Authorities have accused Chinese Internet trolls of sowing panic over COVID-19, with much of the disinformation falsely implying that the nation has an out-of-control epidemic.
Police said that they are investigating a surge in stories spreading online and through social media claiming that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration is trying to cover up an outbreak.
“We suspect that Chinese Internet trolls are making up and spreading the false messages based on the content and the phrases,” the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau said in a statement late on Wednesday.
“The intent is to cause misunderstanding among the public and to sow panic to seriously jeopardize our social stability,” it added.
Tsai took to Facebook to warn people against believing rumors.
While she did not mention China by name, she hinted at linguistic clues suggesting that much of the misinformation was being written outside of Taiwan.
“Some of the rumors even contain phrases not used in Taiwan,” she wrote.
The nation moved swiftly against the virus, quickly restricting and then banning arrivals from China, Hong Kong and Macau.
The outbreak in China has only added to tensions between Taiwan and China.
The nation has long been a target for Chinese nationalist Internet trolls seeking to undermine public faith in Tsai’s administration.
Analysts have said that trolls have gotten better over the past few years at deploying traditional Chinese and Taiwanese phrasing, but much of the misinformation on the virus appears to be more rudimentary.
One example given by the bureau was a false social media message claiming to be written by the child of a Democratic Progressive Party legislator, saying that Taipei “dares not disclose more than 500 infections and 200 deaths.”
Another false message claimed that the administration of “Governor Tsai” — a term used by people in China to refer to the president — is covering up the cremation of bodies, the bureau said.
The Taiwan FactCheck Center — an independent organization that debunks misinformation — said that there has been a surge in false posts deploying simplified Chinese characters or phrases commonly used in China.
“New variants of such disinformation keep coming out to spread falsehoods in an attempt to create panic,” the center wrote. “We urge readers not to forward these messages, but to verify and discredit them.”
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