Why misinformation about COVID-19’s origins keeps going viral

Another piece of coronavirus misinformation is making the rounds. Here’s how to sift through the muck.


Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) catches a moth. Horseshoe bats are so named due to their horseshoe-shaped nose leaves. They are often found in caves or cave-like locations and feed mostly on small moths. The pandemic likely began with a coronavirus-infected horseshoe bat in China.

Twenty years ago, data scientist Sinan Aral began to see the formation of a trend that now defines our social media era: how quickly untrue information spreads. He watched as false news ignited online discourse like a small spark that kindles into a massive blaze. Now the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Aral believes that a concept he calls the novelty hypothesis demonstrates this almost unstoppable viral contagion of false news.

“Human attention is drawn to novelty, to things that are new and unexpected,” says Aral. “We gain in status when we share novel information because it looks like we're in the know, or that we have access to inside information.”

Enter the Yan report. On September 14, an article was posted to Zenodo, an open-access site for sharing research papers, which claimed that genetic evidence showed that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was made in a lab, rather than emerging through natural spillover from animals. The 26-page paper, led by Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan, a postdoctoral researcher who left Hong Kong University, has not undergone peer review and asserts that this evidence of genetic engineering has been “censored” in the scientific journals. (National Geographic contacted Yan and the report’s three other authors for comment but received no reply.)

A Twitter firestorm promptly erupted. Prominent virologists, such as Kristian Andersenfrom Scripps Research and Carl Bergstrom from University of Washington, took to the internet and called out the paper for being unscientific. Chief among their complaints was that the...

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