Facebook 'Fact Checks' Scientific Piece Arguing Coronavirus Originated in Chinese Lab

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May 12, 2021

Facebook is fact-checking posts that claim the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, a theory gaining traction in the scientific community—particularly after science reporter Nicholas Wade published a piece on Medium last week explaining why he believes the lab-leak theory is the most likely explanation.

Facebook is warning users that articles describing evidence for the theory are "Missing Context" and is steering them to a 2020 fact-check saying there is little evidence for a non-natural origin of the virus. Wade’s story is accompanied on Facebook by a link to an April 2020 fact-check. The fact-check, which is riddled with grammatical errors, quotes two academic articles and five scientists on Twitter who believe the theory is false. Reached for comment, a spokesperson directed the Washington Free Beacon to Facebook’s COVID policies. Those policies ban content that claims COVID was manufactured or bioengineered.

It’s the latest example of Facebook’s aggressive approach to content moderation. The lab leak hypothesis became a political flashpoint when senior Trump administration officials and Republican lawmakers voiced concerns about a lab in Wuhan that worked with coronaviruses. Though mainstream media outlets called the hypothesis a conspiracy theory, the theory is gaining traction as efforts to pinpoint the virus’s natural origin founder.

Wade’s Medium piece outlining the circumstantial evidence for the lab leak hypothesis received widespread attention when it was posted on the popular blogging platform last week. Wade’s piece temporarily disappeared from the site on Tuesday afternoon, although at press time it had been restored. Medium did not respond to requests for comment. Medium’s rules on COVID-19 content explicitly ban "conspiracy claims" that COVID was "engineered in a lab." They also ban references to COVID as a "far-reaching conspiracy or cover-up."

Facebook acknowledges its practice of limiting the reach of content that it finds objectionable, including content its fact-checkers label False or Partly False. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on whether it artificially limits the reach content it labels as "Missing Context." An examination of accounts that had posted the article showed significantly lower engagement with the story than with other stories posted in the same time period.

In its recent ruling on former president Donald Trump’s ban from the platform, Facebook’s Oversight Board endorsed the use of downranking to avoid "amplifying speech" that doesn’t meet its standards.

Scientists and intelligence agencies are still investigating the origins of the virus. No one has managed to disprove theories saying the virus originated in a Chinese lab, yet companies like Facebook and Medium are attempting to limit debate. Facebook previously limited the reach of a New York Post report on Hunter Biden, which the platform falsely labeled as "misinformation."

Chuck Ross contributed to this report.