Dubious screenshot claims Chinese website published 'real' coronavirus death toll

A screenshot purportedly showing the real death toll of the coronavirus in China — putting it over 80 times higher than the official number — has gone viral. 

Such images are easy to fake with any modern web browser

A screenshot, purporting to show that the number of coronavirus cases and deaths are much higher than what the Chinese government is reporting, has been circulating online. (Tencent/Fake label by Radio-Canada)

A screenshot purportedly showing the real death toll of the coronavirus in China — putting it over 80 times higher than the official number — has gone viral. 

However, such screenshots, taken from the social media site QQ, are easily fakeable by anyone using a standard web browser. And, a public health official says, such high numbers at this point are likely a hoax. 

Rumours have been swirling online that the Chinese government is hiding the actual extent of the coronavirus outbreak, which took root there and is now spreading worldwide.

QQ is an instant messenger, owned by the Chinese media company Tencent, that includes a news page. It counts around 900 million active users and has an "epidemic situation tracker" that reports real-time data of known coronavirus cases and deaths across China from over 170 sources, according to Tencent.

On Sunday, a screenshot of the tracker began spreading on Chinese social media. It was said to have captured the accidental release of the "real death toll" — 24,589, far above the roughly 300 then recognized by the Chinese government. 

Likely a hoax

According to Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto and an infectious disease expert at Toronto Western Hospital, those numbers don't reflect what he and his colleagues are tracking.

"We know enough about this that we can basically call B.S. on some scenarios," he said.

Because people outside of China are also getting sick, Fisman says public health officials can track how the virus spreads, independently of numbers released by China. 

Fisman and epidemiologist Ashleigh R. Tuite modelled its spread and published their research in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

"Based on what we think is going on, it would be very hard to get to 200,000 cases, or whatever is in the Tencent screenshot, and 25,000 deaths," he said. "There's really no reason to embellish the seriousness of the situation, unless you have some ulterior motive, which I couldn't begin to speculate what that could be." 

He cautions, though, that mathematical models don't necessarily represent the situation on the ground, and that the number of cases will grow in the future, especially as public health agencies get better at detecting and reporting them.

Easily faked

The screenshot was first picked up by NTDTV, a U.S.-based, Mandarin-language news organization that's highly critical of the Chinese government. It then made its way onto the Taiwan News website in English — where it was described as the accidental release of the real numbers — before exploding on Western social media. On Thursday morning, British tabloid The Daily Mail ran a story on the screenshot, garnering some 8,000 shares on Facebook in a few hours.

Users and media outlets speculated that a bug or coding error might have accidentally showed the "real figures." Others said that a whistleblower might have been trying to warn the world. 

However, it's easy to produce that screenshot using a feature present on most modern web browsers, which lets a user with a bit of know-how change the numbers displayed in the tracker. In a few seconds, CBC News was able to create a near-identical screenshot showing a massive death toll.

In just a few moments, CBC News was able to recreate the screenshot with artificially inflated numbers. It's almost identical to the version circulating online. (CBC)

This screenshot has not been altered in any way. It is a real screenshot of the site, but the numbers have been manipulated using a browser tool. These numbers did not show up on other users' computers, only on the computer used to change the figures. That means anyone could alter the tracker to display much lower numbers, higher numbers, or even text instead.

It's important to note that only one copy of the screenshot with 24,589 deaths exists. If QQ had the higher death toll, even for just a few minutes, to its 899 million users, one would expect many different screenshots of the same figures to exist. 

Screenshots of QQ's website are therefore not definitive proof that those numbers were ever displayed for all to see on the website. And no archived version of the site exists showing the higher numbers, despite the fact that multiple archived versions of the site are available online. 

In a statement to CBC News, Tencent condemned the screenshots, which it called "unscrupulous behaviour."

"Unfortunately, several social media sources have circulated doctored images of our 'Epidemic Situation Tracker' featuring false information which we never published," the company said. 

"Tencent does not condone the dissemination of inaccurate information and fake news especially during this sensitive period."

Using simple tools, CBC News was able to make it seem as if the epidemic tracker was displaying text, without changing what was actually on the site. (CBC)