Taipei, Taiwan – Rinse your mouth with warm water for 30 minutes and swallowing will allow your stomach acid to kill COVID-19. Regular hot baths can also prevent you from getting the virus.
These are just a few of the pieces of advice given in a seven minute audio clip of a woman claiming to be Taiwanese lawmaker Tsai Pi-ru running the social messaging app LINE last week.
It is accompanied by a note in traditional Chinese: “Very important! Listen to the whole thing! This is the sharing of Tsai Pi-ru (information), I have listened to it twice, for your reference. ”
The audio clip and the advice were both fake and Tsai, a skilled nurse who volunteered at hospitals during the pandemic, quickly acted to crack it down. But such posts have been noticed on Taiwan’s social media since the island worst outbreak yet of COVID-19 started earlier this month.
“Beginning on May 12 (a day after Taiwan declared community shipment), a lot of disinformation was trying to stir up panic in the local area of Taiwan,” said Puma Shen, director of DoubleThink Labs, a Taipei based-NGO that monitors disinformation and digital surveillance.
Disinformation campaigns have had a different recognition last month, he said.
First, they show up on Twitter accounts, then on YouTube and in individual and group LINE chats. After that, voice messages claiming to be from members of Taiwan’s elite started popping up.
In recent days, fake posts from news sites such as the unreliable Liberty Times and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy publication Apple Daily have also been posted on Facebook pages that aimed at animal lovers and supporters of President Tsai Ing-wen, who claimed he and other political elites secretly contracted with COVID-19, according to Shen.
The fake news was also accompanied by so-called Shen “propaganda” posts with claims such as China offering to sell the COVID-19 vaccine to Taiwan, which struggled last year to get a sufficient dose for of its population of 23 million – even if the home vaccine is due to infiltrate this summer.
Sowing conflict and fear
While disinformation campaigns are not new in Taiwan, that is regularly targeted at China’s good oil propaganda machine and its local supporters, the recent COVID-19 campaign has serious health implications.
Over the weekend, Deputy Interior Minister Chen Tsung-yen said posts about the president’s health were “really fake news” coming from “cognitive warfare” against the Taiwanese.
“Compared to last year, this year has been more and more intense information and one of the reasons the public is panicking,” said Robin Lee, project manager at MyGoPen, an independent research site. to the fact in Taiwan that the English name is similar to the Taiwanese pronunciation of “Don’t Lie”.
Taiwanese society was particularly exposed to fake news last month as it was associated with the first phase of the country’s lockdown in a year and a half that successfully contained the virus.
Even if daily cases range between 200 and 300 – lower compared to neighbors like Japan – the outbreak is even more severe and there is a lot of moral loss in some areas.
Last year, Taiwan this year went more than 250 days without a single local case of coronavirus and by the end of April, the total number of local cases had reached nearly 1,200 thanks. an aggressive tracking contact program and mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers.
However, the recent outbreak has been linked to pilots of national carrier China Airlines – which will have to be subjected to a much shorter quarantine period – and led to the government closing down schools across the island. for the first time since early 2020 and called for residents to work from home if possible.
Fake news island
As fast-paced test stations have grown around Taiwan and panic-buying has returned, instant noodle sections have been temporarily cleaned up in many grocery stores, a fake news has also returned. But at this hour, many of the posts and messages are more credible.
In the past, fake news and propaganda posts from China were easy to spot: simplified Chinese (used on the mainland) would occasionally enter or contain words that Taiwanese found differently. But this time the new cache of posts seems more believable.
A new wave of audio messages funded by Chinese government agencies is starting today. According to a 2020 report from American cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, local Taiwanese are now paid between $ 730 and $ 1,460 a month to create social media posts – close to the average monthly salary. on the island – to write and recite these scripts.
As Facebook suppresses misinformation and fake news, viral messages are migrating to LINE, YouTube, Instagram, and PTT, the Taiwanese version of Reddit. Current posts focus on COVID-19 but also got Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election and Tsai running for a second term as president.
Most of this work, but not all, is linked to China’s United Front Work Department, the Communist Youth League, and an independent army of internet trolls, according to the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Some of this is also done on the grounds that Taiwanese may support close ties with China, who claim the island themselves, or that the Tsai administration does not want, according to CSIS.
The videos, in particular, are tracked by content streams run by ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, according to DoubleThink Labs ’Shen.
MyGoPen and the Taiwan FactCheck Center are just two organizations working locally to eliminate disinformation campaigns, debunk fake news on their websites and subsequently share information on social media accounts.
The Center for Disease Control live streaming daily afternoon press conferences on multiple platforms to inform Taiwanese of the latest statistics and health protocols but it also relies on humor and memes to address disinformation .
A successful campaign featured Zongchai, the Center for Disease Control Shiba Inu dog mascot. Zongchai is often seen in messages from the CDC about current case numbers and practical advice, such as the right length for social isolation: i.e. the length of the three Shiba Inus lining the nose-to-nose.
While informative, the messages nicely thanked the Taiwanese for the cute memes, in which even Taiwanese authority Chiang Kai-shek was given cartoon treatment in LINE posts from his once party, the Kuomintang.
Zongchai’s pigeon mascot for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which regularly announces changes in Taiwan’s travel bans, is all about the “2-2-2” response to disinformation: a 20-minute response with 200 words and two images exalting “humor over rumor”.
# TimePosting time: 2021.5.24
❗Internet transmission of “suspected burnout of most Wanhua pneumonia remains” Command Center: People with intent fake media webpages to spread false information ❗https://t.co/x41SBDNMyG pic.twitter.com/eDgODga5FV
– MOHW in Taiwan (@MOHW_Taiwan) May 24, 2021
(Translation: Posted from 24/5/2021. ‘Suspected multiple burns of bodies from Wanhua pneumonia’. Misinformation spread on website]
This so-called “meme engineering” is intended to “wrap the message in a ridiculous way that you just have to share it,” Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang told the Foundation for Strategic Research in France in April. last year.
But for every cute Shiba Inu the CDC posts, there is another fake message to be found.
Earlier this week, MyGoPen dismissed a rumor that the U.S. had so many overdoses of the vaccine that they were starting to inoculate cats and dogs. Another message claims that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is only 29.5 percent effective despite reporting scientific data. effectiveness rates exceed 90 percent for the original virus and newly emerged varieties
One thing is for sure: while Taiwan is fighting hard to end the latest wave of infections, it will work twice as hard to eradicate fake memes.