased in order to share data quickly during the crisis.5 But preprint publications can also be a vulnerability in the information ecosystem. Because preprints are not scrutinized in the same way as peer-reviewed journal articles and can be uploaded by anyone, they can become vectors for misinformation. “Preprints are the Facebook of science,” said Dr. Pamela Silver, who sits on the advisory board of bioRxiv, the premier preprint server for biology.6
Yan’s choices to release the paper as a preprint, and to use Zenodo as the terrain to disseminate it, appear strategic. Zenodo is hosted at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and funded by OpenAIRE and the European Commission. Uploads to Zenodo are automatically assigned a DOI (Document Object Indicator), which gives it a baseline-level of legitimacy and a way for other scientists to cite it. Additionally, in contrast to bioRxiv, Zenodo is designed so that anyone with an email address can upload their ideas.7
BioRxiv also has a four-to-five day delay between author upload and public viewing, whereas Zenodo makes papers available immediately. If Yan had uploaded to bioRxiv, she would have had to wait while the team reviewed the uploaded preprint to determine whether the information was original and scientifically sound.8 Furthermore, on bioRxiv, authors need to be affiliated with an institution with an ORCID (an academic identifier), but Zenodo does not have the same requirement. Yan listed her affiliation on her Zenodo paper as Bannon and Guo’s Rule of Law Foundation and Rule of Law Society.
Once Yan had uploaded the preprint to Zenodo, it was shared by others across multiple platforms. Raheem Kassam uploaded it to Scribd as “The Yan Report,” emphasizing her authorship. Using the same naming convention, it has been uploaded to YouTube as audio and added to publicly viewable Google Drives. Tweets and articles also describe the preprint as the “Yan Report.”
The speed of open science meant that Yan’s preprint could travel far — and quickly.9 On the day of its publication, Twitter mentions of Yan’s report were made by the likes of India’s WION News (292.5K followers)10 and News18 (4.5M followers);11 right-wing accounts such as ZeroHedge (842K followers);12 and retired NBCUniversal Senior Executive Mike Sington (24.2K followers).13
Peter Navarro (92.5K followers), Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, tweeted, “It would be unbelievable if it weren't so believable. #CCPLiedPeopleDied.” The tweet included a link to a ZeroHedge article about Yan joining Twitter and tweeting a link to her paper. It received 12.7K retweets and 19.1K likes.14 The Yan Report also sparked conversation in online forums, such as Reddit.15
According to a capture by the Internet Archive, Yan’s preprint had 156,769 views and 104,708 downloads on the day it was uploaded to Zenodo, making it instantly one of the most popular papers about COVID-19.
In an interview with National Geographic, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, explained that Yan’s paper “looks legitimate because they use a lot of technical jargon. But in reality, a lot of what they're saying doesn't really make any sense.”16 Yan’s paper includes graphs, datasets, and cellular models, making it look like she has the evidence to back up her claims.
- 1To the lay public and some journalists, preprint articles may appear indistinguishable from peer-reviewed scientific publications. But preprints are different. They are working drafts of a scientific study that have not been scrutinized by peer-review, and only some have been accepted for publication into a journal pending revision. Preprints are a relatively recent phenomenon in science, meant to accelerate access to findings that could benefit the public and speed up scientific inquiry by giving scientists access without having to wait for the laborious process of peer review and publication, which can sometimes take years.
- 2CNN and The New York Times reported that Yan’s co-authors used pen names, although there is blogged speculation that the co-authors don’t exist. While the preprint does not indicate that they are pen names, The New York Times reported that Bannon said they did so for security. CNN noted the scientific community discourages pen names in order to promote transparency. Affiliations, too, promote transparency, and are listed at the top of scientific papers. The affiliation listed at the top of the page can lend or lower credibility, depending on the institution’s reputation.
- 3Li-Meng Yan, Shu Kang, Jie Guan, and Shanchang Hu, “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route,” zenodo, September 14, 2020, https://zenodo.org/record/4028830#.X9zn3ulKjGJ.
- 4Jason Murdock, “Twitter Suspends Account of Chinese Virologist Who Claimed Coronavirus Was Made in a Lab,” Newsweek, September 16, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/twitter-suspends-dr-li-meng-yan-wuhan-lab-coronavirus-covid19-1532193.
- 5Matthew Cobb, “The Prehistory of Biology Preprints: A Forgotten Experiment from the 1960s,” PLoS Biology 15, no. 11 (November 16, 2017), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5690419/.
- 6Interview conducted with Technology and Social Change team.
- 7After upload, the curators are volunteers, and they accept or reject preprints into Zenodo communities. A rejection means that the paper is live on Zenodo but not categorized into any community, which potentially reduces its visibility. The Yan Report was accepted to Zenodo’s Coronavirus Disease Research Community - COVID-19.
- 8Interview conducted with TaSC.
- 9Michael Woelfle, Piero Olliaro, and Matthew H. Todd, “Open Science Is a Research Accelerator,” Nature Chemistry 3, no. 10 (October 2011): 745–48, https://doi.org/10.1038/nchem.1149; the numbers in the following two paragraphs were recorded during the observation period.
- 10WION (@WIONews), “#Gravitas | Chinese Virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan Has Claimed That She Has Proof That the Coronavirus Came from a Government Lab in Wuhan. @palkisu Brings You the Details,” Twitter, September 14, 2020, https://twitter.com/WIONews/status/1305583815788621825.
- 11News18 (@CNNnews18), “#BREAKING | Whistleblower Virologist Exposes China’s Lies on Coronavirus. Virus Manufactured in a Govt-Controlled Lab: Dr Li-Meng Yan. @AnchorAnandN with Details. #CoronavirusOutbreak Oin the Broadcast with @SiddiquiMaha,” Twitter, September 14, 2020, https://twitter.com/CNNnews18/status/1305437426173837313.
- 12zerohedge (@zerohedge), “‘The Evidence Shows That SARS-CoV-2 Should Be a Laboratory Product Created by Using Bat Coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a Template and/or Backbone.’ - Dr Li-Meng Yan @LiMengYAN119,” Twitter, September 14, 2020, https://twitter.com/zerohedge/status/1305519063695794176.
- 13Mike Sington (@MikeSington), “UPDATE: Dr. Li-Meng Yan Has Released the Proof and Published Her Findings,” Twitter, September 14, 2020, https://twitter.com/MikeSington/status/1305547520357969930.
- 14Peter Navarro (@RealPNavarro), “It Would Be Unbelievable If It Weren’t so Believable. #CCPLiedPeopleDied,” Twitter, September 14, 2020, https://twitter.com/RealPNavarro/status/1305558115086196737.
- 15u/hrustomij, “Chinese Defector Virologist Dr Li-Meng Yan Publishes Report Claiming COVID-19 Was Made in a Lab.” Reddit, September 15, 2020, https://www.reddit.com/r/worldnews/comments/it4l7n/chinese_defector_virologist_dr_limeng_yan/.; u/Arachnus64, “Thoughts on the Yan Report?” Reddit, September 15, 2020, https://www.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/it8ep1/thoughts_on_the_yan_report/.
- 16Monique Brouillette and Rebecca Renner, “Why Misinformation about COVID-19’s Origins Keeps Going Viral,” National Geographic, September 18, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/09/coronavirus-origins-misinformation-yan-report-fact-check-cvd/.
STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists
On September 15, the day after publication, Yan appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. On the segment, she discussed her report. It was the fourth-most-watched program on TV that night, with an estimated 4.85 million viewers tuned in.1 G News released a statement about Yan’s paper that included a direct link to the paper.2
Carlson posted the clip of Yan’s appearance to Facebook and tweeted it. On Facebook, it has 73K reactions, 16K comments, and 78K shares.3 On Twitter, the clip has 56K likes and 27K retweets.4 The interview, also uploaded to YouTube, has around 2.8M views.5 The link was promoted by Carlson’s colleagues, such as Tammy Bruce, whose preview of the episode attracted 21.6K Twitter likes.6
For comparison, other Fox stories that day received much less attention. The top two results of a Facebook search show 1K and 2.3K engagements, respectively.7
On the day of the Carlson interview, Yan uploaded her publication to ResearchGate.8 Having the preprint on other repositories increases the likelihood that someone searching online would find the paper, and redundancy acts as a backup in case it is removed from one site. By September 16, the views on her Zenodo paper had reached 404,163, per the Internet Archive.
Bannon went on Tucker Carlson’s show two days after Yan, where he discussed Yan and her paper.9 He interviewed Yan on War Room: Pandemic 11 times between July 28 and October 2, 2020.10 Bannon and Kassam continue to host her and Navarro, a major booster of her report, periodically.11 She appeared on the show a total of 22 times in 2020, according to a count of the show notes on Pandemic: War Room’s website.12
- 1David Bauder, “Something unusual is missing among Nielsen's top programs,” ABC News, September 22, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/unusual-missing-nielsens-top-programs-73176644.
- 2“Dr. Li-Meng Yan Suspended by Twitter, on Tucker Carlson Tonight at 8pm,” GNEWS, September 15, 2020, https://gnews.org/358415.
- 3@TuckerCarlsonTonight, Facebook, September 15, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/TuckerCarlsonTonight/posts/1295668547435128.
- 4Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson), “Chinese Whistleblower to Tucker: This Virus Was Made in a Lab & I Can Prove It,” Twitter, September 16, 2020, https://twitter.com/TuckerCarlson/status/1306053036448583680.
- 5Coronavirus Whistleblower Speaks out about Possible COVID Origin on “Tucker” (FOX News, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFlqXPl_hZQ.
- 6Tammy Bruce (@HeyTammyBruce), “Wow, Amazing and Shocking Intv on Tonight’s Show w @TuckerCarlson & Dr. Li-Meng Yan. Amazing Details and Allegations That COVID-19 Is Man-Made and Released Deliberately by the CCP. I Hope She Has Serious Security,” Twitter, September 16, 2020, https://twitter.com/heytammybruce/status/1306025807417159680.
- 7Fox News, Facebook, September 15, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/page/15704546335/search/?q=sep%2015.
- 8Limeng Yan, “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route,” ResearchGate, September 14, 2020, https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4028829. Note: The preprint can be read and downloaded from ResearchGate instead of linking to be viewed on Zenodo. As such, the view and download count do not include metrics from ResearchGate. The citation on ResearchGate does not list its own website. It has the Zenodo DOI.
- 9Rob Kuznia, Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin and Curt Devine, “How a Covid-19 Origin Theory Backed by Bannon Unraveled,” CNN, October 21, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/21/politics/coronavirus-lab-theory-yan-bannon-invs/index.html; “Steve Bannon on Fraud Charges: ‘They’re Not Gonna Shut Me down;’” Fox News, September 17, 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/steve-bannon-on-fraud-charges-theyre-not-gonna-shut-me-down.
- 10War Room: Pandemic has been removed from YouTube and Twitter. Third party re-uploads can be streamed via Facebook.
- 11Peter Navarro (@RealPNavarro), “A Chinese Scientist Is Called in to Investigate a Deadly Virus in Wuhan, Finds Troublesome Facts, Is Muzzled by the CCP, Flees for Her Life to the U.S., Speaks Her Own Truth, and Then Is Muzzled by the ‘Free’ America Social Media. Where’s the Outrage?” Twitter, September 16, 2020, https://twitter.com/RealPNavarro/status/1306283887006547971 ; “Search Results for: ‘Yan,’” War Room: Pandemic, accessed January 3, 2021, https://pandemic.warroom.org/search/Yan/.
- 12Search Results for: ‘Yan,’ War Room: Pandemic.
Conservative news sites covered the Yan Report uncritically, such as National Review,1 as well as the same media outlets that reported on Yan before her Zenodo upload: Fox,2 New York Post,3 and Tech Times.4 It also received international media exposure via reporting by Australia’s New.Com.Au,5 Spain’s AS English,6 and India’s WION.7
Influential conservatives voices continued to amplify the Yan Report on social media. Interview clips, commentary, and links were shared as Facebook posts, tweets, and retweets by Senator Marsha Blackburn, Rev. Franklin Graham, and President Trump,8 signifying a degree of political adoption, at least by some members of the president’s party.9 By arguing that COVID-19 was designed in a Chinese lab, the Yan Report affirms Trump’s repeated claim that “it’s China’s fault.”10
An analysis by TaSC found that links to the preprint have been tweeted and retweeted 15,731 times. Just three tweets (two from Yan and one from Navarro) received two-thirds of the retweets.11
The graph (shown below) charts the virality of the Yan preprint. Yan’s preprint received about 850,000 views between its upload and October 8, the date she uploaded her next report. This graph is based on data captured by the Internet Archive. To put the Yan Report’s virality in context, it is important to note that other papers uploaded around this time have only a few hundred views.
As of February 10, 2021, the Yan Report had 1,043,337 views and 735,879 downloads.12 These numbers give evidence about Yan’s contribution to muddying the waters about COVID’s origin.
- 1Jim Geraghty, “Dr. Li-Meng Yan’s Claims Call for Skepticism but Not Dismissal,” National Review (blog), September 17, 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/the-morning-jolt/dr-li-meng-yans-claims-call-for-skepticism-but-not-dismissal/.
- 2 Sam Dorman, “Tucker Carlson Criticizes Facebook for Censoring Interview with Chinese Virologist," Fox News, September 17, 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/media/tucker-facebook-censor-chinese-virologist.
- 3Tamar Lapin, “Chinese Virologist Posts Report Claiming COVID-19 Was Made in Wuhan Lab,” New York Post, September 14, 2020, https://nypost.com/2020/09/14/chinese-virologist-posts-report-claiming-covid-19-was-made-in-wuhan-lab/.
- 4Urian B., “Chinese Whistleblower Dr. Li-Meng Yan Blames Dr. Fauci for COVID-19 Outbreak Coverup,” Tech Times, September 15, 2020, https://www.techtimes.com/articles/252545/20200915/new-evidence-covid-19-whistleblower-dr-li-meng-yan-blames-dr-fauci-for-outbreak-coverup.htm.
- 5Phoebe Loomes, “Chinese Virologist Dr Li-Meng Yan Publishes Report Claiming COVID-19 Was Made in a Lab,” news.com.au, September 17, 2020, https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/health-problems/chinese-defector-virologist-dr-limeng-yan-publishes-report-claiming-covid19-was-made-in-a-lab/news-story/36decb0c2bca253b696dec0cb665c970.
- 6Ana Beatriz Micó, “Covid-19 ‘Genetically Engineered to Target Humans,’” AS.com, September 15, 2020, https://en.as.com/en/2020/09/15/latest_news/1600196698_232755.html.
- 7WION Web Team, “‘Chinese Communist Party’s Money and Power Influence Whole World’, Says Virologist Dr Li-Meng Yan,” WION, September 22, 2020, https://www.wionews.com/world/chinese-virologist-wion-exclusive-chinese-communist-partys-money-and-power-influence-whole-world-says-virologist-dr-li-meng-yan-329489.
- 8Trump has since been removed from Twitter and suspended from Facebook.
- 9Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, & Danny Hakim, “How Steve Bannon and a Chinese Billionaire Created a Right-Wing Coronavirus Media Sensation."
- 10German Lopez, “Trump on Covid-19: ‘I Take Full Responsibility. It’s Not My Fault.,’” Vox, October 22, 2020, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/10/22/21529666/debate-trump-biden-coronavirus-responsibility-fault.
- 11 These Twitter data were obtained by querying Brandwatch on December 11, 2020, for all tweets mentioning either or both of the Zenodo urls corresponding to the first and second Yan reports.
- 12Li-Meng Yan et al., “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route” Zenodo, September 14, 2020), https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4028830.
STAGE 4: Mitigation efforts
The media attention that the Yan Report received led academic scientists to issue refutations of the preprint, and that analysis was then covered by critical press. There is scientific and journalistic consensus that the content of Yan’s preprint is not convincing, and furthermore, is medical misinformation.1
A week after its upload to Zenodo, the preprint was fact-checked by Johns Hopkins’ Center for Health Security, which said that the paper “offers contradictory and inaccurate information that does not support their argument.”2 Another problem with the paper is that it cites “multiple papers in their reference section that have weaknesses or flaws to make their case.”3
In an interview with CNN, Nancy D. Connell of Johns Hopkins, explained why her team decided to engage with the paper: “It was clear on social media that the paper was getting more and more attention. We talked carefully and thought for a long time whether to do it.”4
On September 24, MIT scientists concluded,“This manuscript does not demonstrate sufficient scientific evidence to support its claims. Claims are at times baseless and are not supported by the data and methods used. Decision-makers should consider the author's claims in this study misleading.”5 The Yan Report was also fact-checked by scientists at Columbia University,6 Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Washington.7
In addition to critical press and debunking, Twitter suspended Yan’s Twitter account two days after she created it to share the preprint, though Twitter made no public statement about the cause of the suspension.8 Twitter also de-indexed the longform version of the link to her preprint, so that no results appear when it is searched on Twitter. Shorter versions of the link, however, still lead to tweets about the preprint.
Facebook and Instagram added warnings to Tucker Carlson’s posts about his interview with Yan. YouTube videos — from Tucker Carlson, Fox News, and Loose Women — all have a small banner across the bottom with an option to view CDC information.9
- 1Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “In Response: Yan et al Preprint Examinations of the Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” Center for Health Security, September 21, 2020, https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/2020/200921-in-response-yan.pdf; Monique Brouillette and Rebecca Renner, “Why Misinformation about COVID-19’s Origins Keeps Going Viral;" Katherine J. Wu, “Another ‘Unfounded’ Study on Origins of Virus Spreads Online,” The New York Times, October 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/technology/another-unfounded-study-on-origins-of-virus-spreads-online.html; Alex Kasprak, “The Origins and Scientific Failings of the COVID-19 ‘Bioweapon’ Conspiracy Theory;” Melissa Healy, “Was the Coronavirus Made in a Wuhan Lab? Here’s What the Genetic Evidence Shows.”
- 2Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “In Response: Yan et al Preprint Examinations of the Origin of SARS-CoV-2.”
- 3Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
- 4Rob Kuznia et al., “How a Covid-19 Origin Theory Backed by Bannon Unraveled.”
- 5Takahiko Koyama, Adam Lauring, Robert Gallo, and Marvin Reitz, “Reviews of ‘Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route,’” Rapid Reviews COVID-19, September 25, 2020, https://rapidreviewscovid19.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/78we86rp/release/2.
- 6Monique Brouillette & Rebecca Renner, “Why Misinformation about COVID-19’s Origins Keeps Going Viral.”
- 7Katherine J. Wu, “Another ‘Unfounded’ Study on Origins of Virus Spreads Online.”
- 8Bannon, too, has since been suspended from Twitter due to threats against public servants. His pages are still available on Facebook and YouTube (he did get a one-week strike on YouTube).
- 9Fox News, Coronavirus whistleblower speaks out about possible COVID origin on 'Tucker', YouTube, September 15, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFlqXPl_hZQ ; Fox News, Hong Kong scientist claiming China 'covered up' coronavirus data speaks out, YouTube, July 13, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Lq3_rsBJ9w.
Social media moderation, however, did not quell the interest in the paper. After attempts by the platforms to reduce the report’s spread, Infowars posted an article saying that Facebook had “censored” the Tucker Carlson interview.1 Sara Carter, a Fox commentator, also brought attention to content moderation and urged her followers to watch the interview clip.2 The New York Times also reported on social media responses.3
Yan has claimed that censorship kept her work at the preprint stage,4 though we have found no evidence that Yan and her named co-authors sought publication in any scientific journal, as customary with a preprint like this. Instead, these claims of censorship echo media manipulation strategies that make unfounded claims about bias in order to create an aura of illicit information.5
In an interview with Zenodo’s curators and representatives from OpenAire, the team told TaSC they weighed removing the preprint from the repository. They decided against it because it would be antithetical to the spirit of their platform — and their terms of service. They state that an upload isn’t an endorsement. Rather, they maintain Zenodo is a platform where scientific conversation can begin. Keeping the Yan Report online, they said, means that it can be discussed and debunked. When scientists fact-check it, they have a paper to reference and a DOI to cite. However, the site currently does not provide a discussion forum or labels that identify when there is significant refutation of content on their site.6
- 1Kelen McBreen, “Breaking! Facebook Censors Tucker Interview With Chinese Scientist Reporting China Intentionally Released Wuhan Virus,” Info Wars, September 16, 2020, https://archives.infowars.com/breaking-facebook-censors-tucker-interview-with-chinese-scientist-claiming-china-intentionally-released-wuhan-virus/.
- 2Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC), “@Facebook, @Twitter, and @instagram Blocked Content from @TuckerCarlson’s Show in Order Not to Allow Americans to View the Recent Report on the Origins of #coronavirus,” Twitter, September 17, 2020, https://twitter.com/SaraCarterDC/status/1306509089825058818.
- 3Tiffany Hsu, “Facebook and Instagram Flag Tucker Carlson Virus Posts,” The New York Times, September 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/business/media/facebook-instagram-tucker-carlson-virus-posts.html.
- 4Li-Meng Yan et al., “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route.”
- 5Molly Sauter, “The Illicit Aura of Information,” Limn, April 11, 2017, https://limn.it/articles/the-illicit-aura-of-information/.
- 6Interview conducted with TaSC.
STAGE 5: Adjustments by campaign operators
Yan published a second paper on October 8, however, with some tactical adjustment, specifically in the language of the title and the content of the paper. The title of this second paper is more straightforward, and less scientific-sounding: “SARS-CoV-2 Is an Unrestricted Bioweapon: A Truth Revealed through Uncovering a Large-Scale, Organized Scientific Fraud.” This title covers top keyword search terms for disinformation about bioweapons, which topped the most shared stories this year. Per The New York Times, “media intelligence platform” Zignal Labs found that content about bioweapons accounted for 24.2 percent of the misinformation spread in 2020.1
This second paper was uploaded to Zenodo, but unlike the first one, was not accepted to the site’s Coronavirus Disease Research Community - COVID-19. The second Yan Report was also uploaded to ResearchGate, and it is part of the site’s Coronavirus Community.2
As part of her tactical adjustment, Yan created a second Twitter account in order to tweet her second preprint. During the observation period, it received 16.3K likes and 14.1K retweets and quote tweets.3 It was immediately shared by right-wing Twitter accounts, such as ZeroHedge, which posted the link along with a mention of how quickly Yan’s account was removed after her last paper.
Anticipating more platform moderation, Yan also tweeted a link to her Gab account (should her second Twitter account be removed), which represents further adjustment. Gab is a minor platform frequented by white supremacists, conspiracists, and others who seek unmoderated online discussion forums. As of February 10, 2021, Yan’s latest Twitter account was still active and has nearly 76K followers.4 Her second paper has 229,918 views on Zenodo and has been downloaded 117,651 times.5
Notably, for the second Yan Report, CNN accused Yan of copying passages from an anonymous blogger into her preprint.6 This resulted in a third working paper, which is a direct response to CNN. Also uploaded to Zenodo, it is titled “CNN Used Lies and Misinformation to Muddle the Water on the Origin of SARS-CoV-2.”7 The paper attempts to refute CNN’s plagiarism claims and contends that CNN used its media power to discredit Yan’s work and reputation. Uploaded on November 21, 2020, this paper has received only 30,080 views and 9,403 downloads. Unlike the previous reports that included misleading science, this upload appears to be a press release, wherein Zenodo is acting as part of the distribution infrastructure for Yan’s public replies.
- 1Kevin Roose, “The Year in Misinformation, So Far,” The New York Times, October 27, 2020, sec. Technology, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/27/technology/soros-voting-misinformation.html.
- 2Being organized into a research group makes it easier to search for the paper, and it means that the paper will appear in the community rankings, such as “Most Viewed.” For example, here is Zenodo's "Most Viewed" papers within its “Coronavirus Disease Research Community - COVID-19 | Zenodo:” https://perma.cc/6B7T-DL8D.
- 3Dr. Li-Meng Yan (@DrLiMengYAN1), “My Second Scientific Report Is Published in Zenodo. This Is the Only Account in Twitter for Dr. Li-Meng YAN,” Twitter, October 8, 2020, https://twitter.com/DrLiMengYAN1/status/1314191600571031557.
- 4Dr. Li-Meng Yan (@DrLiMengYAN1), Twitter, https://twitter.com/DrLiMengYAN1.
- 5Li-Meng Yan et al., “SARS-CoV-2 Is an Unrestricted Bioweapon: A Truth Revealed through Uncovering a Large-Scale, Organized Scientific Fraud” (Zenodo, October 8, 2020), https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4073131.
- 6Kuznia et al., “How a Covid-19 Origin Theory Backed by Bannon Unraveled.”
- 7Li-Meng Yan et al., “CNN Used Lies and Misinformation to Muddle the Water on the Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” Zenodo, November 21, 2020), https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4283480.
By exploiting open science1 during a health crisis to further their political aims, Bannon and Guo utilized Yan’s status as a research scientist fleeing Hong Kong to sustain public attention to the “COVID-19 as a bioweapon” narrative. While data repositories and preprint servers have provided crucial infrastructure for international collaboration on COVID-19, like other online platforms, they can also be used in disinformation campaigns, due to the legitimacy they confer by association. When lay publics and some journalists view these sites, they may inadvertently assume the content has been vetted or assessed in some official capacity, and is therefore sound science. Cloaked science can be particularly deceiving when it is surrounded by research from top tier scientists, universities, and institutes.
- 1Amy Koeber, “Is It Fake News or Is It Open Science? Science Communication in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, September 22, 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1050651920958506.
Cite this case study
Joan Donovan and Jennifer Nilsen, "Cloaked Science: The Yan Reports," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 6, 2021, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/cloaked-science-yan-reports.