More than 40 Philippine Facebook pages and groups and a website have been amplifying a false viral report started by a website that American intelligence has “intercepted data” revealing that 21 million people have died of the new coronavirus in China.
The erroneous report, “21 million Chinese died of coronavirus—US intelligence officials intercept data,” appeared April 6 on the website News NT or n5ti.com created barely 40 days ago.
The site was called out in early March by Guyana's Ministry of Public Health for peddling the fake news that a family of three in its capital Georgetown "died before testing positive for coronavirus."
Among the Philippine accounts circulating News NT's April 6 piece on the supposed 21 million deaths in China is the website PhilippinesReport.com which lifted the false report verbatim.
The first two paragraphs of the account read:
A new data intercepted by the United States reveals that 21 million Chinese died in China from December 2019 to March 2020, US intelligence officials conclude in a classified report for the Trump administration.
The Intelligence report stated that at least 20.9 million of the deaths were linked to coronavirus.
News NT provided no concrete evidence that American intelligence had obtained data about the 21 million purported deaths.
Instead, it tried to bolster the claim by heavily citing a March 22 report of The Epoch Times, a U.S.-based publication that suggested the cancellation of 21 million cellphone subscriptions in China during the COVID-19 pandemic could mean a higher death toll in the Asian giant.
The Epoch Times’ headline reads:
21 Million Fewer Cellphone Users in China May Suggest a High CCP Virus Death Toll.
Nowhere in the story did it conclude that 21 million Chinese have died of the virus. What it did say:
Lacking data, the real death toll in China is a mystery. The cancellation of 21 million cellphones provides a data point that suggests the real number may be far higher than the official number.
China’s wireless carrier China Mobile reported in March that it lost 8 million subscribers in January and February, China Unicom Hong Kong said it lost 7.8 million users for the same period, and China Telecom said 8 million canceled subscriptions in February.
China Mobile and China Unicom told the Associated Press that the drop was partly due to the coronavirus outbreak, which China Mobile said “reduced business and social activities.”
News NT’s viral report on China’s supposed multimillion death toll also referred to “an earlier intelligence report released by the US that China hid scale of the outbreak.”
The U.S. government has not released such a report, including at the time News NT posted its story or Filipino netizens shared it days later.
Bloomberg reported April 1 that a classified report to the White House found that China has underreported cases and deaths due to COVID-19. But the news organization only quoted sources who it said declined to detail the report’s contents.
The New York Times, quoting current and former Central Intelligence Agency officials, reported April 2 that the CIA has been warning the White House for weeks that “China has vastly understated the spread of the coronavirus and the damage the pandemic has done.”
But American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Chinese government itself does not know the extent of the virus and is as blind as the rest of the world,.
Reacting to intelligence reports questioning China’s data on the pandemic, U.S. Donald Trump has said, “As to whether or not their numbers are accurate, I’m not an accountant from China.”
The outbreak traced to the virus SARS-CoV-2 began in Wuhan, Hubei in China late December. China has reported 83,213 cases and 3,345 deaths as of April 13. The U.S. is now the epicenter of the pandemic, recording 558,526 cases and 22,145 deaths.
Created on March 4, 2020, News NT has gathered 311,988 interactions, 149,4095 reactions, 60,028 shares and 102,555 comments for its week-old post, according to data from Crowdtangle.
The story was shared mostly on April 12 and 13 by a total of 462 Facebook pages and groups in different countries, including 44 Philippine accounts of different suasions, anti- and pro-Duterte, and mostly anti-China.
The Epoch Times, which was the main basis for News NT’s article, has been rated borderline “questionable” and “right-based” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a website that rates factual accuracy and political bias in news media. Media Bias/Fact Check noted The Epoch Times’ “publication of pseudoscience and the promotion of pro-Trump propaganda and conspiracy theories as well as failed fact checks.”
The publication was founded in 2000 by John Tang and a group of Chinese American practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious practice that has been banned and persecuted in China. It publishes in 21 languages in 35 countries across five continents.
21 million Chinese died of coronavirus – US intelligence officials intercept data. (2020, April 13). Retrieved from https://philippinesreport.com/21-million-chinese-died-of-coronavirus-us-intelligence-officials-intercept-data/?fbclid=IwAR12cz4ybM2XEEXjy07qmIGONfT8DzXWrxe75INIpzu3NaetjcvJBp2CoGI
Alami, J. (2020, April 6). 21 million Chinese died of coronavirus – US intelligence officials intercept data. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20200406190917/https://n5ti.com/health/1233/
Barnes, J. (2020, April 2). C.I.A. hunts for authentic virus totals in China, dismissing government tallies. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/us/politics/cia-coronavirus-china.html
Hao, N. (2020, March 22). 21 million fewer cellphone users in china may suggest a high CCP virus death toll. The Epoch Times. Retrieved from https://www.theepochtimes.com/the-closing-of-21-million-cell-phone-accounts-in-china-may-suggest-a-high-ccp-virus-death-toll_3281291.html
Lajka, A. (2020, March 31). Drop in cellphone users in China wrongly attributed to coronavirus deaths. Associated Press. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/afs:Content:8717250566
Media Bias/Fact Check. (n.d.). The Epoch Times. Retrieved from https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/the-epoch-times/
Ministry of Public Health - Guyana [mpohguyana]. (2020, March 9). The MOPH slams www.n5ti.com fake news. Please be advised that the article published by www.n5ti.com with the headline “Georgetown family of three died before testing positive for coronavirus” is FAKE NEWS!...[Facebook status update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/mophguyana/posts/the-moph-slams-wwwn5ticom-fake-news-please-be-advised-that-the-article-published/2283601921943341/
Wadhams, N., & Jacobs, J. (2020, April 1). China concealed extent of virus outbreak, U.S. intelligence says. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-01/china-concealed-extent-of-virus-outbreak-u-s-intelligence-says
Zhao, S. (2020, March 23). China’s mobile carriers lose 21 million users as virus bites. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-23/china-s-mobile-carriers-lose-15-million-users-as-virus-bites