A debunked conspiracy theory linked to former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and his billionaire benefactor, Guo Wengui, was picked up by Murdoch-owned Australian news media and eventually landed on five Fox News shows -- where it even reached the ears of a member of the U.S. Senate.
The conspiracy theory suggests that a Chinese military document from five years before the COVID-19 pandemic had discussed weaponizing SARS coronaviruses in preparation for a third world war fought through biowarfare. The theory claims Chinese military officials discussed freeze-drying microorganisms to be later aerosolized against enemies during wartime and that the Chinese military knew an attack using biowarfare would “cause the enemy’s medical system to collapse” and inflict psychological damage.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the basis of the conspiracy theory comes from a 2015 Chinese-language book titled The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons that has been “discredited by the legitimate scientific community in China.”
The theory was circulated in early March by GNews, a conspiracy theory-laden disinformation website operated by Bannon’s billionaire benefactor, Guo Wengui. The Washington Post recently published a deep-dive analysis of research on Guo’s “sprawling disinformation network” and its goals to undermine the integrity of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, spread COVID-19 misinformation, and promote “QAnon-aligned content.”
The original GNews article outlining the conspiracy theory suggested that the book is “evidence” that SARS coronaviruses are produced from an “unnatural origin” and proposed that the Chinese military was working in 2015 on a “genetically modified weapon” to launch “unrestricted warfare to the whole world.” The conspiracy theory then made the jump from GNews to Rupert Murdoch-owned media in his home country of Australia.
On May 9, Sharri Markson, an investigative reporter for Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper and a host on Sky News, covered what she described as a “chilling” report from “a document produced by Chinese military scientists” that “offers a rare insight” into how senior Chinese officials were studying SARS to act as a bioweapon.
Markson outlined her reporting on air and promoted the story as a chapter in her upcoming book titled What Really Happened In Wuhan. (Markson’s book is set to be distributed by HarperCollins Publishers, another Murdoch-owned company).
A week later, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Media Watch debunked the story with a roundup of reporting on the many holes in Markson’s work. According to its report, GNews was one of the earliest reported adopters of the conspiracy theory based on the discredited 2015 book.
The debunk explained that “a host of China experts say the book is not outlining China’s plans for biowarfare” but rather “it’s looking at defense against Western attacks, which it claims have already started.” Media Watch also noted that the document Markson based her reporting on is a readily available book that can be purchased online.
While ABC Australia's debunk is critical reporting, it didn’t come soon enough to prevent the conspiracy theory from reaching the U.S. Markson’s story, seemingly appropriated from GNews, quickly landed on Fox News.
Shortly after Markson’s reporting was published in The Australian, Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo brought the story to the attention of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) on Sunday Morning Futures, asking him to react to her supposed findings.
This is not the first time misleading reporting from Markson has made its way to Fox News viewers -- it’s part of a pattern of deceitful claims which ripple through Murdoch-owned media organizations across the world.