These are trying times for imaginary friends, and for the media outlets who rely on them for timely, conveniently “on-message” quotes. A July 24 Facebook post by purported Swiss biologist Wilson Edwards cast doubt on the WHO investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and alleged that his fellow researchers and WHO staff “had endured enormous pressure and even intimidation from the U.S. side.” Over the next two weeks, the post was quoted enthusiastically in articles by state-affiliated media outlets such as Global Times, People’s Daily online, China Daily and CGTN, and was shared widely on social media.
Yet the man who set all this in motion remained a mystery. Journalists, researchers, embassy personnel and members of the online public seeking to confirm the identity of Wilson Edwards found nary a trace of him: he seemed to have no permanent address, academic affiliations, scientific publications, or social media presence, apart from a two-week-old Facebook account with a single post and only three Facebook friends.
On August 10, the Swiss Embassy in Beijing weighed in. After searching citizenship logs and academic publications and failing to find any mention of Wilson Edwards, the embassy issued a tweet from its official account debunking the existence of Edwards and calling on the Chinese press and netizens to retract false content attributed to him:
Looking for Wilson Edwards, alleged 🇨🇭 biologist, cited in press and social media in China over the last several days. If you exist, we would like to meet you! But it is more likely that this is a fake news, and we call on the Chinese press and netizens to take down the posts. pic.twitter.com/U6ku5EGibm
— Embassy of Switzerland in Beijing (@SwissEmbChina) August 10, 2021
By the following day, some (although not all) of the news articles quoting Wilson Edwards had been taken down, and his Facebook account appeared to have been deleted. Helen Davidson of the Guardian reported:
On Wednesday, Chinese state media articles began disappearing from the internet, including from the Global Times and CGTN. The Wilson Edwards Facebook account – which was created on the same day it published its only post, with a profile photo of a library at Oxford University, and had just three friends – also appeared to have been deleted.
Facebook posts by the People’s Daily and at least one China Daily article remained live on Wednesday afternoon.
[…] The Guardian has contacted the Chinese outlets for comment. [Source]
Deprived of the imaginary expert Wilson Edwards, state media has pivoted to emphasizing scientific opposition to politicizing the search for Covid-19’s origins, and to quoting officials and experts from a wider swath of countries such as Russia, the Philippines, Kenya, and Malta. State media editorial coverage continues to characterize U.S. insistence on investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus as “origin-tracing terrorism,” a newly-coined term that CDT has added to our China Digital Space archive.
CDT Chinese has also published several articles—on Edwards’ original Facebook post, “origin-tracing terrorism” and the Swiss Embassy response—related to social media commentary on the fruitless search for Wilson Edwards:
@堰屏: People’s Daily just deleted the post. How embarrassing.
@情話太多會炸號: Did the scam backfire?
@Ivegotawarinmymind: You’ve got to laugh…this isn’t the first or second time this has happened.
@蓝蓝的天空123455: In the future, wouldn’t it be safer to fabricate some expert from outer space? Otherwise, some other embassy is going to pop up refuting rumors, and it’s just so embarrassing.
@都是一夹人: “The country that ranks number one in false information” fails to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
@Rococoxy: Since we can’t access Facebook, we have no way of knowing if you’re lying or telling the truth.
@Cohenpham: The fundamental job of Chinese news can be summed up in four words: muddle truth with lies.
@一座一席: No matter if Switzerland has an academic named Wilson Edwards, no matter how Chinese media reports on our own internal political affairs, western countries have no right to meddle!
@NetworkNew-s54: You say he doesn’t exist, and we’re just supposed to take your word for it? We demand that Switzerland conduct a census recount.
@南籍北人: Hand over those Chinese-owned Swiss bank accounts!
@语石俱禁: Tonight, CCTV news has dumped the Swiss biologist, and is airing the opinions of a Russian expert.
@潇香老农: Tomorrow, they should find an expert from North Korea. I’m sure our brothers-in-arms would be glad to lend a hand. [Chinese]
In June, CDT translated excerpts from a post by Shenzhen University journalism professor Gu Xiaojin debunking a viral news story about Italy’s prime minister purportedly admitting that COVID was spreading in Italy as long ago as the summer of 2019. Gu described this example as reflecting a trend of “borrowing Western government officials or media personalities to speak for China and pander to a certain mood online. The kicker is that these ‘international rumors’ exploit the public’s asymmetric access to domestic and international news to propagate themselves, easily gaining hundreds of thousands” of engagements. In that case, Gu noted, it was China’s embassy to Italy that weighed in online, confirming with a statement on its website that the story was untrue and adding that “We trust that most internet users will not be misled and spread this false information.”