March 3, 2020

While struggling to fight the new coronavirus, Taiwan is also witnessing a serious digital attack driven by malicious disinformers.

In the last few days, dozens of profiles and bots on Facebook and Twitter have posted different pieces of content suggesting that the COVID-19 is completely out of control in Taiwan and that the government doesn’t know what to do to protect its people. Active fact-checkers can already see political motivation behind it.

All posts published by these profiles and bots bring different versions of the same idea. They claim that Taiwan has been widely hit by the new severe infection and is having a terrible time with COVID-19.

One post published on Facebook and debunked by our team at the Taiwan Fact-Check Center claimed that many people had already died from the new coronavirus. According to official data, however, as of Feb. 28, 34 people are infected and one has died in the country, infected with the lethal disease.

Other viral posts are claiming that there are so many corpses to be cremated in Taiwan that it exceeds the national crematorium capacity. This is obviously not true.

Besides that, some other profiles and bots spread the “information” that the Taiwanese authority has been shipping infected bodies to other cities in the world, paying families to keep silent about it. There is no evidence that this is actually happening in Taiwan.

It is also easy to find on social media posts claiming that Taiwanese military forces have been infected with the COVID-19 and that students in Taiwan are being kept out of school, suffering from cluster infection — two very popular falsehoods.

Finally, fact-checkers in Taipei have seen tons of irrelevant movie clips and out-of-context videos floating online, showing disaster scenes as if they were reflecting the current status in Taiwan.

This kind of disinformation is without a doubt malicious. It brings up conspiracy theories against the Taiwanese administration and accuses it of covering the real epidemic situation, insinuating that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is far behind the static reported by CDC Taiwan.

The ongoing disinformation campaign also tries to shake unity among Taiwanese and aims to get citizens distrusting the government. The most terrible part of it is the fact that, so far, the campaign has managed to confuse people and make them anxious.

It is worth noting that, usually, those hoaxes are written in simplified Chinese, using phrases and idioms from China, which are rather unfamiliar or unknown to Taiwanese people.

Fact-checkers have also seen false names and clear mistakes on the headlines. “Sources” are always unclear or simply unverifiable. “My third aunty working as a manhole cover worker told me …” is very common now on social media. People should be aware and not believe that.

From Feb. 23-29, Taiwan Fact-Check’s team has published nine fact-checks against those pieces of disinformation. But hoaxes have taken many versions and are not only spreading rapidly but also on different platforms.

Fact-checkers in Taipei have relied on exhausted doctors, nurses and experts to separate facts from fiction. But the amount of disinformation is reaching surprising levels.

Besides publishing fact-checks, Taiwan Fact-Check Center sent one media alert last week and posted three open letters to the public. It is time to have people cooperating. Everyone should fact-check the content they receive and only share if it’s true. This is a must-do under the coronavirus outbreak.

* Summer Chen and Huian Ho are editor-in-chief and reporter at the Taiwan Fact-Check Center.

*Correction: A previous version of this article informed the wrong number of infected and deceased people in Taiwan because of the coronavirus. We apologize for the mistake. 

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