Amid panic over China’s coronavirus outbreak, claims of the actual death toll in China having crossed 24,000 have gone viral. This comes after screenshots of Tencent — a Chinese website which is running its own tracking tool of coronavirus cases — emerged, seeming to show that as of 1 February, the death toll due to coronavirus in China stood at 24,589.
Tencent is a Chinese multinational conglomerate holding company which owns Tencent QQ and WeChat, two popular instant messaging platforms, apart from having its own video game publishing division, one of the most popular in the world. It also owns gaming platform WeGame, and is one of the world's largest venture capital firms.
The photo above implies that confirmed cases in China on 1 February stood at 1,54,023, suspected cases stood at 79,808, the number of cured at 269 and the death toll at 24,589.
Why did this set off the alarms? Because the numbers seemingly reflected on Tencent’s tracking tool were exponentially higher than the official numbers released by the Chinese government.
At 1,54,023, the confirmed cases in China was more than 10 times the government’s number — 14,380, according to a report by CNN on 1 February. The CNN report also placed the death toll on 1 February at 304, far far lower than the huge 24,589.
According to The New York Times, the death toll in China due to the novel coronavirus as of 7 February is over 600.
According to Taiwan News, an English language media outlet, the number of suspected cases at 79,808, was four times the official figure on 1 February.
Locals reports claim these numbers were purportedly seen on the website for a short while before it reverted to the official numbers. The Quint can neither confirm nor deny this claim.
Screenshots reflecting this massive death toll were widely shared on the internet without verification, prompting netizens to panic and also wonder whether Tencent had accidentally leaked real data of the effect of coronavirus.
Twitter was abuzz with people wondering about the veracity of the numbers allegedly released by Tencent and many were concerned that the Chinese government had been grossly under-reporting the actual numbers.
Many news outlets also picked up on the screenshots and carried their own articles.
Varun Jhaveri, Officer on Special Duty to the CEO, Ayushman Bharat also took to Twitter to share this news, saying that if it were true, coronavirus would be seen as more than a virus outbreak.
BIG News coming from China - Tencent Holdings tracker just reported 25000+ Deaths & 1.5 Lakh active infections from Corona Virus. Chinese authorities have claimed just around 500 deaths! If the tracker is true, this is not only a virus outbreak but a massive epidemic.— Varun Jhaveri (@Varun_Jhaveri) February 6, 2020
WHAT WE FOUND
Firstly, after the news went viral, Tencent came out with a statement that the screenshots of the numbers that were circulating on the internet had been ‘doctored’ and that they had not published any such data.
[Tencent Statement] The Tencent News “Epidemic Situation Tracker” reports real-time data from China' s National Health...Posted by Tencent 腾讯 on Thursday, February 6, 2020
“Unfortunately, several social media sources have circulated doctored images of our ‘Epidemic Situation Tracker’ featuring false information which we never published,” their statement on Facebook released on Friday, 7 February, said.
Secondly, Tencent clearly says in its tracker tool that they source all their data from national and local health committees. They also keep updating their date according to official changes.
The little question mark on the side of ‘Data source’ also adds more details about where the tracker gets its data from.
Thirdly, The Quint was able to find, with some help from Open, an online news portal, which has itself reported on the possibility of the news being fake, that the numbers on the tracker are capable of being manipulated. Open is a non-profit which states that its aim is to inform young readers. They have a verified Facebook page as well.
Taking cues from Open, we were able to see that the numbers of the website can be manipulated using simple tools built into a browser such as Google Chrome, which would allow a mischievous user to take screenshots and circulate them. Certain options make it possible to edit the HTML code seen, but only so that the concerned user can see the changes. The same do not reflect on the website.
Here is a screenshot of the numbers shown by the tool before we manipulated the coding:
Here is a screenshot of the numbers after we changed the numbers in the HTML code.
On hitting refresh, we were presented with the original screen, showing Tencent’s own updated numbers.
It becomes clear then that there is a possibility that the screenshots being circulated on the internet could have been created in the same manner that we have doctored the numbers here.
Given that Tencent has denied ever publishing such numbers and that we have proved that the numbers CAN be manipulated, we can say that it is possible that this is what was done for the purpose of screenshots.
THE OTHER POSSIBILITY
Taiwan News quoted a report by The Lancet, which is a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, generally considered among the world's oldest, most prestigious, and best known general medical journals. The paper in question talks about a scientific model which concerns itself with forecasting the potential domestic and international spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak.
This study in fact predicted that by 25 January, there would have been 75,815 coronavirus cases in Wuhan and added that the epidemic doubling time was 6.4 days.
Going by this math, it would be appear that as of 1 February, the number of confirmed cases would be approximately 1,50,000, which is very close to the number that Tencent allegedly displayed on 1 February — 1,54, 023.
This would automatically lead to an increase in the other data as well.
Keeping in mind that several netizens claimed to have actually seen the numbers reflected on the website instead of simply screenshots, the possibility arises that Tencent actually displayed numbers which have since been suppressed.
Therefore, while we have been able to prove that the numbers could have been manipulated, we cannot outright say whether Tencent ever displayed the inflated numbers or not. Additionally, while we cannot confirm the actual number of deaths due to the disease in China, going by official Chinese data, all we can say is that the screenshot in question presents incorrect and manipulated data.
(With inputs from Open and Taiwan Fact Check Centre.)
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