The Yan Report is a misleading article masquerading as science, which falsely claims that the novel coronavirus was made in a Chinese lab. An example of cloaked science, it was released during a time of intense uncertainty; as scientists raced for answers about COVID-19, sharing unvetted data as preprints in open science repositories became an essential mode of international collaboration. The increasing openness of the scientific community, though, is a vulnerability that can be leveraged by media manipulators, especially during times of crisis. On April 28, 2020, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), fled to the United States with support from Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui. They used Yan’s story — that she was a whistleblower — to exploit the contentious wedge issue of the unknown origin of COVID-19.
This media manipulation campaign involved planting misleading evidence into the scientific literature, muddying the waters about COVID-19 and providing the veneer of scientific legitimacy for the political claim that coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon. Subsequently, the Yan Report was amplified through right-wing media networks, leading to nearly a million views of the report on Zenodo, an open-access research data repository. While social media platforms moderated information about the Yan Report after scientists at several universities debunked it, two follow-up Yan Reports were uploaded to open science repositories that even more bluntly pushed the bioweapon narrative, while also refuting the academic responses to the first report. Seeding the Yan reports in the scientific community as cloaked science allowed those who linked to them on social media to claim legitimacy, while also providing the empirical basis for furthering the political aims of the funders of the reports.