Monday, September 27News That Matters

Fake news alert: Taiwan fights disinformation as COVID surges

Taipei, Taiwan – Rinsing your mouth with hot water for 30 minutes and swallowing will allow your stomach acid to kill COVID-19. Taking a hot bath regularly will also prevent you from getting the virus.

These are just some of the pieces of advice given in a seven-minute audio clip of a woman claiming to be Taiwanese legislator Tsai Pi-ru circulating on the social messaging app LINE over the past week.

It comes with the accompanying note in traditional Chinese: “Very important! Listen to the whole thing! It’s Tsai Pi-ru sharing (information), I listened to it twice, for your reference.”

The audio clip and the advice have both turned out to be fake and Tsai, a trained nurse who has volunteered in hospitals during the pandemic, has moved quickly to debunk them. But such posts have mushroomed on Taiwanese social media since the island’s most serious outbreak yet of COVID-19 began earlier this month.

“Starting from May 12 (the day after Taiwan declared community transmission), there has been a lot of disinformation that is trying to trigger panic locally in Taiwan,” said Puma Shen, the director of the DoubleThink Labs, a Taipei based-NGO that tracks disinformation and digital surveillance.

The disinformation campaigns have taken varying guises over the past month, he said.

First, they appeared on Twitter accounts, then on YouTube and in individual and group chats on LINE. After that, voice messages claiming to be from members of Taiwan’s elite began popping up.

In recent days, fake posts from news sites such as the left-leaning Liberty Times and pro-democracy Hong Kong publication Apple Daily have also been posted on Facebook pages directed at animal lovers and supporters of President Tsai Ing-wen, claiming that she and other political elites had secretly contracted COVID-19, Shen said.

Fake news has also been accompanied by what Shen calls “propaganda” posts with claims such as China offering to sell its COVID-19 vaccine to Taiwan, which has struggled over the past year to obtain sufficient doses for its population of 23 million – although a domestic vaccine is due to roll out this summer.

Sowing discord and panic

While disinformation campaigns are nothing new in Taiwan, which is regularly targeted by China’s well-oiled propaganda machine and its local supporters, the recent COVID-19 campaign has serious health implications.

Over the weekend, Deputy Minister of the Interior Chen Tsung-yen said posts about the president’s health were “really vile fake news” that amounted to “cognitive warfare” against the Taiwanese.

“Compared to last year, this year is much worse and serious misinformation and one of the reasons the public is in panic,” said Robin Lee, the project manager of MyGoPen, an independent fact-checking site in Taiwan whose English name is similar to the Taiwanese pronunciation of “Don’t Lie”.

Taiwan has stepped up COVID-19 restrictions to tackle a new outbreak of the virus, which has also been accompanied by a flood of disinformation shared on social media [Chiang Ying-ying/AP Photo]

Taiwanese society has been particularly exposed to fake news over the past month as it grapples with its first nationwide partial lockdown after a year and a half of successfully containing the virus.

Although daily cases range between 200 and 300 – low compared with neighbours like Japan – the outbreak is the most serious yet and a huge morale loss in some quarters.

Last year, Taiwan went for more than 250 days without a single local coronavirus case and until the end of April, the total number of local cases hovered at approximately 1,200 thanks to an aggressive contact-tracing programme and mandatory 14-day quarantine for travellers.

However, the recent outbreak has been linked to pilots at the national carrier China Airlines – who have to undergo a shorter quarantine period – and has led to the government closing schools across the island for the first time since early 2020 and calling for residents to work from home when possible.

Fake news island

As rapid-testing stations sprang up around Taiwan and panic-buying returned, temporarily clearing the instant noodle sections of many grocery stores, fake news also made a comeback. But this time around, many of the posts and messages appeared more believable.

Previously, fake news and propaganda posts from China were easy to spot: simplified Chinese (used on the the mainland) would occasionally creep in or contain words that the Taiwanese themselves would find odd. But this time round the new cache of posts seemed far more credible.

A new wave of audio messages funded by Chinese government agencies is now making the rounds. According to a 2020 report from American cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, local Taiwanese are now paid between $730 and $1,460 a month to produce social media posts – close to the average monthly wage on the island – to write and voice these scripts.

As Facebook has cracked down on misinformation and fake news, viral messages have migrated to LINE, YouTube, Instagram, and PTT, Taiwan’s version of Reddit. Recent posts have focused on COVID-19 but have also taken on Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election and Tsai who was then running for a second term as president.

Zongchai, the CDC’s Shiba Inu mascot, reminds residents to maintain social distancing and wear face masks to control the COVID-19 epidemic.

Much of this work, but not all, has been linked to China’s United Front Work Department, the Communist Youth League, and an independent army of internet trolls, according to the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some of it is also produced domestically by Taiwanese who may support closer ties to China, which claims the island as its own, or who simply dislike the Tsai administration, CSIS said.

Videos, in particular, have been traced to content farms operated by ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, said DoubleThink Labs’ Shen.

Cute attack

MyGoPen and the Taiwan FactCheck Center are just two organisations working locally to dispel disinformation campaigns, debunking fake news on their websites and then sharing information across social media accounts.

The Center for Disease Control live streams its daily afternoon press conferences across multiple platforms to inform Taiwanese of the latest statistics and health protocols but it has also relied on humour and memes to tackle disinformation.

A successful campaign has featured Zongchai, the Centre for Disease Control’s Shiba Inu dog mascot. Zongchai regularly appears in messages from the CDC about recent case figures and practical advice, such as the correct length for social distancing: i.e. the length of three Shiba Inus lined up nose-to-nose.

While informative, the messages play well into Taiwanese’s appreciation for cute memes, where even Taiwan’s authoritarian ruler Chiang Kai-shek has been given the cartoon treatment in LINE posts from his one-time party, the Kuomintang.

Zongchai’s pigeon mascot for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which regularly announces changes in Taiwan’s travel restrictions, are all part of its “2-2-2” response to disinformation: respond in 20 minutes with 200 words and two images that prioritise “humour over rumour”.

(Translation: Post from 24/5/2021. ‘Suspected mass burning of bodies from Wanhua pneumonia’. False information spread on website] 

This so-called “meme engineering” is intended to “package the message in such a funny way that you simply have to share it,” Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang told France’s Foundation for Strategic Research in April last year.

But for every cute Shiba Inu post the CDC churns out, another fake message appears.

Earlier this week, MyGoPen debunked a rumour that the US had so many extra vaccine doses that they had begun inoculating cats and dogs. Another message claimed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is only 29.5 percent effective despite scientific data reporting efficacy rates above 90 percent for the original virus and newly-emerged variants

One thing is for sure: as Taiwan battles furiously to tamp down this latest wave of infections, it will be working double-time to stamp out the fake memes.