TAIPEI: Taiwan authorities have accused Chinese Internet trolls of sowing panic over the coronavirus outbreak, with much of the disinformation falsely implying the island has an out of control epidemic.
Police say they are investigating a surge of stories spreading online and through social media claiming President Tsai Ing-wen's government was trying to cover up an outbreak.
"We suspect that mainland Chinese Internet trolls are making up and spreading the false messages based on the content and the phrases," Taiwan's Investigation Bureau said in a statement late Wednesday.
"The intent is to cause misunderstanding among the public and to sow panic to seriously jeopardise our social stability," it added.
Tsai, who won a landslide second term in January and is loathed by Beijing, took to Facebook to warn people against believing rumours.
While she did not mention China by name, she hinted at linguistic clues suggesting much of the misinformation was being written outside of Taiwan.
"Some of the rumours even contain phrases not used in Taiwan," she wrote.
One key language difference is that Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, not the simplified versions used on the mainland.
Despite its cultural links and close proximity to China, Taiwan moved swiftly against the outbreak, quickly restricting and then banning arrivals from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau.
It currently has 32 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with one death.
The coronavirus outbreak has only added to tensions between Taiwan and China.
Beijing regards the self-ruled democracy as its own territory and has kept it frozen out of international bodies including the World Health Organisation.
And the island has long been a target for Chinese nationalist Internet trolls seeking to undermine public faith in Tsai's government.
Analysts say trolls have got better in recent years at deploying traditional Chinese and Taiwanese phrasing.
But much of the current misinformation on the virus appears to be more rudimentary.
Examples of disinformation given by the Investigation Bureau was one false social media message claiming to be written by the child of a ruling party councillor saying Taipei "dares not disclose over 500 infections and 200 deaths".
Another false message alleged that the administration of "Governor Tsai," a term used by mainland Chinese to refer to the president, was covering up the cremation of bodies, the bureau said.
Taiwan's FactCheck Centre – an independent organisation that debunks misinformation – said there has been a surge in false posts deploying simplified characters or common phrases used in mainland China.
"New variants of such disinformation keeping coming out to spread falsehoods in an attempt to create panic," the centre wrote.
"We urge readers not to forward these messages but to verify and discredit them." – AFP