In early August, Taiwan not only saw Chinese military aircraft maneuver off the island, but also saw a swarm of misinformation surfaced on social media, often to undermine local morale and promote Beijing’s rhetoric.
In water and sky, China has sent warships and fighter planes around the island in protest of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Aug. 2 visit in Taipei.
At the same time, pro-China posts have flooded social media with false or misleading claims.
“In addition to military exercises in the physical world, China has also conducted cyber attacks: cyber attacks and disinformation,” said Charles Yeh, editor of Taiwan’s fact-checking website MyGoPen.
He adds that the majority of the misinformation his team found was anti-American, and he defended the idea that the island should “surrender” to China.
Ms Pelosi, a long-time critic of China’s human rights record, has made the highest US visit to Taiwan in decades, on a trip that has come under close scrutiny by China.
While millions of netizens on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, followed the progress of her flight to Taiwan, she made baseless claims that she had suffered heat stroke and that her plane had to return to the United States.
Some Chinese users have hurled insults at her, often of a misogynistic nature, calling her, for example, “crazy old skin” and wondering why she was able to escape the strict quarantine measures in place in Taiwan.
When asked about those reactions, Pelosi said she believes “they made a lot of it because she () is the Speaker of the House.”
“I don’t know if it was a reason or an excuse, because they didn’t say anything when the men came,” she added, referring to previous visits by US officials.
Taiwan is one of the most progressive democracies in Asia and has a freer press than China, where the web is governed by the “Great Firewall” – pun on the “Great Wall of China” and firewall – and state censorship.
But this freedom encourages the circulation of false information, both on major social networks and on local messaging systems.
Taiwan defense officials have claimed that they have identified about 270 “false” allegations online in recent weeks.
Police have arrested a woman accused of posting a message on the LINE app, alleging that Beijing decided to evacuate Chinese nationals from Taiwan.
A police spokesman said it was trying to “destabilize Taiwan”.
In another high-profile publication, a warning message issued by the official China News Agency stated that Beijing would “restore sovereignty” over Taiwan on August 15.
The message, which has been viewed more than 356,000 times on the Chinese app of TikTok, confirmed that Taiwan’s military would be dismantled and that an opposition party official would be appointed governor.
The AFP verification team found no trace of such an article, which was published by the official Chinese news agency.
Summer Chen, editor-in-chief of the FactCheck Center in Taiwan, explains that this disinformation in Chinese is spreading too fast and too widely, making it impossible for fact-checkers.
She noted that these “usually present misleading claims and official interpretations side by side, but by this point the allegations will have already served their purpose of shaping public opinion.”
In late 2018, a group of fact-checking organizations emerged in Taiwan, mostly NGOs seeking to combat misinformation they believe seeks to destabilize the island.
For Ms. Chen, it is also important that Taiwanese take a critical look at what they read online and not rely entirely on fact-checkers.
“It is easy (for us) to decipher this kind of misinformation, but it is more important for the public to rationally reject this type of information and avoid falling into traps,” she explains.