Fake News At WND: Coronavirus Edition
WorldNetDaily has gotten busted promoting bogus claims regarding the coronavirus pandemic -- only some of which it has properly corrected.
By Terry Krepel
Remaining true to its conspiracy-theory-driven nature, WND got a lot of mileage last fall out of a Chinese virologist named Li-Meng Yan and her claims that the COVID-19 coronavirus was created in a laboratory.
A Sept. 11 article breathlessly wrote how Yan "says she has evidence COVID-19 is man-made and plans to publish it soon." On Sept. 16, WND hyped how Yan appeared on Fox News to claim that "the Chinese Communist Party manufactured and intentionally released the COVID-19 virus that led to mass shutdowns and deaths around the world."
An Oct. 6 item repeated a claim from unreliable fringe-right website ZeroHedge that Yan "says that the Chinese Communist Party has arrested her mother." The same day, a column by Andy Schlafly went into full victimization and conspiracy mode for Yan:
Though downplayed in the media, suspicion grows that COVID-19 was produced in a lab in Wuhan, which makes it a weapon of mass destruction different from past pandemics. Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese virologist who was a researcher at the Hong Kong School of Public Health, has explained why she believes the virus was made in a military laboratory by combining two bat coronaviruses.
Just one little problem: Yan's claim -- which runs counter to what actual experts have said for months -- keeps getting discredited, culminating in a summarization at CNN of how Yan is linked to ex-Trump adviser (and onetime arrested criminal until he was pardoned) Steve Bannon and finding that her research was "built on what appears to be the same theories, similar passages and identical charts presented by an anonymous blogger whose writings were posted on a website linked to Bannon months earlier," and that "three co-authors of Yan's paper used pseudonyms instead of their real names, a practice frowned upon in scientific and academic work."
So much so, in fact, that even WND grudgingly admitted it, albeit a month later. On Oct. 11, WND added an editor's note to its Sept. 11 article:
Appearances by Dr. Li-Meng Yan on media outlets in Britain and the United States have come under fresh scrutiny in connection with her own pre-print (an unpublished draft of a science paper) on the website Zenodo claiming to provide evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was created in a laboratory and is not of natural origin. Yan's pre-print, which was not peer-reviewed by other experts in the field, claims that some unique characteristics in the SARS-CoV-2 genome prove that the virus is man-made. However, experts disputed Yan's pre-print for being flawed and containing unsubstantiated claims. The exact origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus remains unknown. Dr. Yan claims to prove that the SARS-COV-2 virus originated in a lab, but a careful analysis of her pre-print actually shows this claim is unsubstantiated.
Unfortunately, WND did not feel this was a serious enough correction to do an entirely new article about how Yan has been discredited, nor did it append this correction to its other articles on Yan, nor did it otherwise call attention to the correction. So unless you stumbled across this article, which had long since disappeared from WND's home page, you wouldn't know of WND's half-hearted attempt to correct the record.
Well, it's a start -- if 23 years after its founding constitutes an appropriate learning curve for how to handle errors -- for a "news" organization that usually doesn't publish corrections unless a lawsuit has been threatened.
Another example is a Feb. 1 article by Art Moore:
China, the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Institutes of Health have dismissed the theory that the virus causing the global pandemic that has killed more than 2 million people and devastated economies worldwide escaped from the Wuhan, China, lab funded by the United States.
PolitiFact subtly dragged WND in a fact-check: "WorldNetDaily has since dialed back on many of its claims, issuing three separate corrections, all of which cite scientists pushing back on the notion that SARS-CoV-2 was manmade. It has also placed a question mark at the end of the original headline. However, the bulk of the article text has not been updated."
Indeed, the original headline, 'New evidence ties COVID-19 creation to research funded by Fauci," now ends with a question mark, and Moore's article is topped with a massive correction that was added a week later:
UPDATED Feb. 8, 2021: A fact check by USA Today from March and April 2020 indicated the coronavirus is not man-made or engineered, but its origin remains unclear. It said, "There is no evidence to suggest that the virus was created in a Chinese laboratory. "It is probable, likely, that the virus is of animal origin," WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said.
While publishing false information does not inspire confidence in WND's product, having to issue massive corrections doesn't either, especially when you're trying to get other websites to publish your content, as the WND News Center is trying to do -- not to mention getting people to donate money to fund the nonprofit effort.
Columnist gets corrected
WND even decided to corrected a columnist who got something wrong -- unusual since editor Joseph Farah once effectively bragged that he let its columnists publish misinformation. Brent Smith wrote in his Feb. 5 WND column, under the headline "WHO changed virus test parameter the day Biden took office":
On Jan. 20, 2021, the WHO (World Health Organization) posted an important bulletin regarding polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for COVID-19. What else happened on 20 January that was important? That's right. It was the very same day Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. But I'm sure the WHO release was purely coincidental.
Well, that didn't actually happen. Two days later, WND changed the headline of Smith's column to "The WHO, its virus test parameter and Joe Biden" and added this correction:
CORRECTION Feb. 7, 2021: A fact-check by Health Feedback found that most positive COVID-19 PCR test results are true positives and that the WHO information notice didn't change the threshold or criteria for a positive COVID-19 test. The COVID-19 PCR test detects the presence of the genetic material of the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. The test is highly sensitive, meaning that it can detect very small amounts of the virus in infected individuals, including those in the early or late stages of infection. The test is also highly specific for SARS-CoV-2, meaning that it doesn’t detect the presence of other viruses, such as other members of the coronavirus family that cause the common cold. Although no tests are 100% accurate, given the PCR test's high sensitivity and specificity, most positive COVID-19 PCR test results are true positives.
While it's nice WND is actually getting around to correcting false claims that it publishes -- though not the biggest ones, Obama birtherism and Seth Rich conspiracy theories -- perhaps it should have an editing and fact-checking process that prevents those false claims from getting published in the first place.
Not yet walked back
WorldNetDaily loves a good conspiracy -- and many bad ones -- and unlike the above articles, these have not been corrected. An example of this is a Jan. 5 article by Bob Unruh:
The rate of influenza this season has cratered and now an epidemiologist is explaining why.
Had Unruh bothered to fact-check Wittkowski's claim, he would have found it to be bogus:
In summary, no evidence supports the claim that flu cases are being misdiagnosed as COVID-19. Although both diseases share similar symptoms, probable COVID-19 cases must meet additional criteria besides the presence of disease symptoms, such as previous close contact with a COVID-19 case or a positive SARS-CoV-2 antigen or antibody test result. Social media posts questioning how public health measures can effectively limit the spread of flu but not COVID-19 are misleading as they fail to account for several factors, such as the differences in transmission between COVID-19 and flu. Experts suggest that the lower than usual flu activity this season is likely due to a combination of factors, including public health measures implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and higher flu vaccination rates.
Wittkowski is a coronavirus misinformer whom WND has previously promoted. An April article early in the pandemic touted Wittkowski's assertion that lifting lockdowns would quickly, which was a another one-sided story that ignored the fact that experts say given how deadly coronavirus had been and the overall lack of knowledge about the virus at that time, pursuing herd immunity would be uncertain at best and dangerous at worst. In an apparent attempt to get rid of a "misinformation" tag that Facebook had slapped on the article (which WND managing editor David Kupelian whined about), WND appended an "update" a week later adding the expert view.
Wittkowski is notorious enough that Rockefeller University has issued a statement distancing itself from him, which WND didn't mention.
Unruh did actually cite an epidemiologist who correctly and logically noted that COVID-19 mitigation is largely responsible for the decline in flu cases -- but he then let Wittkowski respond by claiming "there is 'no evidence' to support the idea masks would stop the flu." Again, Unruh didn't fact-check that either, thus censoring the fact that, yes, there is plenty of evidence masks help slow the spread, as the above-cited fact-checker also noted:
Wearing face masks reduces the spread of COVID-19 by blocking the release of respiratory droplets from infected individuals. Therefore, wearing face masks likely reduces the transmission of other respiratory infections that spread in ways similar to COVID-19, including the flu. For this reason, Wittkowski claims that if face masks worked, then they should be able to stop both COVID-19 and flu equally. ... As we explain below, such interpretations are misleading, as they overlook the fact that COVID-19 spreads easier than flu. Furthermore, other factors besides the use of face masks may also contribute to reducing flu transmission, such as an increase in flu vaccination rates.
Meanwhile, also uncorrected is a Feb. 10 article by Moore:
A peer-reviewed study contends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention violated federal law by inflating Coronavirus fatality numbers.
The falsehoods start right off the bat with Moore's claim that the study was "peer-reviewed." As one fact-checker pointed out, the journal in which it was published "did not show up in rankings designed to measure how often journals are cited or used," and its editor also happens to run the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge. The institute has been busted for false information on coronavirus in the past, as PolitiFact detailed:
PolitiFact has previously fact-checked a false claim by the institute’s leader James Lyons-Weiler. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information also debunked Lyons-Weiler’s claim that the virus behind the ongoing pandemic was created in a lab.
On top of that, the other fact-checker noted, Lyons-Weiler has ties to the anti-vaccine movement. And even then, the study does not say what National File claims it says, according to PolitiFact:
In this case, the study does not definitively say that the CDC inflated COVID-19 deaths. Rather, it calls into question guidelines the CDC issued in March 2020 that were designed to more accurately capture mortality data related to the coronavirus. The study’s authors called the guidance "a capricious alteration to data collection has compromised the accuracy, quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of their published data."
Further, Moore parroted the National File's reference to a "watchdog group" called All Concerned Citizens. A Google search turned up no evidence of the existence of the group outside of that reference, but yet another fact-checker noted that a Facebook post referencing the alleged organization identifies as its spokesman one of the authors of the study -- self-dealing at its worst and most unethical.
In short: This is a bogus story all around. When will we see that walkback, Mr. Moore?
There's clearly a fundamental dysfunction in WND's editorial process that no "news" organization in existence for 23 years should have. The continual walkbacks -- while a refreshing change from its usual practice of refusing to correct false claims unless someone threatens to sue -- make us wonder if, even after finally making concrete efforts to save itself from its ongoing financial crisis, WND deserves to live.