The many versions of the recent Taiwan earthquake- Domestic and international rumors spread following natural disasters

The many versions of the recent Taiwan earthquake- Domestic and international rumors spread following natural disasters

By Wei-Ping Li, PhD

Disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories often ensue when natural disasters occur. After the strong earthquake hit Taiwan on April 3rd, 2024, the Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC) observed rumors in multiple languages circulating around social media popular in Taiwan and other international platforms. Interestingly, the rumors that spread locally in Taiwan and abroad vary. Furthermore, the subjects of local rumor evolved over time, from the initial shocking scenes of the earthquake to later unfounded attacks on governments' handling of the earthquake. This earthquake has provided an opportunity for fact-checkers and researchers to examine the characteristics of false information in natural disasters and develop strategies to tackle future crises.

On the morning of April 3rd, 2024, around 7:58 a.m., a strong earthquake of magnitude 7.2 rocked Taiwan, resulting in 13 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, and several damages to buildings or transportation infrastructure. Although this earthquake was the strongest in 25 years since the 921 earthquake in 1999, the damage this time was relatively limited

Images about the earthquake soon went viral on social media in Taiwan after the earthquake. Most of them are photos or videos demonstrating scenes of the building shaking and landslides. One of the earliest and most circulated rumors was the one with the title, “The head of Guishan Island has broken!” This false information piece was propagated even by mainstream TV news. 

However, the reason that the piece was widely shared was not because of the terrifying sight but because the TV news used a ridiculous but attention-grabbing word pun: “The head of Guishan Island has broken!” In the Chinese language, “Guishan [龜山]” means “The Turtle Mountain.” People would connect the phrase “broken head of Guishan Island” with the idea “the head of the turtle has broken,” which, in the Chinese language, also refers to a part of the male genitalia. 

The widespread online video of Guishan Island shaking during the earthquake showed a small portion crumbling. In fact, as the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications clarified, only a tiny amount of rock fell on the scene; the majority of the scenic areas on Guishan Island and the neighboring Yilan Coast area were unaffected.    

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A screenshot of the incorrect title of a news piece from the TV news station website. The title stated, “Taiwan is shaking fiercely! A strong earthquake of 7.2 magnitude. The Island of Turtle Mountain’s “turtle head” was broken.” 

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The Northeast and Yilan Coast Scenic Area posted the clarification on its website with a meme in which Turtle Mountain Island said, “I was not broken. Please don’t worry about me.”

Other false information pieces disseminated on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or LINE in traditional Chinese on April 3rd included images of cracks in bridges or highspeed rail bridges in cities such as Hsinchu and Taichung, warning people to avoid the areas. The bridge in the fake photos was a metro bridge located in New Taipei City, which had indeed sustained damage from this earthquake. Nonetheless, the picture of the New Taipei metro bridge was misappropriated and repurposed in other false claims to demonstrate damage in other cities. In fact, the bridges in the cities named in the false claims were undamaged by the earthquake.   

Among other false claims, old photos that were previously spread appeared again and purported to be the recent earthquake scenes. A fake video of the Taipei 101 building violently shaking went viral during this recent Taiwan earthquake. It was actually an old video that had been widely shared following an earthquake in Taitung in 2022.

Following the initial wave of rumors focusing on earthquake scenes or destruction, the TFC observed actors exploiting the earthquake to stir up anger with the government's response or to create social divisions. 

For example, a false piece mocked the Ministry of Digital Affairs's (MDA's) ability to handle emergency crises. The fake Facebook post included pictures of a burning car, giving the impression that when the MDA's car arrived at the earthquake site to fix satellite communications, it caught fire. But in actuality, MDA's automobile safely joined the emergency team and has been carrying out its mission. Other false information included a post saying that the government's earthquake warning system failed, while China's system had already issued alerts prior to the earthquake. In reality, China's system issued an alarm following the earthquake. However, this false piece capitalized on the heated discussion on social media over why residents in particular locations in Taiwan did not receive earthquake warnings.

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A screenshot of a false claim was posted on Facebook, stating that the car dispatched by the Ministry of Digital Affairs was useless in an emergency situation. The truth is that the dispatched car safely arrived at the scene and joined the rescue team.

Rumors not only target the administration but also foreign relations. Some posts circulated among online political groups, claiming that the Japanese only donated around 340,000 USD (another post said the donation was about 1.2 million USD) to Taiwan as earthquake relief, despite Taiwan having donated much more money to Japan when Japan experienced earthquakes. The message stated, "The friendship between Taiwan and Japan was so expensive!" 

According to the TFC's fact-checking, the sum claimed in the article was wrong; the accumulated donation from Japan reached more than 2.1 million USD on April 9th, when the TFC published the fact-checking. However, this false accusation was intended to give the Taiwanese the impression that the Japanese are coldhearted when Taiwan and Japan have maintained good relations, particularly in the private sector. Furthermore, this false information began to circulate around the time as news of a controversial Chinese businessman announcing a sizable donation to Hualien was posted on social media sites that had been accused of promoting disinformation.

Rumors about the recent earthquake in Taiwan also spread in other languages on platforms, such as X. Nevertheless, compared with the rumors widespread in Taiwan, the false images shared by international users were much more startling than those disseminated locally in Taiwan. X users, many of whom claimed to be in India or the Middle East, shared a sizable portion of images or videos that were older footage of earthquakes that had occurred in other nations years earlier. One of the most shared images was a video displaying multiple high-rise buildings collapsing. However, the scene was unrelated to the recent Taiwan earthquake. As a matter of fact, the real event in the video is a building demolition project in China in 2021. Other misused images included an apartment crumbling during the Turkey-Syria earthquake that happened in 2023 and a tilted building that was the aftermath of an earthquake that hit Hualian, Taiwan, in 2018.  

In addition to the shocking visuals, conspiracy theories emerged, too. An X user with the X blue mark raised the theory that “the CCP just attacked Taiwan via the 'earthquake' using its weather weapon.” by quoting a previous talk of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessperson whom the U.S. government arrested for fraud and money laundering. Unfounded speculation that earthquakes could be man-made was also spread on X by a Japanese account. According to the Japan Fact Check Center, a widespread post dated April 4 exploited an old and irrelevant video, asserting that “the Japan Meteorological Agency has revealed that artificial earthquakes exist.” 

Interestingly, the false information and images that went viral globally were rarely seen in Taiwan. It is possible that the Taiwanese can quickly identify flaws in the information based on the architectural styles or scene hints. The conspiracy theory about artificial earthquakes or weather weapons has never been popular among Taiwanese, either. However, the false claims and images could easily mislead people who are unfamiliar with Taiwan or who have pre-existing beliefs in conspiracy theories. 

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A screenshot of an X post falsely claimed that multiple buildings were crumbling in Taiwan during the earthquake. This claim and the video went viral soon after the news of the earthquake was spread. However, this video was about a building teardown project in China.

Coincidentally, a few days after the Taiwan earthquake, an earthquake struck New Jersey and New York as well. Images of the earthquakes also circulated on social media following the earthquakes. Some of the claims showed images from the recent earthquake in Taiwan but claimed: “#earthquake tremors felt in New York City!” These accounts on X that share identical false images also posted the same remarks; many of the accounts’ profiles demonstrated locations in India or the Middle East and shared posts in English, Arabic, or languages used in India, such as Hindi.    

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A screenshot of an X post falsely used a photo of the April 3 Taiwan earthquake and claimed it was the scene of the April 5 earthquake that happened in New York.

After examining the false information spread following the April earthquakes in Taiwan and the U.S. East Coast, we noticed several trends in the rumors:

  1. Images of natural disasters such as earthquakes and their aftermath are widely shared on social media shortly after the disasters occur. However, the incorrect information that flows locally and internationally differs. Locals have more cues to assess the information's veracity, whereas viewers who are unfamiliar with the area or location are susceptible to deception by false statements and images. For the nation or area where unfortunate events occur, it is critical for governments or local groups to provide fast and accurate information to both local and global communities. After the earthquake hit Taiwan on April 3rd, Taiwanese fact-checking initiatives quickly checked and conveyed correct information to the public. The Taiwan FactCheck Center, for example, created an “image verification map,” by which readers could click the red spots on the map of Taiwan and check the verified information about injuries and damage.

  2. Natural disasters give actors opportunities to spin disinformation based on existing agendas or new controversies arising from the disasters. This type of disinformation often emerges as the second wave of rumors and exploits arguments about the causes of damage, rescue efforts, or other political and social issues that start coming into public discussion.

  3. It's interesting to see who spreads fake images and messages about disasters in other countries. At first glance, it appears that the accounts, some of which may be bots, are leveraging the opportunity to gain views and followers. However, more research is needed to better understand these social media accounts.

    A map of taiwan with red circlesDescription automatically generated
The image verification map was created by the TFC. Readers could click on the red spot to check the verified images related to the April 3rd earthquake.

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.

Rogge Chen (fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center) and Mary Ma (fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center) contributed to this analysis.