When the news reports started appearing in Taiwanese media about people becoming magnetized after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, I thought, “So, it’s finally here.”
The lunacy began after one of the nationwide daily press conferences held by the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which coordinates Taiwan’s efforts against COVID-19. Afterward, a report in the Apple Daily about a woman’s breasts becoming magnetic after vaccination concentrated Taiwan’s sensationalist and often sexist media in a nutshell.
Taiwan, a latecomer to the COVID-19 pandemic, is currently at the tail end of its first and only major outbreak of COVID-19 so far. This first wave took place after the new and more infectious variants of COVID-19 arrived on Taiwan’s shores. But with the arrival of the Delta variant, so, too, is Taiwan seeing the arrival of the disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories that have been circulating throughout the rest of the world.
The reports of vaccines leading to magnetism were widely mocked, with social media posts of people having fun sticking spoons, forks, and other utensils to themselves. Some media reports, meanwhile, warned that Taiwan would soon become a nation of Magnetos. (My own theory is that cultivating a nation of Magnetos is the Tsai administration’s secret plan for warding off a Chinese invasion.)
Some of the new wave of disinformation preys on confusion or gullibility in the elderly, e.g. allegations that the Tsai administration is secretly disposing of dead bodies to cover up the number of deaths. Interestingly, these stories mirror baseless claims of China’s concealing its COVID-19 dead, such as false media reports in 2020 that China was secretly cremating dead bodies in Wuhan. Weirdly, the long-circulated conspiracy theories leveled at China made similarly false claims seem more credible in a Taiwanese context.
The daily 2 PM press conferences held by the CECC, in which Minister of Health Chen Shih-chung takes questions from an audience of journalists after providing updates on the COVID-19 situation, frequently prove ridiculous. After the relaxation of measures reopened parks, but not beaches, the minister was asked if this was because parks are “green” and the ocean is “blue”—green and blue signifying the party colors of the DPP and Kuomintang—the ruling party and the opposition, respectively.
The minister was also asked if writing “AZ” on vaccination cards would result in other countries refusing to accept proof of vaccination from Taiwan, because foreign medical workers might not know that “AZ” stood for AstraZeneca—to my knowledge, there’s no other vaccine abbreviated “AZ”. The agency was also accused, absurdly, of releasing information on the percentage of the population with partial vaccination status in addition to other data, unlike other nations; that one was easily disproved, since most major international outlets have reported such statistics.
Journalists frequently favor sensationalism over clarification when asking questions at the daily press conferences. For example, even though medical capacity has long since stabilized in Taiwan, with tens of thousands of hospital beds available, health officials might be asked, after an uptick of just a few cases, whether Taiwan’s medical system is on the verge of collapse. Others simply ask the same questions they asked the day before, even though this only gets them the same response.
Journalists from pro-China-leaning outlets incessantly demand to know about the makeshift “square hospitals” being set up in Taiwan, similar to those in China. Meanwhile, reports appearing in Chinese state-run media claim that Taiwan is imitating precedents set by China. Some Taiwanese outlets, according to the Financial Times, accept orders directly from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, so coordination cannot be ruled out.
Ironically, the CECC press conferences were purportedly aimed at preventing the spread of misinformation and disinformation. This goal appears to have backfired to some degree, though there is of course useful and valuable information coming out along with the politicking, the propaganda and sensationalism. It’s somewhat funny watching this charade unfold daily. Clearly, quite a number of media outlets don’t seem to be sending their best and brightest: If it were a Greek drama, probably the journalist gaggle would be the chorus. I sometimes find myself wondering whether some of these representatives of Taiwan’s major media outlets are stupid, or just cynical—more the latter, probably, since ridiculous questions undeniably make for good soundbites.
Unfortunately, though, there are consequences to spreading disinformation and misinformation. Vaccination rates dropped after Taiwanese media took to warning against AstraZeneca vaccines, since there were some cases of the elderly dying after having been vaccinated. Government officials announced in vain that over 200 individuals over 70 die in Taiwan every day, vaccinated or not. While vaccination numbers eventually rebounded, certain members of the public are tough to convince, in Taiwan as in the U.S. and elsewhere.
There has been little discussion in Taiwan about unfounded fears like these having spread in other countries; when the experiences of other countries are brought up, the purpose is often to regurgitate, rather than debunk, their conspiracy theories.
The magnetism story is illustrative of this point. The reporter who asked about it in the press conference claimed, without evidence, that Malaysia had also reported magnetism after vaccination. In Taiwan, as elsewhere, misinformation and disinformation frequently relies on vague reports from the “international world” as a basis for validity, taking advantage of a natural lack of knowledge of distant places among viewers or readers. So, too, with technical and scientific criticisms, like the criticism of the CECC for releasing internationally accepted statistics on vaccine dosage.
Yet in Taiwan the natural human tendency to accept outlandish news from abroad is especially exaggerated, with roots in the country’s marginalization. In the absence of acknowledgement by the majority of the world’s countries, and excluded from international organizations, including the United Nations and World Health Organization, Taiwan frequently perceives itself as left behind and inferior to the “international world.” That makes it easy to sell people on the idea that everybody else is doing or not doing something, or has long since realized something, while Taiwan is too isolated and too backward to do the same.
Because of this long exclusion, Taiwan often sees itself as a born loser, sometimes even in those aspects in which it is more advanced than other nations. Taiwan’s success in fighting off COVID-19 for all of 2020 was a rare reversal of this tendency to feel inferior, instead expressing pride for its achievements in containing the virus, and offering to assist other countries.
But with the current outbreak, the usual narratives around Taiwan quickly resumed. Although Taiwan is to this day one of very few countries to have experienced only a single limited outbreak, there is a lot of moaning in Taiwanese social discourse falsely claiming Taiwan to have had one of the world’s worst responses to COVID-19, pointing to the low vaccination rate (due to insufficient supplies) or the comparatively high death rate among those infected.
The opposition party, the Kuomintang, has wasted no time in alleging that the Tsai administration failed to secure vaccines, and failed far more gravely than other countries, never mind that much of the world is currently struggling to obtain vaccines. The independence-leaning Tsai administration has said that it has experienced interference from the Chinese government in its efforts to purchase vaccines, while the Kuomintang, which is allied with China, has sought to suggest that under their rule Taiwan would not see such interference, with Kuomintang politicians even publicly thanking China for not interfering with successful vaccine purchases were made by Taiwan.
Each country has its own particular paranoid style in politics, perhaps, and if so, this would be Taiwan’s. Certainly, the two major parties are existentially opposed to each other, one for unification and the other for independence. This fundamental schism means that the citizens of Taiwan seem to live in two different realities. Since political discourse is highly polarized and media outlets are hyper-partisan, suspicion abounds for reporting from media outlets that do not belong to one’s own camp, creating an ideal environment for twisted, distorted media. This undercurrent, arguably always the central feature of Taiwanese politics, has been nakedly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.