As Taiwan endeavors to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, the island-nation has also been tackling another epidemic — disinformation. Olivia Yang describes the situation.
Since COVID-19 broke out before the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, a surge of disinformation has emerged surrounding the current status of the virus in Taiwan and the government’s management of the outbreak.
According to latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of March 5 there have been 44 confirmed infections, with one death and 12 recoveries, in Taiwan.
However, in recent weeks numerous posts on social media platforms — primarily Facebook — have spread claims that the Taiwanese government is covering up the number of coronavirus infections in the country. The number of purported cases in these posts range from a daily increase of a couple of hundred to a total of several thousand. Some of these posts also claim that the virus has already spread among students and the military.
Other posts have claimed that countless bodies have been buried inside Taipei Dome, or that the government had cremated the corpses of infected citizens in different areas of Taiwan to avoid the high number of COVID-19-related causalities being reported. Another post showed an image of a city in flames along with text saying the virus has gone beyond control in the southern city of Tainan. And yet another one claimed that President Tsai Ing-wen was herself infected with the coronavirus and that she — 63 years of age! — risked losing the child she was carrying. The Taiwan FactCheck Center, a local non-profit fact-checking organization, later demonstrated that the image of the burning city was a still from the 2016 South Korean zombie thriller, “Train to Busan.” The fact-checking organization also debunked all the above examples.
Nevertheless, the pieces of disinformation have been widely circulated in various formats, including infographics, images, and video clips. While Taiwan is not a rookie in combating different forms of disinformation, the severity of this wave of COVID-19-related disinformation has prompted the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) to issue multiple press releases to address the matter.
In a Feb. 29 press release, the MJIB stated that an investigation had determined that most of the COVID-19 disinformation relating to Taiwan originating from social media platforms in China — mainly on Weibo and Di Bar — which was then reposted to Facebook pages through fake accounts. The Bureau said the surge in disinformation appeared to stem from resentment toward Taiwan for its ban on the export of facial masks. The MJIB added that Chinese Internet users have been editing images of official notices issued by the Taiwanese government and inserting disinformation. These, it said, constitute attempts to discredit government notices and undermine their reliability.
According to Taiwan’s Special Act on COVID-19 Prevention, Relief, and Restoration passed on Feb. 25, individuals who spread rumors or disinformation about COVID-19 that risk harming the public interest can face a maximum prison term of three years and a possible fine of NT$3 million (US$99,000). A man from New Taipei City was arrested on Feb. 29 for posting a false claim on Facebook saying that COVID-19 was out of control in Taiwan, that the military had assumed control over Taipei, and that the Tsai administration had been burning corpses of infected patients in the streets.
As local authorities and NGOs tackle the disinformation, they are also putting in efforts to ensure that the correct information is being circulated among the Taiwanese public.
The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) has held one or several press briefings nearly every day to keep the public informed on the current developments of COVID-19 in Taiwan. Over 100 digital maps have been created to provide real-time information on the pharmacies that carry facial masks and the amount of masks left in stock. Taiwan’s Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang has also worked with civic organizations and the National Health Insurance Administration to compile all the digital maps on one website for users to choose from.
But the disinformation epidemic surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak is far from over, according to the MJIB and academics.
In addition to cautioning the public of the next wave of COVID-19 disinformation, the MJIB warned in its Feb. 29 press release that Chinese Internet users are starting to discuss how the different lingo and characters used in Taiwan and China has made the disinformation easier to identify. There have also been suggestions of using the language adopted in Taiwan FactCheck Center reports to smooth over the language differences, the MJIB said.
Puma Shen, an assistant professor at the National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Criminology and one of the top researchers on disinformation in Taiwan, told media this week that the wave of disinformation seen in recent weeks was merely Chinese Internet users “testing the water.” In his assessment, there will be a larger disinformation attack on Taiwan once more infected COVID-19 cases are confirmed in the country.
According to Shen, the target audience of such disinformation includes not only the Taiwan public, but also Chinese Internet users who manage to get around China’s “Great Firewall” for information. This, he argues, is to create a façade that Taiwanese media reports are disinformation, and in turn to reinforce stability within China.
Feature Photo Credit: Taiwan FactCheck Center Facebook page.