Disease in the Digital Era – is Taiwan in the midst of an “infodemic”?

Written by Sam Robbins.

Image Credit: Mask by Prolost /Flickr, License: CC BY-NC 2.0

Perhaps one of the most noticeable societal shifts that has taken place between Taiwan at the outbreak of SARS in 2003 and the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus earlier this year is the significant increase in access to the internet. The number of internet users has almost doubled in this period, and internet access at home has now reached 80%. As of 2019, there are over 19 million Facebook accounts registered in Taiwan, accounting for roughly 81% of the entire population. These changes have serious implications for how knowledge and commentary on diseases are created, spread, and accessed.

For example, although it is understandable that a sense of uncertainty and unsafety has taken root in a country so close to China in response to the coronavirus, it seems likely that the internet has exacerbated this fear. An early example of this came in the forms of fear of a shortage of face masks in Taiwan. As soon as this concern first appeared, it was quickly spread through social media channels. Similarly, information around new cases of the disease, or any other new concern, have been able to spread rapidly. It has been noted that, in the highly information-saturated environments that exist on social media, it is the most extreme, or emotive content that tends to spread the fastest. What may be a legitimate reason to be vigilant and cautious can easily spiral into an outsized sense of public fear.

The controversy surrounding the correct response towards the non-citizen children of Chinese spouses has demonstrated this clearly. The government reversed a policy decision that would allow such children to enter Taiwan from China only one day after its announcement following fierce criticism on social media. The response reflects a seemingly popular sentiment that allowing such children into Taiwan would put a strain on medical resources that were already seen as scarce. This instance also reflects certain aspects of the nationalism and Sinophobia that have been mobilised in response to the disease outbreak. Although I am not trying to suggest whether the policy decision was right or wrong, or to comment on the state of medical resources in Taiwan, it is interesting to note how quickly sentiments could be mobilised in response to this decision. Not only does this reflect widespread fear, but also how social media provides an effective channel to filter such sentiments in a way to influence policy literally overnight.

In recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that Taiwan has been the victim of a targeted disinformation campaign that has aimed to undermine the governments attempts to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Stories have spread alleging that the real number of cases has not been revealed; that there has been much more death than reported and that the government is squandering scarce recourses like facemasks for themselves. It is hard to assess the affect that these fake stories have had and whether they have successfully undermined confidence in the government, but it is notable how citizens and officials alike have been involved in debunking such myths and trying to prove such information as false. This falsification is often done through pointing to the use of terms or characters common in China that are not used in Taiwan (for example, one piece referred to the situation in their ‘小區’ xiaoqu, or neighbourhood, when the term 社區 shequ is much more common in Taiwan) suggesting that the authors of such posts were based outside the island. In response to this, Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs recently tweeted (6) that Chinese “cyber warriors are waging a war to disrupt our efforts”.

The government has also taken to social media as a way to spread relevant information directly to citizens. Whilst the majority of posts made by the Ministry of Health and Welfare have been heavily text-based, the organisation has also taken to producing meme-like content, assumedly to in an attempt to make public health knowledge go viral. Shina Ibus, a popular dog breed in Taiwan, have seen to become a favourite of the ministry, and many posts including information about best health practise are covered in cutesy images of the breed with heart eyes. The ministry has also dabbled in creating zhangbeitus, intended to comically mimic the digital communication style preferred by Taiwan’s elderly netizens that have become a popular meme-format amongst online youths. However, this activity is not limited to the Ministry of Health and Welfare as Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen and premiere Su Tseng-chang have regularly taken to Facebook to share the most up-to-date information about the disease in Taiwan. Tsai has posted some kind of long-term post, photo or video most days since January about the novel coronavirus, Taiwan’s efforts to tackle it and to advocate for Taiwan’s inclusion in international health organisations.

Tedros Adhanom, Director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has spoken about the potential of an “infodemic”, or a spread of misinformation and fear caused by a deep inundation of information, to occur in times of disease outbreaks like the coronavirus. Taiwan has undoubtedly seen its fair share of fake news regarding the disease, and there have recently been four convictions for intentionally spreading false information. As shown in part from the quick response to policy surrounding the children of Chinese spouses, but also from conversations that have taken place across the internet, there clearly exists an atmosphere of fear that has been exacerbated by the internet. In Taiwan, such sentiments could be more acute due to its exclusion from WHO, along with the memory SARS in 2002. Similarly, blame for the prevalence of fear cannot lie solely at the feet of social media platforms. Taiwan’s abundance of 24-hour news channels, and highly saturated TV news environment, has often played a role in sensationalising news stories in the digital age and earlier.

That being said, it is important to note how the internet has been used effectively as a channel to quickly spread relevant and crucial health information to a wide audience, not to mention its use in searching for solidarity in a time of fear. The government deserves credit for mobilising the same communication channels that have spread panic to disseminate public health information. The internet has become a key sight for shaping public understanding of the coronavirus in Taiwan. When disease outbreaks take place in the digital era, there is the potential for both panic and positive information to “go viral”.  We should remain cautious in the face of potential infodemics, but strong public information campaigns have the power to be an effective remedy.

Sam Robbins is studying for a master’s degree in Sociology at National Taiwan University; he focuses on digital society and digital politics in Taiwan. He is also a researcher for the English-language, Taiwan current affairs podcast “The Taiwan Take”, which can be found on all major podcast platforms or here. His former article for Taiwan Insight on the forgotten moment of crisis during Taiwan’s democratisation can be found here. This article is part of the special issue on CONVID-19.

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