Taipei, Taiwan – Rinsing your mouth with hot water for 30 minutes and swallowing it will allow stomach acid to kill COVID-19. Taking a hot bath regularly will also prevent you from spreading the virus.
These are just some of the tips that are given to you seven minute audio clip of a woman who pretended to be Taiwanese lawmaker Tsai Pi-ru circulating the LINE social messaging app during the past week.
It comes with the attached note in traditional Chinese: “Very important! Listen to the whole topic! It is the shared use of Tsai Pi-ru (information), I have heard it twice, as a reference ”.
The audio clip and tips have turned out to be fake and Tsai, a trained nurse who volunteered at hospitals during the pandemic, has moved quickly to discredit them. But these posts have grown on Taiwanese social media since the island even more severe outbreak of COVID-19 began earlier this month.
“As of May 12 (the day after Taiwan declared the community broadcast), there has been a lot of misinformation trying to trigger panic in Taiwan,” said Puma Shen, director of DoubleThink Labs, an NGO based in Taipei that tracks misinformation and digital surveillance.
Disinformation campaigns have taken different forms 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 began to appear claiming to come from members of the Taiwanese elite.
In recent days, fake posts from news sites such as the left-leaning Liberty Times and the pro-democracy Hong Kong publication Apple Daily, aimed at animal lovers and supporters, have also been posted on Facebook pages. of President Tsai Ing-wen, claiming that she and other political elites had secretly hired COVID-19, Shen said.
The fake news has also been accompanied by what Shen calls “propaganda” advertising with claims such as China offering to sell its COVID-19 vaccine to Taiwan, which for the past year has struggled to get enough doses for its population. of 23 million people, although the domestic vaccine is due to be launched this summer.
Seeming discord and panic
While disinformation campaigns are nothing new in Taiwan, they are regularly run by the well-oiled propaganda machine of China and its local supporters, the recent COVID-19 campaign has serious health implications.
Over the weekend, Vice Interior Minister Chen Tsung-yen said the president’s health posts were “fake fake news” that equated to “cognitive warfare” against Taiwanese.
“Compared to last year, this year is much worse and more serious misinformation and one of the reasons the public is panicking,” said Robin Lee, project director at MyGoPen, an independent site fact-checking in Taiwan whose English name is similar to the Taiwanese pronunciation of “Don’t Lie”.
Taiwanese society has been especially exposed to fake news over the past month as it faces its first partial blockade nationwide after a year and a half of successfully containing the virus.
Although daily cases range from 200 to 300 (low compared to neighbors like Japan), the outbreak is the most serious so far and a huge loss of morale in some neighborhoods.
Last year, Taiwan spent more than 250 days without any local coronavirus cases, and by the end of April, the total number of local cases stood at about 1,200 thanks to an aggressive contact locator program and a mandatory quarantine of 14 days for travelers.
However, the recent outbreak has been linked to China Airlines national pilots – who are due to spend a shorter quarantine period – and has caused the government to close schools across the island for the first time since early 2020. and ask residents to work. from home when possible.
Fake news island
As fast-food test stations sprang up around Taiwan and panic buying returned, the instant noodle sections of many grocery stores were temporarily cleaned, fake news also returned. But this time, many of the messages and messages seemed more likely.
Previously, fake news and propaganda publications from China were easy to spot: Simplified Chinese (used on the mainland) occasionally introduced or contained words that Taiwanese themselves would find strange. But this time the new publication cache seemed much more credible.
A new wave of audio messages funded by Chinese government agencies is spinning. According to a 2020 report by the American cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, local Taiwanese now pay between $ 730 and $ 1,460 a month to produce posts on social media, close to the average monthly salary on the island, for writing and expressing these scripts.
As Facebook has cracked down on misinformation and fake news, viral messages have migrated to LINE, YouTube, Instagram and PTT, Taiwan’s Reddit version. Recent publications 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.
Much, but not all, of this work has been related to the Department of Labor of the United Front of China, the Communist Youth League, and an independent army of Internet trolls, according to the Center for Strategic Studies. and Internationals based in the United States.
Part of it is also produced nationally by Taiwanese who may foster closer ties with China, which claims the island is its own, or simply dislikes the Tsai administration, the CSIS said.
The videos, in particular, have been tracked on content farms run by ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, said Shen of DoubleThink Labs.
MyGoPen and the Taiwan FactCheck Center are just two organizations working locally to dispel misinformation campaigns, dismantling fake news on their websites and then sharing information between social media accounts.
The Centers for Disease Control broadcasts live daily press conferences in the afternoon across multiple platforms to inform Taiwanese of the latest health statistics and protocols, but has also relied on humor and memes to combat them. misinformation.
A successful campaign has featured Zongchai, the dog of the Shiba Inu dog at the Center for Disease Control. Zongchai regularly appears in CDC messages about recent case figures and practical advice, such as the correct length for social distancing: that is, the length of three Shiba Inus aligned from nose to nose.
While informative, the posts are much appreciated by Taiwanese for likeable memes, where even Taiwanese authoritarian ruler Chiang Kai-shek has received cartoon treatment in LINE posts from his only party, the Kuomintang.
Zongchai’s pigeon pet for the Foreign Ministry, which regularly announces changes to Taiwan’s travel restrictions, is part of its “2-2-2” response to misinformation: it responds in 20 minutes with 200 words and two images that prioritize “humor over rumor.”
# 卫 福 编 报 报 ⏲ Time of publication: 2021.5.24
CenterCentre Internet transmission of the “suspected mass burning of Wanhua pneumonia”: command center: people with the intent to falsify media web pages to spread false information ❗https://t.co/x41SBDNMyG pic.twitter.com/eDgODga5FV
– MOHW from Taiwan (@MOHW_Taiwan) May 24, 2021
(Translation: Published on 24/5/2021. “Suspended from mass burning of bodies by Wanhua pneumonia.” False information posted 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 Foundation in April last year. for Strategic Research in France.
But for every beautiful Shiba Inu post, the CDC comes along, another fake message pops up.
Earlier this week, MyGoPen denied the rumor that the U.S. had so many additional doses of vaccine that it had begun to inoculate cats and cats. Another message stated that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is only 29.5 percent effective despite scientific information efficiency rates in excess of 90 percent for the original virus and newly emerged variants
One thing is for sure: as Taiwan fights furiously to curb this latest wave of infections, it will work twice to eliminate fake memes.