These are just a few of the advice given in a seven-minute audio clip of a woman claiming to be Taiwanese lawmaker Tsai Pi-ru circulating on the LINE social messaging app over the past week.
It is accompanied by the side note in Traditional Chinese: “Very Important! Hear it all! This is Tsai Pi-ru’s sharing (information), I listened to it twice, for your reference.
The audio clip and the advice both turned out to be false and Tsai, a trained nurse who volunteered at hospitals during the pandemic, acted quickly to debunk it. But these publications have multiplied on Taiwanese social networks since the start of the most serious epidemic of COVID-19 on the island earlier this month.
“As of May 12 (the day after Taiwan declared community transmission), there has been a lot of misinformation trying to trigger panic locally in Taiwan,” said Puma Shen, director of DoubleThink Labs, an NGO based in Taipei follows disinformation and digital surveillance.
Disinformation campaigns have taken various 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, voicemail messages claiming to be from members of the Taiwanese elite began to appear.
In recent days, fake posts from news sites such as the left-wing 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 President Tsai. Ing-wen, claiming that she and other political elites had 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 doses sufficient for its population of 23 million – although a household vaccine is due to be rolled out this summer.
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 local supporters, the recent COVID-19 campaign has serious health implications.
Over the weekend, Deputy Home Secretary Chen Tsung-yen said the president’s health posts were “really vile fake news” that amounted to a “cognitive war” against the Taiwanese.
“Compared to last year, this year is much worse and serious misinformation and one of the reasons the public is panicking,” said Robin Lee, project manager for MyGoPen, an independent fact-checking site at Taiwan whose English name is similar to the Taiwanese pronunciation of “Don’t Lie”.
The Taiwanese company has been particularly exposed to fake news over the past month as it grapples with its first nationwide partial lockdown after a year and a half of containing the virus.
Although daily cases vary between 200 and 300 – low 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 over 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 Mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers.
However, the recent outbreak has been linked to the pilots of the national airline China Airlines – who are to undergo a shorter quarantine period – and has 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.
Fake News Island
As rapid test stations have sprung up in Taiwan and panic buying has returned, temporarily wiping out instant noodle sections of many grocery stores, the 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) sometimes crept in or contained words that Taiwanese themselves would find bizarre. But this time around, the new message cache looked a lot more believable.
A new wave of audio messages funded by Chinese government agencies are now making the rounds. 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 voice, according to a 2020 report by the U.S. cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. these scripts.
As Facebook crack down on disinformation and fake news, viral posts have migrated to LINE, YouTube, Instagram and PTT, the Taiwanese version of Reddit. Recent articles have focused on COVID-19, but also focused on the 2020 presidential election in Taiwan and Tsai who was then running for a second term as president.
Much of this work, but not all, has been linked to the work department of the United Front of China, the Communist Youth League and an independent army of internet trolls, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. based in the United States.
Some of it is also produced nationally by Taiwanese who can support closer ties with China, who claims the island as their own, or who just don’t like the Tsai administration, CSIS said.
The videos, in particular, were 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 keep Taiwanese up to date with the latest health statistics and protocols, but it has also relied on humor and memes to fight against disinformation.
A successful campaign featured Zongchai, the Shiba Inu dog mascot of the Center for Disease Control. Zongchai appears regularly in CDC posts on recent case figures and practical advice, such as the correct length for social distancing: that is, the length of three Shiba Inus lined up face to face.
While informative, the posts contribute well to Taiwanese appreciation for cute memes, where even Taiwan’s authoritarian ruler Chiang Kai-shek received the comic book treatment in his one-party LINE posts, the Kuomintang.
Zongchai’s pigeon mascot for the Foreign Ministry, which regularly announces changes in travel restrictions to Taiwan, is part of its “2-2-2” response to misinformation: respond in 20 minutes with 200 words and two images which give priority to “humor rather than rumor”.
– MOHW de Taiwan (@MOHW_Taiwan) May 24, 2021
(Translation: Message of 5/24/2021. “Mass Burning of Bodies Suspected from Wanhua Pneumonia.” False Information Released on Website)
This so-called “memes engineering” is meant to “present the message in such a fun way that you just have to share it,” Taiwanese Minister of Digital Audrey Tang told the French Foundation for Strategic Research in April. latest.
But for every cute Shiba Inu post the CDC produces, another fake post pops up.
Earlier this week, MyGoPen debunked a rumor that the United States had so many extra doses of the vaccine that it had started inoculating cats and dogs. Another post claimed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is only 29.5% effective despite scientific data reporting efficacy rates greater than 90% for the original virus and newly emerged variants.
One thing is for sure: as Taiwan fights hard to curb this latest wave of infections, it will work twice as hard to eliminate bogus memes.