[TFC Disinfo Detector] Riding on the tide --- The disinformation circulated in Taiwan surrounding the Fukushima nuclear wastewater release

[TFC Disinfo Detector] Riding on the tide --- The disinformation circulated in Taiwan surrounding the Fukushima nuclear wastewater release

Image: TV screen shows a news report on the release of the treated radioactive water of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Tokyo. The words on the screen at the bottom read Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant starts the discharge of the treated water. (AP Photo/Top Image)

By Wei-Ping Li, Ph.D.

On August 24, Japan began discharging treated wastewater from the nuclear power facility damaged by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (known as the 311 earthquake to Taiwanese since the earthquake occurred on March 11). While Japan released the water, a new wave of disinformation spread throughout the Chinese-speaking world. Accounts on social media popular among Taiwanese, such as Facebook and LINE, also circulated false information and images that were spread on Chinese platforms like Weibo or Douyin. Nonetheless, while Chinese narratives attempted to feed increasing anti-Japan sentiment in China, Taiwanese ones exploited Taiwanese citizens’ long-standing concern about food safety and criticized the government led by the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) for being soft on Japan.

🔎 Concerns about nuclear wastewater-contaminated food are nothing new

Long before the recent release of nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in August 2023, there had been numerous rumors spread in the Chinese language, stoking audiences’ worry about food safety. As early as 2013, several Chinese media outlets had asserted that the ocean water polluted by the Fukushima power plant water might have caused the mutation of food. These unverified articles were circulated in the Chinese media, flew into the Taiwanese cybersphere, and were still shared in 2019. 

Another piece of disinformation debunked in 2019 by the Taiwan FactCheck Center claimed that the Japanese government finally admitted that the Fukushima nuclear power plant could not control the millions of tons of radioactive wastewater released into the Pacific Ocean. The narrator said the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) had issued the document Import Alert 99-33 to prohibit the importation of “all” Japanese food items into the United States from January 1, 2019. The same disinformation piece resurfaced in 2023 before the recent release of water. In reality, the US FDA indeed issued Import Alert 99-33 in 2011, but the administration deactivated the alert in 2021. The US FDA did not ban all the food items from Japan, either.

The cases mentioned above are only a few rumors perpetuating concerns about food safety arising from the Fukushima power plant water. This thread of disinformation waxed and waned whenever there were debates in Taiwan on the importation policy and ban on Fukushima food products, which Taiwan eventually lifted in 2022. Still, the disinformation has persisted in the media sphere and again gained traction with recent wastewater release.

🔎 The narratives of the disinformation related to the Fukushima nuclear wastewater

The nuclear wastewater disinformation that has circulated in Taiwan in recent years generally combines facts with erroneous assertions and often concludes with cautionary tales about the dire consequences of consuming contaminated food. It delivers lessons such as “the Japanese government covered the truth” and “don’t eat the food from Japan.” 

“The death of the Japanese official who drank the nuclear wastewater” is maybe one of the most well-known pieces of disinformation in the recent wave. The narrator of the disinformation claimed that Yasuhiro Sonoda [園田康博], a Japanese politician who drank water collected from the Fukushima power plant, had long suffered from and eventually died of multiple myeloma in 2020. This rumor has persisted in social media like Weibo, Douyin, Facebook, and LINE, for years and has lately become prevalent again. It wasn’t until this September that Kyodo News was able to contact Mr. Sonoda and confirm he was still alive.

Image: An article published on August 29, 2023, on Chinese social, claimed that Yasuhiro Sonoda, a Japanese politician who drank water collected from the Fukushima power plant, had long suffered from and eventually died of multiple myeloma in 2020. The claim is however fabricated.

In other instances, the false claims were backed by shocking images of dead sea creatures in large quantities on the beach or deformed species claimed to be affected by radiation. But some of these images are not new to fact-checkers – they are still old fake pictures that have been debunked before. For example, the recent video asserting that a swarm of fish died because of the nuclear wastewater is the same clip used in a rumor propagated in March 2023. 

Unsurprisingly, many of these photos and videos came from Chinese platforms such as “Douyin” or “KuaiShou” and were captioned in Simplified Chinese. When they were shared on platforms and message apps popular in Taiwan, some of the narratives were changed to address current political situations in Taiwan and the emotions of the Taiwanese. An example is the video depicting the death of fish on the beach. Some Facebook accounts shared the video from Douyin and incorrectly claimed that the Taiwanese ruling party had restricted the media from covering the event.

🔎 Blaming the ruling party for being soft on Japan

The Taiwan FaceCheck Center also spotted a new piece shared in multiple Facebook groups whose primary audiences are users from Hong Kong and overseas. In one of the disinformation pieces, a fake poster pretending to be made by the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration advocated for “the benefits of importing Japanese nuclear water to Taiwan.” It claimed that the importation would not only dissolve the drought crisis [in Taiwan] but also “enhance the friendship between Taiwan and Japan.” 

This false piece, with a touch of satire, turned the spotlight on the ruling party in Taiwan and caused confusion among online communities. In other posts spreading false messages, the descriptions and titles were accompanied by derogatory statements that questioned the ruling party’s acquiescence toward the Japanese government and its ability to safeguard Taiwanese people’s health.

Regarding the attitudes of the neighboring nations toward the release of the Fukushima wastewater, the Taiwanese government, in sharp contrast to China, has not voiced opposition to the discharge of wastewater. However, the Taiwanese government said it would monitor the water to ensure the radiation level of the wastewater will not exceed international safety standards. Taiwanese environmental activist groups did express their concerns. But since Japan’s wastewater discharge this August, there has been no large rally from Taiwanese civil society yet, as what had happened in South Korea.

Multiple factors might contribute to the relative silence from Taiwan while other nations have loudly expressed their worries. To begin with, Taiwan has been in a cordial relationship with Japan. Unlike China, where the anti-Japanese sentiment has long existed and recently reached new heights, Taiwan has continuously ranked Japan as one of the “favorite foreign countries” in the past years. Furthermore, the 2024 Taiwanese Presidential election is just a few months away. Political parties are being cautious in framing their positions on sensitive issues like foreign relations and nuclear energy and have taken a more low-key approach to the Fukushima issue. The effective strategy for disinformation makers appears to be focusing on food safety and environmental harm, as well as challenging the resolve and competence of the ruling party to protect the health of the Taiwanese.

🔎 Political talk shows propagated disinformation

In terms of spreading disinformation about the Fukushima wastewater, most Taiwanese news outlets have done better this time by ignoring the stunning but incorrect information. Nonetheless, a few political talk shows directly took up the disinformation pieces from Chinese media and treated them as valid materials in the broadcasts without thoroughly checking the facts.

In one example, a political talk show promoted a false video claiming that Russia would test the water near Fukushima. This video, widely circulated online in China since August 31, was footage of Russian President Vladimir Putin giving a speech. According to the subtitles, Putin warned Japan that if Russia found the wastewater polluted the ocean, Russia would attack Japan. Taiwan FactCheck Center found this video to be false. As a matter of fact, this video was first seen in June 2023, in which Putin was referring to the Wagner group mutiny led by Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Image: A screenshot of the Facebook post which contained a video purporting to show Putin warning Japan that if Russia found the wastewater polluted the ocean, Russia would attack Japan, according to its Chinese subtitles and the post content. In reality, the original video was Putin commenting on the Wagner group mutiny. 

Another piece of false information spread by a Taiwanese talk show is the claim that BlackRock, an American investment firm, is the largest shareholder of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The narrator of this disinformation claimed that the American company’s huge percentage of TEPCO shares was the reason that the United States permitted Japan’s disposal of Fukushima wastewater. This post, which was promoted by Chinese social media influencers, sought to blame the wastewater release on the United States as well. 

This disinformation piece was not widely spread in the Taiwanese Facebook or LINE communities nor received attention from major news outlets. However, a Taiwanese political talk show echoed this disinformation and claimed to have “evidence” that BlackRock was one of the top shareholders of TEPCO. Unfortunately, this talk show did a lousy job of fact-checking – the TV show host misread the data by only counting the shares held by institutional investors.

According to the fact-check by Taiwan FactCheck Center, TEPCO’s largest shareholder is an entity established and controlled by the Japanese government to manage issues such as nuclear energy disaster compensation. The image used in this disinformation piece was also an outdated chart that did not support the falsified assertion. The fact is that BlackRock only owns a small portion of TEPCO stock.

In addition to promoting disinformation spread by online influencers, a Taiwanese TV political talk show also directly propagated distorted information produced by Chinese state media. For instance, some Chinese media cherrypicked information from an interview conducted by Japanese news outlet TBS and spread the claim that “66% of the wastewater exceeded the standard of radioactive substances.” The Taiwanese talk show presented this problematic claim as a fact, exaggerating the dangers of the wastewater. 

The Japan Fact-Check Center and the Taiwan FactCheck Center worked together to verify this item, and they discovered that the Chinese media omitted an important element of the Japanese TBS interview. According to the interviewee in the original report, 66% of the wastewater in the first stage of treatment surpassed the standard. But the truth is, through the second stage of treatment, the amount of radioactive substances will be lower than the standard and thus be discharged into the ocean.   

These cases highlight why rigorous fact-checking should be a common procedure for information providers. Any media program that serves as a conduit for information to the public should carefully verify facts and deliver information fairly.

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

Summer Chen (Chief editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center)  

Yun-Kai Hsu (Fact-checker at Taiwan FactCheck Center)

Jhong-An Wu ( Fact-checker at Taiwan FactCheck Center)

contributed to this analysis.