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‘It’s just gotten crazy’: how the origins of Covid became a toxic US political debate – The Guardian



White House official John Kirby, standing at the podium where Donald Trump once railed against the “China virus” and praised the healing powers of bleach, faced questions on Monday about the origins of Covid-19. He had no choice but humility. “There is not a consensus right now in the US government about exactly how Covid started,” Kirby admitted. “There is just not an intelligence community consensus.”

The renewed interest in a genuine scientific mystery followed a report in the Wall Street Journal that the US Department of Energy had determined the coronavirus most likely leaked by accident from a Chinese laboratory.

This startling assessment appeared to have a solid foundation: according to the Washington Post, it was based on an analysis by experts from the national laboratory complex, including the “Z-Division”, known for carrying out some of the American government’s most secretive and technically challenging investigations of security threats from adversaries such as China and Russia.


But the claim was not officially confirmed by the energy department or Kirby, and it came with a caveat: the department had “low confidence” in its assessment, which was provided to the White House and certain members of Congress, the Journal said.

Even so, gleeful Republicans seized on the findings to claim vindication in their pursuit of the lab leak theory, triggering a fresh round of toxic debate in Washington and on social media.

Opponents say there is still no hard evidence for a lab leak, as many scientists still believe the virus most probably came from animals, mutated and jumped into people. They note that the loudest champions of the lab leak hypothesis are often also trafficking in rightwing conspiracy theories, for example about the top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci.

But the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Some scientists and other observers argue that the lab leak theory cannot be ruled out and should be kept separate from the racist propaganda that often accompanies it. It demands careful investigation, not peremptory dismissal or acceptance, they contend.

It is the latest chapter in a long fight over the origin of a virus that has caused close to 7m deaths worldwide, clouding efforts to pursue a neutral, fact-based inquiry. In its loud opinions, blue v red certainties and lack of nuance, the melee echoes clashes over pandemic lockdowns, masks and vaccines, as well as the investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia.

Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, said: “Isn’t this just like everything else in American politics, where a partisan position on one side invites a partisan response by the other? There’s a lot of what might be called reactive thinking going on because of the high degree of polarisation and the high stakes. Charges without foundation invite responses without foundation.”

Calling for public hearings into the matter, Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, warned: “If this isn’t lifted out of the crucible of political debate right now, it’ll just get worse and worse.”

Studies by experts around the world have indicated that Covid-19 most likely emerged from a live animal market in Wuhan, China. The hypothesis that it originated from an accidental lab leak was initially dismissed by most public health experts and government officials.

In February 2020, the Lancet medical journal published a statement that rejected the lab leak theory, signed by 27 scientists and expressing “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China”. It asserted: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.” (The journal later disclosed that the organiser of the letter had links to the Wuhan lab at the center of the controversy.)

That the lab leak theory was being pushed by Trump, who long played down the virus and used xenophobic language such as “China virus”, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, may have contributed to the instinctive eagerness of some to dismiss the hypothesis – and to ostracise scientists who dared question the mainstream orthodoxy.

“From the start, the lab leak theory was never properly framed and parsed,” David Relman, a microbiology and immunology professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, wrote in an email. “The hypothesis of a lab-associated origin became synonymous with deliberate efforts to engineer viruses and malevolent intent, and this has not been helpful. The emotions, assumptions about motives, obstructionism by the Chinese government, and poor scrutiny of the evidence have only made things worse.”

Jackson Lears, a history professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, echoed this view:People who consider themselves Democratic party sympathisers and liberals uncritically arrayed themselves against this. It was a kind of a lockstep reaction against Trump, as in so many matters.”

The lab leak hypothesis did begin to receive scrutiny after Joe Biden ordered an intelligence investigation in May 2021. The 90-day review was intended to push US intelligence agencies to collect more information and review what they already had.

But the review proved inconclusive. A report summary said four members of the US intelligence community believed with low confidence that the virus was first transmitted from an animal to a human, and a fifth believed with moderate confidence that the first human infection was linked to a lab. Two agencies – including the CIA – remain undecided.

Without the equivalent of a special counsel delivering a final report, the White House is left in a fog of uncertainty that satisfies no one. Lears commented: “There should have been a more carefully orchestrated investigation, more centralised, more high profile, with more legitimacy. Splitting it up and into many agencies is a way of defanging the whole situation.”

Others agree that the multiple investigations give Biden a political headache, especially at a moment of rising tensions with China over trade, Taiwan, Ukraine and a recent spy balloon shot down after transiting US airspace.

Laurie Garrett, a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine who spent time in China during the Sars outbreak, witnessing how animal markets operated, said: “The president said, ‘I want the relevant agencies in the government to take a close look at this.’ Well, every agency has its own prism, its own skill set.

“In Britain if you asked the Home Office, MI5, the Metropolitan Police, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the British Medical Association to take a look, you would get seven different answers and that’s the situation that the Biden administration has created for itself. By trying to appease all the screaming and cut the rightwing Republicans off at the knees on this, they’ve essentially opened up a Pandora’s box because every single agency is going to have a different way of looking at the problem.”

Many scientists, including Fauci, who until December served as Biden’s chief medical adviser, say they still believe the virus most likely emerged in nature and jumped from animals to humans, an established phenomenon known as a spillover event. But the reports of dissent in the intelligence community will give enough oxygen to those with doubts, good faith or otherwise.

Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International and formerly USAid’s lead official for Covid-19, likens it to a Rorschach test. He said: “The priors that you come in with are going to shape a lot of how you interpret the evidence, because ultimately, the evidence may suggest one way or another, but it’s not definitive one way or another.

“If you want to craft a narrative that justifies the lab leak theory, you can do so. If you want to craft a narrative that justifies a natural origin, natural spillover, market amplification theory, you can do so. There’s not enough on either side to definitively rule in or out either.”

But that does not make them equally plausible, Konyndyk added. “The preponderance of evidence strongly points to a natural spillover, occurring at and certainly amplified at the market.” Konyndyk noted how online debate about the issue has become toxic, with proponents of the lab leak making death threats to scientists. “There’s been some really irresponsible behaviour and they’re not trying to turn the temperature down.

“That has prompted in turn very strong views from some of the more vocal folks who believe in the natural origin theory because they’re getting attacked on Twitter with a larger and larger army of trolls. It’s just gotten crazy.

Earlier this month, Republicans in the House of Representatives issued letters to current and former Biden administration officials for documents and testimony, exploring the hypothesis of a lab leak. Congressman Brad Wenstrup, chair of the House oversight panel’s virus subcommittee, has accused US intelligence of withholding key facts about its investigation.

Garrett, author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, added: “My concern about where we are right now with this whole Wuhan origins question is that several very serious, real issues are getting conflated and they’re being manipulated for political purposes by people who don’t understand the issues at all and don’t care.

“We’re not hearing in these congressional hearings this is what we should do to strengthen the chemical, biological warfare agreements and make lab research safe in the world. Nobody’s saying that. They couldn’t care less. That’s not their agenda. Their agenda is to tear down a man who was seen on camera in a live press conference putting his hand over his face and shaking his head as President Trump said, ‘Maybe bleach can cure Covid.’

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Opposition to David Johnston's appointment shows how much politics has changed – The Globe and Mail



The strong opposition to David Johnston’s appointment as special rapporteur investigating Chinese interference in elections reveals how our times, and our politics, have changed.

In a previous column, I suggested that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre should accept Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice of Mr. Johnston on the grounds that the former governor-general was appointed to that post by then-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, and that he is one of this country’s most trusted, and trustworthy, figures.

Instead, Mr. Poilievre assailed the choice on the grounds that Mr. Johnston was a friend of the Trudeau family and a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a charity.


“Justin Trudeau has named a ‘family friend,’ old neighbour from the cottage, and member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation, to be the ‘independent’ rapporteur on Beijing’s interference,” he tweeted. “Get real. Trudeau must end his cover up. Call a public inquiry.”

Other Conservative MPs, including former leader Andrew Scheer and Thornhill MP Melissa Lantsman, also tweeted their objection. And many commentators, including my colleague Andrew Coyne and The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, cited Mr. Johnston’s friendship with the Trudeau family in criticizing the choice.

I believe that Mr. Johnston’s decades of service to this country, his unimpeachable integrity and his sound judgment more than compensate for any objections. This is an issue on which people of goodwill can simply disagree.

But other factors are also at work.

Much has been made of the toxicity of social media. But the decline of deference was under way long before that. In the main, it’s good that people are less willing than in the past to defer to authority, that they demand accountability from political and other leaders.

But an engrained cynicism has become an unwelcome byproduct of that process. The headline on John Ivison’s column in the National Post said it best: “David Johnston is a man of trust in a post-trust world.”

In this post-trust world, a new generation of conservatives is taking the stage. Many of them are fearsomely smart. Some of them are politically ruthless. All of them are contemptuous of the Laurentian political, academic and cultural elites who have traditionally run this country. Of course they would reject Mr. Johnston as rapporteur. He is as Laurentian as they come.

In Pierre Poilievre, they have found someone who speaks their language and shares their polarizing worldview. Mr. Poilievre was never a senior figure in Mr. Harper’s governments, arriving in cabinet late and spending most of that time in a minor portfolio. Mr. Harper distrusted the populist wing of the conservative base. It is why he left the Reform Party in the 1990s and why he kept most of the more populist MPs on the back bench. Mr. Poilievre courts populists with enthusiasm.

He must know that Mr. Harper likes and admires Mr. Johnston. But rather than respectfully expressing reservation about the appointment, the Conservative Leader tweets in derision. This isn’t Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party any more.

That said, Mr. Trudeau bears most of the blame for the hostility that greeted the announcement of Mr. Johnston as rapporteur. After more than seven years in office, polls show that most voters disapprove of his performance, and with good reason.

He dismissed the initial reports from The Globe and Global News of Chinese interference in federal elections. He blamed the whistle-blowers. He accused his critics of racism. MPs on a committee investigating the allegations filibustered. Finally, with the crisis escalating and all sides calling for a public inquiry, he promised to appoint a rapporteur to make recommendations on next steps.

The next step should have been to convene that public inquiry. There is a growing body of evidence that the Chinese government has attempted to manipulate elections in Canada, including the mayor’s race in Vancouver and the federal elections of 2019 and 2021. This interference, along with what the Prime Minister knew about it and what he did about it, must be thoroughly investigated.

In appointing a rapporteur to examine the files and make recommendations, Mr. Trudeau is delaying the inevitable. It’s a damn shame that the reputation of someone as honourable as David Johnston should be brought into question through the Prime Minister’s efforts to avoid responsibility.

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Opinion: What a Justice's leave of absence reveals about politics and the Supreme Court – The Globe and Mail



Allan C. Hutchinson is a distinguished research professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and the author of The Companies We Keep: Corporate Governance for a Democratic Society.

The controversy surrounding Justice Russell Brown’s leave from the Supreme Court, which began in February and is under investigation by the Canadian Judicial Council, has many different dimensions and implications. Apart from the question of whether he will or should return to the court following a confidential complaint from a member of the public, one issue occupying observers’ minds is what this means for the handling of cases presently before the court.

There are differences of opinion on whether the court should sit as a group of eight (and allow for the possibility of a tied vote) or seven (and face the dilemma of whom to leave out). This is a pressing issue, especially in regard to an important case to be heard this week on federalism and environmental legislation.


However, within and behind this debate is a much more fundamental matter – the relationship between constitutional law and politics. In particular, whether sensitive and contested issues of federalism are being decided in line with the dictates of constitutional law or by reliance on partial political stands and values.

The central bone of contention seems to be that the Albertan Justice Brown is considered to be a strong proponent of provincial rights and was almost certain to rule against the constitutionality of the federal government’s wide-ranging legislation to tackle pollution problems. So, if there is to be a bench of seven, the identity and federalism leanings of the justice who sits out the case must be treated as a matter of some delicacy and importance.

The premise on which this debate is based is troubling for those who maintain that constitutional law should and must trump constitutional politics. Traditionally, it is usually insisted that the legitimacy of the Supreme Court rests on its capacity to transcend political contestation by acting with measured, rational and non-ideological level-headedness. Judges deal in principles, not politics.

The received wisdom is that, while there are underlying and sharp ideological differences between different governments about climate change and the best response to be made, there exists a deeper and more unifying commitment to the idea that the Canadian Constitution stands apart from prosaic politics. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his provincial colleagues play politics and get their hands dirty, Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner and his puisne associates are expected to keep their hands clean of any political dirt.

But the general acceptance that Justice Brown is pre-disposed to be pro-provincial and that some of his colleagues, including Chief Justice Wagner, are more than likely to be pro-federal, has massive ramifications. Any notion that these judges are somehow neutral and impartial goes out the window. They are involved in the same ideological game as their political counterparts.

The fact is that, while courts may well be impartial to the competing claims of the present federal and provincial governments in terms of party politics, they are not and cannot be impartial between competing visions and versions of federalism. Although viewed as being more technical than political, federalism disputes involve deep-seated and contested accounts of governmental arrangements, social values, institutional power and democratic accountability.

So, while courts and legislatures may have different discourses, different styles and different legitimacies when talking about a fair allocation of powers between the federal and provincial governments, they are no less political for that. In other words, judges can hide their views, but they cannot avoid making political choices.

The whole debacle over Justice Brown’s absence draws attention to this state of affairs. Perhaps inadvertently, but still revealingly, the ensuing debate has demonstrated that judges do have politics and that, more significantly, they do rely on them to animate their decisions and reasonings. Otherwise, why would it matter who sits and who doesn’t?

Both judicial sides of the federalism debate can claim support for their positions; the doctrines of constitutional law are so capacious, so inconsistent and so accommodating in their reach and substance that they can confer a necessary baseline of legal validity on either a pro-provincial or pro-federal approach. Understood this way, the rule of law becomes little more than the rule of five: the stand that garners the support of five judges wins.

None of this is to suggest that the judges act in bad faith or are decidedly manipulative in fulfilling their judicial duties. It is that there is no way to engage with and resolve federalism issues in a way that can claim to be acting in the neutral and detached way that the judges and their traditional allies suppose. Constitutional law is politics. And Canadians need to appreciate that.

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Algorithms are moulding and shaping our politics. Here’s how to avoid being gamed



In 2016, evidence began to mount that then-South African president Jacob Zuma and a family of Indian-born businessmen, the Guptas, were responsible for widespread “state capture”. It was alleged that the Gupta family influenced Zuma’s political appointments and benefited unfairly from lucrative tenders.

The Guptas began to look for a way to divert attention away from them. They enlisted the help of British public relations firm Bell Pottinger, which drew on the country’s existing racial and economic tensions to develop a social media campaign centred on the role of “white monopoly capital” in continuing “economic apartheid”.

The campaign was driven by the power of algorithms. The company created over 100 fake Twitter bots or automated Twitter accounts that run on bot software – computer programs designed to perform tasks and actions, ranging from rather simple ones to quite complex ones; in this case, to simulate human responses for liking and retweeting tweets.

This weaponisation of communications is not limited to South Africa. Examples from elsewhere in Africa abound, including Russia currying favour in Burkina Faso via Facebook and coordinated Twitter campaigns by factions representing opposing Kenyan politicians. It’s seen beyond the continent, too – in March 2023, researchers identified a network of thousands of fake Twitter accounts created to support former US president Donald Trump.


Legal scholar Antoinette Rouvroy calls this “algorithmic governmentality”. It’s the reduction of government to algorithmic processes as if society is a problem of big data sets rather than one of how collective life is (or should be) arranged and managed by the individuals in that society.

In a recent paper, I coined the term “algopopulism”: algorithmically aided politics. The political content in our personal feeds not only represents the world and politics to us. It creates new, sometimes “alternative”, realities. It changes how we encounter and understand politics and even how we understand reality itself.

One reason algopopulism spreads so effectively is that it’s very difficult to know exactly how our perceptions are being shaped. This is deliberate. Algorithms are designed in a sophisticated way to override human reasoning.

So, what can you do to protect yourself from being “gamed” by algorithmic processes? The answers, I suggest, lie in understanding a bit more about the digital shift that’s brought us to this point and the ideas of a British statistician, Thomas Bayes, who lived more than 300 years ago.

How the shift happened

Five recent developments in the technology space have led to algorithmic governmentality: considerable improvements in hardware; generous, flexible storage via the cloud; the explosion of data and data accumulation; the development of deep convoluted networks and sophisticated algorithms to sort through the extracted data; and the development of fast, cheap networks to transfer data.

Together, these developments have transformed data science into something more than a mere technological tool. It has become a method for using data not only to predict how you engage with digital media, but to preempt your actions and thoughts.

This is not to say that all digital technology is harmful. Rather, I want to point out one of its greatest risks: we are all susceptible to having our thoughts shaped by algorithms, sometimes in ways that can have real-world effects, such as when they affect democratic elections.

Bayesian statistics

That’s where Thomas Bayes comes in. Bayes was an English statistician; Bayesian statistics, the dominant paradigm in machine learning, is named after him.

Before Bayes, computational processes relied on frequentist statistics. Most people have encountered this method in one way or another, as in the case of how probable it is that a coin will land heads-up and tails-down. This approach starts from the assumption that the coin is fair and hasn’t been tampered with. This is called a null hypothesis.

Bayesian statistics does not require a null hypothesis; it changes the kinds of questions asked about probability entirely. Instead of assuming a coin is fair and measuring the probability of heads or tails, it asks us instead to consider whether the system for measuring probability is fair. Instead of assuming the truth of a null hypothesis, Bayesian inference starts with a measure of subjective belief which it updates as more evidence – or data – is gathered in real time.

How does this play out via algorithms? Let’s say you heard a rumour that the world is flat and you do a Google search for articles that affirm this view. Based on this search, the measure of subjective belief the algorithms have to work with is “the world is flat”. Gradually, the algorithms will curate your feed to show you articles that confirm this belief unless you have purposefully searched for opposing views too.

That’s because Bayesian approaches use prior distributions, knowledge or beliefs as a starting point of probability. Unless you change your prior distributions, the algorithm will continue providing evidence to confirm your initial measure of subjective belief.

But how can you know to change your priors if your priors are being confirmed by your search results all the time? This is the dilemma of algopopulism: Bayesian probability allows algorithms to create sophisticated filter bubbles that are difficult to discount because all your search results are based on your previous searches.

So, there is no longer a uniform version of reality presented to a specific population, like there was when TV news was broadcast to everyone in a nation at the same time. Instead, we each have a version of reality. Some of this overlaps with what others see and hear and some doesn’t.

Engaging differently online

Understanding this can change how you search online and engage with knowledge.

To avoid filter bubbles, always search for opposing views. If you haven’t done this from the start, do a search on a private browser and compare the results you get. More importantly, check your personal investment. What do you get out of taking a specific stance on a subject? For example, does it make you feel part of something meaningful because you lack real-life social bonds? Finally, endeavour to choose reliable sources. Be aware of a source’s bias from the start and avoid anonymously published content.

In these ways we can all be custodians of our individual and collective behaviour.


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