Fact-checking center warns of disinformation about virus outbreak in Taiwan

Malign posts intended to cause panic in society: Taiwan FactCheck Center

People in Taipei wear face masks.

People in Taipei wear face masks. (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC) has warned of a surge of disinformation being disseminated on Facebook about the escalation of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Taiwan, which has recorded 32 cases so far.

For the first time since its establishment as an independent fact-checking organization, the center issued a warning on Wednesday (Feb. 26) about the growing number of posts on social media intended to stir up panic amid the outbreak that originated in China. The infectious disease has sickened more than 82,000 people globally and killed over 2,800 as of Thursday (Feb. 27).

The center said the run of disinformation posted and shared on Facebook in recent weeks include posts with some similarities, including those that describe hearsay without verification. They usually start with claims like “My friend working for the Ministry of National Defense told me,” “My aunt overheard chit-chat between health officials the other day,” or “I live in New Taipei City and I have discovered.”

These Facebook posts often contain text written in simplified Chinese or include terms commonly used in China but not in Taiwan. What’s more, most of this disinformation depicts an out-of-control coronavirus outbreak in Taiwan and criticism that the Taiwanese government is trying to cover up the severity of the pandemic.

For instance, one post shared on Facebook this past week claimed that there have been hundreds of deaths from the coronavirus in Tainan, with a photo attached showing several lifeless bodies in the street; however, the center later discovered that the photo is actually a still image from a Korean thriller released in 2020. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the island nation has only seen one death from the new virus at this point.

These are malign posts intended to spread panic, warned the center. The misleading texts are usually left in the Facebook comment section, and the original posts are often deleted as soon as they have been shared, it said.

The center encourages the public to verify suspicious information they receive on social media and refrain from sharing it until its authenticity is checked. They can also report the messages to the center, which has published several reports regarding fake news and disinformation centered on the coronavirus outbreak over the past few weeks.

Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) also said via Facebook on Wednesday that those who compose or share misinformation about the virus outbreak could face imprisonment of up to three years or receive a maximum fine of NT$3 million (US$99,000).