Going Viral for the Wrong Reasons
Going Viral for the Wrong Reasons

Going Viral for the Wrong Reasons

What is a publication to do when readers misuse its content?

Bob Grant
Bob Grant
Jan 30, 2020

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Last week, a story from The Scientist garnered a surprising degree of attention on social media platforms, causing a spike in traffic to that article on our website. Normally a welcome phenomenon, the increased traffic to this 2015 article about a lab-made coronavirus came with an asterisk. Readers weren’t simply perusing the story, enjoying it, and sharing it with friends. At least some people seemed to be using it to spread misinformation and ill-formed theories.

We at The Scientist have grown to expect a certain amount of misinterpretation, especially when we publish stories on emotionally charged topics: autism, cannabis, and genetically modified organisms, to name a few. We do our utmost to produce clear, accurate, and contextualized articles that communicate the science at the heart of even complex topics in a way that is accessible and rigorous. Still, once injected into the marketplace of ideas, we realize it is somewhat out of our hands as to how some readers might misrepresent or misinterpret our work—particularly when people perusing their social media feeds often look just at the headline and photo of a story before drawing a conclusion.

The 2015 story on coronaviruses was a news roundup about an international team of researchers that had engineered a coronavirus made of pieces of SARS and another coronavirus, giving it the ability to infect mice in the lab and cause an illness resembling severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which spread to 17 countries and killed about 770 people more than 15 years ago. The publication of these findings reignited a debate about so-called gain-of-function studies, which the US government officially stopped funding as of 2013. (The SARS research in the story was started before the ban, and the National Institutes of Health allowed it to continue while it reviewed the research, eventually determining that the researchers could indeed publish the results.) In 2015, this was an important story for The Scientist to cover, and one that we hope contributed to the conversation about the relative benefits and dangers of such research.

In the past month, as a new coronavirus that emerged only late last year tears through the Chinese city of Wuhan and beyond, faithfully reporting the news and the science behind the story is crucial. Not only are readers interested in following the developing situation, but factual and appropriately contextualized information regarding the nascent outbreak may save lives. But it appears that some readers found the 2015 story and twisted its content to try to use it as support for a wholly unfounded hypothesis that the current outbreak originated with a lab-grown virus. For example, a now-removed Reddit post linked to the story and posited that “The rabbit hole is deeper than the Media are willing to report: ‘Lab-Made Coronavirus Triggers Debate.’” Similarly, Facebook user Tobi Ferguson posted a link to the story and wrote, in part, “There is ALWAYS so much MORE behind what the media shows you. This article is from 2015. Nothing new. Create the problem, sell the solution.”

Because the research surrounding the virus known as 2019-nCoV is so fluid, this kind of misinformation is particularly dangerous. Already, researchers are proposing ideas about how and where the virus originated. Some of these ideas are being rejected, and others are serving as leads to try and stem the spread. Stoking unwarranted fear and mistrust of scientists when thorough epidemiological research and willing participation from affected populations is needed is beyond irresponsible. The virus in that five-year-old story isn’t even the same strain as the one now circulating inside and outside of China.

While the 2015 story that we published in The Scientist in no way reports or even suggests that the lab-made coronavirus had exited the lab or was infecting human beings, are we as journalists responsible in some part for such misuse? Again, we understand that our work can be used in any number of ways to advance myriad arguments, whether they be reasonable or not. While people either not reading or intentionally ignoring something like the dateline of a story to create a false narrative into which their conspiratorial fantasy fits seems beyond our control, if some readers draw the erroneous connection between the 2015 work and the current outbreak because they don’t know that there are more than one type of coronaviruses, that may be an issue we can address. I look forward to continuing the conversation about the evolving responsibility of journalists in our modern era within and beyond the media community.

For now, we do feel responsible for the life of our stories after we put them out into the world. And we try hard to craft headlines and images that accurately portray the content of our articles. We are reminded that keeping an eye on these details becomes even more critical these days, when misinformation seems all too common. And when we are tasked with covering something as dynamic and important as the spread and study of the Wuhan virus, we pledge to be extra vigilant and, as ever, deliver information in a way that is unmistakably accurate and true.

Bob Grant is editor in chief in chief of The Scientist. Email him at rgrant@the-scientist.com.