Taipei, Taiwan – Rinsing your mouth with warm water for 30 minutes and swallowing will allow stomach acid to kill COVID-19. Taking a hot bath regularly will also prevent you from contracting the virus.
These are just some of the tips given in a seven minute audio clip of a woman claiming to be Taiwanese lawmaker Tsai Pi-ru circulating on social messaging app LINE over the past week.
It comes with the accompanying note in Traditional Chinese: “Very important! Listen to everything! This is Tsai Pi-ru’s (information) sharing, I listened to it twice, for your reference.
Both the audio clip and the advice turned out to be false and Tsai, a trained nurse who volunteered in hospitals during the pandemic, moved quickly to debunk them. But such posts have surged on Taiwanese social media since the island’s most severe COVID-19 outbreak began earlier this month.
“From May 12 (the day after Taiwan declared community transmission), there has been a lot of misinformation that tries to trigger panic locally in Taiwan,” said Puma Shen, director of DoubleThink Labs, an NGO based in Taiwan. in Taipei that tracks disinformation and digital surveillance.
Disinformation campaigns have taken various forms over the past month, he said.
They first appeared on Twitter accounts, then on YouTube and in individual and group chats on LINE. After that, voicemails claiming to be from members of the Taiwanese elite began to appear.
In recent days, fake posts claiming to be from news sites such as the left-leaning Liberty Times and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy publication Apple Daily have also been posted on Facebook pages aimed at animal lovers and supporters of the president. Tsai Ing-wen, claiming that she and other political elites secretly contracted COVID-19, Shen said.
The fake news has also been accompanied by what Shen calls “propaganda” messages with allegations 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 national vaccine is due to be rolled out this summer.
To sow discord and panic
While disinformation campaigns are nothing new in Taiwan, which is regularly targeted by China’s well-oiled propaganda machine and its homegrown supporters, the recent COVID-19 campaign has serious health implications.
Over the weekend, Vice Interior Minister Chen Tsung-yen said the messages about the president’s health were “really vile fake news” that amounted to “cognitive warfare” against Taiwanese.
“Compared to last year, this year is much worse and the misinformation is serious and one of the reasons the public is panicking,” said Robin Lee, project manager of MyGoPen, an independent data-checking site. made in Taiwan whose English name is similar to the Taiwanese pronunciation of “Don’t Lie”.
Taiwanese society has been particularly exposed to fake news over the past month as it grapples with its first partial nationwide lockdown after a year and a half of successful virus containment.
Although daily cases are between 200 and 300 – few compared to neighbors like Japan – the outbreak is the most severe yet and a huge loss of morale in some neighborhoods.
Last year, Taiwan went more than 250 days without a single local coronavirus case and until the end of April the total number of local cases hovered around 1,200 thanks to an aggressive contact tracing program and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travellers.
However, the recent outbreak has been linked to pilots of flag carrier China Airlines – who are to undergo a shorter quarantine period – and led the government to close schools across the island for the first time since early 2020 and to call residents to work. from home when possible.
The island of fake news
As rapid test stations have sprung up around Taiwan and panic buying has returned, temporarily wiping out the instant noodle sections of many grocery stores, fake news has also made a comeback. But this time around, many posts and messages seemed more believable.
Previously, fake news and propaganda messages from China were easy to spot: Simplified Chinese (used on the mainland) would sometimes creep in or contain words that Taiwanese themselves found strange. But this time around, the new message cache seemed much more believable.
A new wave of audio messages funded by Chinese government agencies is now making the rounds. According to a 2020 report by US cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, local Taiwanese are now paid between $730 and $1,460 per month to produce social media posts – close to the average monthly salary on the island – to write and express these scripts.
As Facebook cracked down on misinformation and fake news, viral posts migrated to LINE, YouTube, Instagram and PTT, Taiwan’s version of Reddit. Recent posts have focused on COVID-19, but have also covered Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election and Tsai, who was then running for a second term as president.
According to the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, much, but not all, of this work has been linked to China’s United Front Labor Department, the Communist Youth League and an army. independent of internet trolls.
Some is also produced domestically by Taiwanese who may support closer ties with China, which claims the island as its own, or who simply dislike the Tsai administration, CSIS said.
Videos, in particular, have been attributed to content farms operated by ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, said Shen of DoubleThink Labs.
MyGoPen and the Taiwan FactCheck Center are just two organizations working locally to dispel disinformation campaigns, debunk fake news on their websites, and then share information on social media accounts.
The Center for Disease Control broadcasts its daily afternoon press conferences live on multiple platforms to update Taiwanese on the latest health statistics and protocols, but it has also relied on humor and memes to fight back. against misinformation.
A successful campaign featured Zongchai, the Center for Disease Control’s Shiba Inu dog mascot. Zongchai regularly appears in CDC posts regarding recent case numbers and practical advice, such as the right length for social distancing: that is, the length of three Shiba Inus lined up nose-to-nose.
Although informative, the posts play well into Taiwanese’s appreciation for cute memes, where even Taiwan’s authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek received the cartoon treatment in LINE posts from his former party, the Kuomintang.
Zongchai’s mascot pigeon for the Foreign Ministry, which regularly announces changes to travel restrictions in Taiwan, is part of its “2-2-2” response to misinformation: Respond in 20 minutes with 200 words and two images that favor “humor rather than rumour”.
— MOHW from Taiwan (@MOHW_Taiwan) May 24, 2021
(Translation: Message of 5/24/2021. “Suspicion of massive body burn due to Wanhua pneumonia”. False information spread on the website]
This so-called “meme engineering” aims to “package the message in such a fun way that you just have to share it”, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang told the French Foundation for Strategic Research in April last year.
But for every cute Shiba Inu message released by the CDC, another fake message pops up.
Earlier this week, MyGoPen debunked a rumor that the United States had so many extra vaccine doses that it had started inoculating cats and dogs. Another message claimed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was only 29.5% effective despite scientific data reporting efficacy rates above 90% for the original virus and newly emerged variants.
One thing is certain: as Taiwan fights fiercely to stem this latest wave of infections, it will do double duty to eradicate fake memes.