The World Health Organisation has removed social media filters which were censoring the words “Taiwan” and “China” from its Facebook page after an online backlash, but said the blocks were because of an “onslaught” of cyber attacks.
The about-face comes amid intense criticism over China’s continued blocking of Taiwan – which has gone more than 215 days without a local case of Covid-19 – from participation in meetings of the WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly.
This week internet users began reporting the WHO’s Facebook page would not allow comments that included the word Taiwan. The Guardian’s attempts to post comments found it was also blocking the word “China”. Posters began replacing characters in the word to get past the censors, including “ⓉⒶⒾⓌⒶⓃ ⒸⒶⓃ ⒽⒺⓁⓅ”, or using the island’s former name, “Formosa”.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said the block ran contrary to the neutrality the WHO should be upholding, and expressed its “strong regret and dissatisfaction”, but a spokesman for the WHO said the moves were a “practical measure” which didn’t reflect a value judgement or policy.
“During the World Health Assembly, WHO faces an onslaught of cyberattacks by online activists on a number of controversial issues, using keywords such as ‘Taiwan’ and ‘China’,” the spokesman said.
The social media team applied filters as the “onslaught” hindered its ability to moderate conversations, he said. After the block was lifted the WHO’s page was flooded with pro-Taiwan and anti-China messages.
The WHO’s history with Taiwan has been controversial, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. China, which considers Taiwan a rogue province and its government to be separatists, has blocked its admission to the WHA despite an increase in international support for their inclusion.
Intense lobbying for Taiwan’s inclusion preceded a WHA meeting last week but it remained excluded. The WHO maintains any inclusion is a matter for WHA member states to vote on.
Taipei says it has much to share with the global community given its success in preventing a large outbreak. It has reported around 580 cases of Covid-19 in total, mostly imported and contained by the quarantine system, and just seven deaths.