Bioweapon conspiracy video creeps into Senate coronavirus hearing

Ratziel San Juan - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines — Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III at the Senate hearing on government measures against the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) played a video, saying he had "received a report concerning this particular disease."

The video, which is narrated by what could be a text-to-speech program, claims that "as doubts arise about its origin, and everything seemingly points to biowarfare being waged against China."

Sotto, before he played the video, said: "I think it's somehow very interesting, if not revealing."

The video — from YouTube channel "The Atlantis Report" but also reposted on channels like "WorldTrends" and "Dialysis Atbp"— that Sotto played made unverified and unsubstantiated claims only vaguely attributed to unidentified "independent journalists" and "news" reports. 

Aside from “blacklistednews.com” and medical journal "The Lancet", the video does not cite any primary or secondary sources to support its sweeping statements, only occasionally name-dropping people and institutions.

The Senate or any of its committees can hold formal inquiries or investigations in aid of legislation, with "all witnesses at executive sessions or public hearings who testify as to matters of fact” required to give testimony under oath or affirmation, according to the Senate Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation.

Sotto is the leader of the 24-member Senate and is constitutionally second—after the vice president—in the line of succession toward the presidency in the case of their untimely death, has been criticized, however, for failing to present credible information during the hearing.

Investigative magazine Mother Jones, in a February 1 report, mentioned "The Atlantis Report" as among the YouTube channels that it said "are cranking out content that, in many cases, spreads alarm, unsubstantiated claims, scams, and sometimes outright disinformation.

The Mother Jones article says of "The Atlantis Report" that "the channel’s three videos on the coronavirus, which have collectively racked up hundreds of thousands of views, are even odder than their titles. One video offers a mishmash of conspiracies about the virus that, beyond being baseless, are contradictory." 

Locsin: How clever

In response to the video, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called the supposed conspiracy "clever."

"Maybe the plan is for China to create a virus so storng they will first test it on themselves, and when they are all dead, they will spread it to other countries," he said with obvious sarcasm, pointing out that the other suspect in the supposed bioweapon conspiracy is the US.

"The US has done this because they can send it all across the ocean into Wuhan and kill the Chinese, but then later on, the other suspects are... Canada... but [the virus] can also spread to the US and Europe....Again, this is a plot by the US and the West to destroy China by first destroying itself," he said.

"This is really clever. I don't know if you can believe this," he said, "there is no truth that China even witheld info about this disease."

He said the Hong Kong government had informed the Philippine Consulate General there of the outbreak on January 7. 

"Even before they were sure of it, they were already warning everyone," Locsin said.

With no further questions, the president of the Philippine Senate said: "Anyway... it's good that you have expressed your opinion on the matter because this is circulating." 

It is yet unclear where 2019-nCoV, which is a new strain of coronavirus that had not been previously identified in humans, came from. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "2019-nCoV is a betacoronavirus, like MERS and SARs, all of which have their origins in bats."

"The sequences from US patients are similar to the one that China initially posted, suggesting a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir," it says in its 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Summary.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, meanwhile, says that "a wide range of animals is known to be the source of coronaviruses. For instance, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) originated from camels and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) originated from civet cats." 

Online disnformation

Videos along with quote cards and full-text articles were the most common formats used to spread online disinformation in the Philippines last year, according to news organization VERA Files, which tracked 36 separate instances of false information being distributed through videos.

Recent journalism discourse, however, favors new terms over the blanket phrase “fake news” which is “woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution” and “appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organizations whose coverage they find disagreeable.”

This is why the report “Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making” promotes the use of the terms “misinformation,” “disinformation” and “malinformation” to distinguish intention and the veracity of the content. 

Misinformation and disinformation specifically deal with false information.

The first term is the unintentional sharing of false information, while the latter is knowingly sharing false information to cause harm.

Examples of misinformation listed by the Information Disorder report include elements like "false connection" and "misleading content," such as coronavirus video played during the hearing.

Data & Society’s 2017 report “Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online” said the common motivation for people who create and spread disinformation, propaganda and/or fake news is “a combination of one or more of these categories—ideology, money, and/or status and attention.”

Sotto also previously received flak over his misinformed cloud seeding suggestion in response to the Taal Volcano unrest.

RELATED: Why Filipinos did not welcome Tito Sotto’s cloud seeding proposal to ashfall-stricken areas

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