by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

THERE HAS BEEN a political firestorm after entertainer Antony Kuo made a viral Facebook post suggesting that there have been more deaths of children from COVID-19 than have been reported by the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC). 

Kuo made the post on May 25th. The post consisted of a series of screenshots of a conversation that Kuo purported to have with an acquaintance, a doctor, who stated that they had seen “so many children pass away” (很多孩子走了). On that basis, Kuo asserted that the number of deaths from COVID-19 who are children may be higher than stated by the CECC. 

Subsequent controversy led to Kuo apologizing and deleting his comments. Nevertheless, after Kuo’s comments, the CECC emphasized that spreading false information about COVID-19 was punishable by up to three years imprisonment or a maximum fine of three million NT. 

Apology by Antony Kuo on Facebook about his post

There has been increased focus on the issue of child deaths due to COVID-19 as of late. Some of the cases of child deaths have led to demands by parents for answers, such as the father of a two-year-old infant who died of COVID-19 in April demanding to know why the ambulance took 81 minutes to arrive at his home. 

Insofar as the KMT has sought to attack the Tsai administration’s handling of COVID-19 throughout the course of the pandemic, the KMT has sought to attack the CECC over the issue. Much criticism has revolved around claims the infant mortality rate for Taiwan is ten times that of Japan and eight times that of South Korea, while no children have died in Singapore. 

As of earlier this week, when such allegations of deaths were made, there had been ten deaths of children under 12 since April 19th. Acute encephalitis played a role in five of these deaths. 

Kuo’s Facebook post raised questions because of its lack of substantiation. Many misinformation or disinformation about COVID-19 often claim to be inside information from doctors, as information not accessible to the general public. Yet what has raised questions in particular about Kuo’s Facebook posts in question is that 25 Facebook pages subsequently made posts containing the phrase “so many children pass away” (很多孩子走了) between May 25th and May 26th. 

Tweet by IORG about the suspected content farms

The timing of some of these posts was at the same time, suggesting that this was coordinated and that these posts came from a content farm. The Information Operations Research Group, an organization that researches disinformation in Taiwan, was the first to document this. Authorities claim that they are looking into the suspected content farms, as well as whether Kuo’s Facebook post could have originated from a content farm. 

In the aftermath of the incident, no less than President Tsai Ing-wen would weigh in on the matter. Tsai made a Facebook post on Tuesday criticizing false claims about deaths of children due to COVID-19 as disinformation. 

Indeed, it has increasingly become a matter of concern as of late as to the localization of Chinese disinformation by local actors. Chinese disinformation often is easily noticeable due to the use of differing linguistic terms than Taiwan, yet localization allows for disinformation to be more easily passed off as credible. Furthermore, with China having held camps and other activities to train Taiwanese influencers in the past, it is feared that Taiwanese entertainers or other influencers could be used as conduits for spreading disinformation. 

Facebook post by President Tsai Ing-wen about disinformation regarding child deaths or illness due to COVID-19

In the meantime, the KMT has sought to attack the DPP over the issue, suggesting that the DPP is infringing on Kuo’s free speech, and that Premier Su Tseng-chang and other DPP politicians are cold-blooded, in being more concerned about defending their image than saving children. The KMT has tried to use this framing regarding children in other attacks on the DPP as of late, too, such as accusing the DPP of being more interested in clearing former president Chen Shui-bian of corruption charges than passing legislation to save children. 

One has seen disinformation claims about vaccines and rapid tests through the course of the pandemic, primarily with the allegation that the Tsai administration has investments in vaccine or rapid test manufacturers, and that is the rationale undergirding its policy decisions on vaccination or rapid tests. Otherwise, the claim that the Tsai administration is covering up the actual death toll from COVID-19 has been another frequent refrain of disinformation claims. 

Disinformation claims about covering up child deaths, then, may be an attempt to tug at the public’s heartstrings with sob stories adding an affective element to such disinformation claims. This is something that could prove more effective than general claims about cover-ups of mass deaths, seeing as mass deaths lack the sense of individual tragedy that child deaths may be seen as having. 

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