Taiwan has detected a growing number of cases of disinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic since late February, of which more than 70 per cent originated from China, according to a recent Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) briefing.
This rise in disinformation was likely sparked by Chinese netizens who were displeased by Taiwanese criticism of how China had managed the outbreak, MJIB official Chang Yu-jen (張尤仁) said at a briefing in the second half of March.
Of the 271 fake news cases the MJIB was investigating, 196 originated from China, and 35 suspects have been handed over to prosecutors, according to Chang.
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 said.
One kind of format they use involves short paragraphs based on the same template, Chang said, such as one that claimed, “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.”
Pieces of information may be switched out – such as saying one’s aunt was a councilor instead of one’s father, or changing the identity of the political figure providing the information – but the main purpose is the same: to sow panic and mistrust, Chang said.
Other forms of fake news include photoshopped images of Taiwanese news channels, as well as fake government announcements, Chang said.
Local media, including CNA, have zeroed in on one specific example of these different strategies – a group of accounts on Facebook and Twitter all using the name Sun Xiaochuan (孫笑川), a controversial social media personality from China who rose to fame through video game streaming.
One Facebook account with the name posted a poorly photoshopped image of a fire in front of the Presidential 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 created a fake announcement from the Taipei City government, claiming that Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) had cancelled the rest of his plans that day because he had symptoms of COVID-19.
On Twitter, “Sun Xiaochuan” has shared fake photos of dead COVID-19 patients, saying that the situation in the southern city of Tainan was so dire that there were corpses floating in the river.
Though it is yet unclear how, or if, these accounts are connected, a report by ProPublica in late March said China is coordinating a “propaganda machine” on Twitter, which it is now using to push COVID-19 messages.
The report, which tracked “more than 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government,” found that these accounts focused mostly on criticizing anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
They then switched gears in late January when the COVID-19 outbreak exploded in China to focus on the disease and become “cheerleaders for the government” with the goal of projecting an image of Chinese competence.
Their activities were “consistent with the timing of the government’s handling of the epidemic and the themes it was publicly pushing,” the report said.
The report also uncovered evidence linking a portion of these accounts to a marketing company in Beijing, and found that other “advertising agencies” had propositioned prominent overseas Chinese Twitter users to post videos that paint China’s COVID-19 response in a positive light.
Puma Shen (沈伯洋), an assistant professor at National Taipei University, would likely categorize this form of disinformation as “capitalist”, one of the four categories of Chinese disinformation he has found in his research.
In a “capitalist” form of disinformation, Chinese forces reach out to social media users or administrators of social media pages and ask them to post content in exchange for money; in some cases, they offer to buy the page outright, Shen said at a lecture on March 28.
The other forms of disinformation are state propaganda, an “organic” form in which messages are spread organically by Chinese citizens on social media, and a “regional” form spread through regional channels such as local media, celebrities or politicians.
Shen considers the “regional” form of disinformation most threatening because those involved can tailor their messages to a Taiwanese audience due to their understanding of local culture.