With the rise of the coronavirus, newly given the designation Covid-19, misinformation has become rampant, with governments around the world facing difficulties in stopping the spread of false rumours and speculation, often affixed with large amounts of bias and racism.
Examples of these stories range widely including such conspiracies as; garlic or bleach as a cure to the virus; that the outbreak was a bioweapon; that the virus was predisposed to be more easily spread through nationality or race; and widely shared videos relating to the virus such as a woman eating bat-soup, a video that had actually taken place in Palau, Micronesia, in 2016.
The speculations and rumours have had consequences. These can vary from the slightly benign - such as a rumour that raw supplies were being exhausted to create face masks sparking a panic buying of toilet paper which had to be quashed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs – to more serious issues such as a large spike in racial discrimination.
These rumours have been spread and compounded through social media, a crucial factor of the recent rise of unchecked material that has seen social media platforms and governments clash. On February 2nd, the World Health Organisation declared an “infodemic” and have spoken with many different technology companies, including Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google, on the dangers of false information “spreading faster than the virus”.
After facing considerable pressure from the press and politicians, and despite their reluctance to become “truth moderators”, media platforms are beginning to address conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Facebook released a statement stating that it would “remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them”. They have begun reinforcing their network of third-party fact-checkers to debunk false claims. Meanwhile, Twitter has banned accounts spreading theories stating that they would remain vigilant and have invested in proactive abilities to ensure common areas of the service such as trending and searching were protected from malicious behaviour.
However, with issues such as the coronavirus, much of the information surrounding the outbreak is not yet known, such as what exactly initially caused the virus, and how it can be treated.
Yet it is not simply social media platforms that have caused issues with misinformation with regards to Covid-19. Many developed worldwide news organisations have been complicit in the spreading of false information including the Daily Mail, RT, and the Washington Times. Within Taiwan, some media outlets have also been attacked for being unable to backstories with evidence.
Leading stories, for example, in major newspapers have published reports such as “leaking real data on Wuhan Virus” in which it was claimed that Tencent, the multinational internet conglomerate, had briefly shown data on the number of those infected is much higher than the reporting from China. However, fact-checkers have highlighted that the article was reliant on unverifiable sources and images, whilst also being provably incorrect when compared against results from outside of China. Another report highlighted a rise in sulphur dioxide which was then linked to a sign of mass cremations in Wuhan, apparently as a way of confirming a multitude of deaths in the province. Again, this was disproved as the reports are based on data that is, in reality, a forecast from a NASA simulation with the concentration of sulphur being most probably linked to the use of steel mills within the area.
These reports, that are still active on webpages, have increased the likelihood of false news spreading and being taken at face value. However, it is not yet apparent how strong a response the Taiwanese Government will give.
Under the Communicable Disease Control Act, there are strong restrictions against the formation and distribution of incorrect information.
Article 9 states that when information related to disease control measures is released through mass media and is erroneous, not in accord with the facts and may result in undesirable outcomes on or have certain influences over the overall disease control efforts, that corrections must be made immediately upon notification for correction by the competent authorities.
Article 9 is then reinforced through Article 64-1 which states that anyone who violates this restriction on erroneous information will be fined between NT$100,000 to NT$ 1,000,000.
Furthermore, article 63 reads “persons who disseminate rumours or incorrect information concerning epidemic conditions of communicable diseases, resulting in damages to the public or others, shall be fined up to NT$ 3,000,000.”
Lastly, article 5-1 of the Enforcement Rules of the Act specifically includes both printed and online media.
These laws have already been applied to individuals. The rumour mentioned above with regards to raw materials of toilet paper stocks running low resulted in three women being arrested for initiating the rumour. Furthermore, a Taiwanese man is to be prosecuted by state officials after spreading misinformation that cyanide would help to kill the virus.
It is yet to be seen whether the Government will use these powers to fine social media companies or local newspapers for disseminating misinformation. However, as part of President Tsai’s response to the outbreak, the Government has highlighted that one of the four directives to combat the virus is to respond to the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Therefore, there may be a response at some point if wrongful information continues to spread.
Those spreading rumours have been charged