As a Taiwanese living overseas, I was last week surprised to read reports that children in Taiwan had died after contracting COVID-19. This was strange: Taiwan’s COVID-19 pandemic prevention is widely acknowledged to be one of the most successful in the world, and its fatality rate from the virus is comparatively low. How was a rumor like this able to gain so much traction?
Over the past few days, the truth has come out. An individual deliberately spread false information about fatal cases among children.
This was picked up and amplified by a Taiwanese celebrity with the intention of harming the nation’s image and stirring up chaos within society.
Just 10 seconds after the celebrity posted the remark, saying that “many children have died” on social media, fake news content farms had posted the erroneous information on 19 Facebook pages. In less than 24 hours, the fake news had been reposted more than 300 times, generating 7,000 to 8,000 interactions and about 1,000 replies.
The effect of this viral transmission of the fake news story gaining traction should not be underestimated.
However, the problem was compounded by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who lent credence to the fake news story and stated that it was not the business of a government to censor speech.
Ko’s words and actions are extremely concerning for the following reasons:
First, it is shocking that Ko, who is a medical doctor, is confused about the real pandemic situation and does not have a handle on the data.
Second, Ko’s indifference, complete lack of judgement and flimsy mental defenses in the face of a fake news attack is extremely concerning.
Third, Ko has displayed an astonishing lack of basic legal knowledge in his apparent inability to comprehend that the guarantee of free speech does not extend to fake news or that the dissemination of assertions without proof constitutes slander.
Chinese cognitive warfare against Taiwan is becoming more intense by the day. Pro-China Taiwanese media recently carried fake reports that Taiwanese do not have enough food. The response by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was swift. The government immediately rebutted the malicious reports by posting photographs of Taiwanese night markets brimming with food and heaving with visitors.
A similar modus operandi was used in Australia. A pro-China media outlet posted fake reports that many Australians were struggling to pay sky-high electricity bills, and could not afford to eat or buy medicine.
It might be surprising that the outlet was set up by a Taiwanese and the person responsible for the fake news report was a committee member of an overseas Taiwanese organization.
Unfortunately, the infiltration of overseas Taiwanese organizations and groups by the Chinese Communist Party, with committee members biting the hand that feeds them and secretly aiding the enemy, has become a common occurrence.
A recent study by Swedish researchers revealed that Taiwan is facing an onslaught of fake news produced by China or pro-Chinese sources, and overseas Taiwanese groups are in the thick of it. The only hope of resolving the problem is to increase awareness in Taiwan.
The ability to identify fake news is a basic defensive measure in the fight against cognitive warfare, and is more vital than guns or bullets. Countries around the world are devoting resources to identifying fake news.
The ease with which Ko was taken in by the fake news on child deaths from COVID-19 is enough to make one weep tears of frustration.
Susie Su is a Taiwanese living in Australia.
Translated by Edward Jones
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