Over 70 percent of fake news and disinformation related to the Chinese coronavirus originates from China, according to a new analysis from Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB).
Addressing a press briefing, MJIB official Chang Yu-Jen said that the rise in disinformation likely came from Chinese netizens displeased with criticism from Taiwanese officials about how their country had responded to the outbreak.
“The Chinese netizens craft messages catering to a Taiwanese audience, coordinate how they are to be spread, and then use fake accounts to share them in Taiwanese Facebook groups,” Chang explained in remarks reported by Focus Taiwan.
He added that of the 271 cases of disinformation the bureau was investigating, 196 originated from China, and 35 suspects will be charged by prosecutors. Examples of such disinformation include the spreading of incorrect figures surrounding the number of coronavirus cases in Taiwan.
“My father is a city councilor, and he was told by another city councilor that Taiwan actually has over 500 COVID-19 cases and 200 related deaths,” reads one of the messages. Many of the messages share a similar template, with suspects merely swapping the identity of their supposed sources.
Other forms of disinformation include doctored images, allegedly of Taiwanese news channels, and fake government announcements. One example involved a Facebook user posting a badly doctored image of a fire in front of the President Office Building, with the caption: “The military has taken control of Taipei. Tsai’s administration is burning people who have contracted the disease.”
Another account reportedly shared a fake announcement from the Taipei City government declaring that the capital’s Mayor Ko Wen-je had been forced to cancel his day’s schedule after experiencing symptoms of the virus.
China has for years flooded Taiwan with fake news and propaganda with the aim of undermining the country’s sovereign government and promoting Beijing’s interests. Amid the height of the outbreak in February, Taiwan similarly accused Chinese internet trolls of attempting to create hysteria surrounding the coronavirus, creating the false impression that the country’s government was covering up the extent of the outbreak.
In reality, Taiwanese health authorities have managed to contain the virus so effectively that there have so far been just 379 cases and five deaths in a country of around 24 million people, making it one of the lowest relative infection rates worldwide.
“We suspect that mainland Chinese Internet trolls are making up and spreading the false messages based on the content and the phrases,” the Investigation Bureau said in a statement at the time. “The intent is to cause misunderstanding among the public and to sow panic to seriously jeopardize our social stability.”
Despite its proximity and cultural links to China, Taiwan took swift and decisive action following the virus’s outbreak in Wuhan earlier this year, banning all arrivals from China, Hong Kong, and Macau. The measures infuriated communist officials in Beijing, who continue to demand unification between the two countries in what is known as the “One China Policy.”