VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Photo of Australian ship WRONGLY shown as ‘Chinese vessel in WPS’ dumping waste

A misleading social media graphic by GMA News that carried a photo supposedly showing a Chinese vessel offloading human waste in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) is being republished by several Facebook (FB) accounts, even after the media organization corrected its post.

Running the photo through reverse image search revealed that it was actually of an Australian ship dumping “dredge spoil” in the Great Barrier Reef. The spoil is a mix of rocks, soil, shells and other sediments extracted after dredging activities.

The photo is traceable to an Oct. 3, 2014 press release of Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC), an environment conservation nonprofit in Australia. The image was credited to photographer Xanthe Rivett, who took it for CAFNEC and World Wildlife Fund Australia.

GMA News published its incorrect graphic on FB on July 12, on the fifth anniversary of the Philippines’ arbitral court victory against China regarding disputed territories in the WPS. It showed the CAFNEC photo and two smaller satellite images, below the text: “China vessels dump human waste in West Philippine sea, photos show.”

More than two hours later, the network published a corrected graphic, as shown in the edit history of its post. It did not include the CAFNEC photo.

GMA News also issued a statement on Twitter apologizing for its “oversight” regarding the misleading graphic.

Despite the correction, netizens still reposted the original inaccurate graphic a day later, thinking it was a correct illustration. A cursory search on FB yielded numerous copies of the misleading graphic, including those posted by pages Bicol News, Bantay China, and Philippine News Info. Several FB users also reached out to VERA Files Fact Check to verify the graphic.

The three FB pages’ copies have gotten over 300 reactions, 80 comments, and 125 shares, as of publishing.

BACKSTORY

The misinformation appeared after a presentation by geospatial imagery expert Liz Derr during a July 12 forum of the Stratbase ADR Institute commemorating the Philippine’s 2016 arbitral court win.

Derr, who serves as chief executive officer of satellite image anomaly detection company Simularity, showed CAFNEC’s image to illustrate how wastewater from ships causes a rise in Chlorophyll-a concentration in seas. This rise results in faster than normal growth of plants underwater which could lead to the destruction of coral reefs, she said.

But Derr did not say the CAFNEC image was that of a Chinese vessel in the WPS. It was labeled: “Unknown ship from [website] Marine Executive.”

She later presented several satellite images indicating high Chlorophyll-a concentration below Chinese vessels stationed inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Two specific photos, taken last June 17, showed “ships” and their corresponding “sh*ts” near the Johnson South Reef, located at the southwest part of the Union Banks in the Spratly Islands.


(Editor's Note: VERA Files has partnered with Facebook to fight the spread of disinformation. Find out more about this partnership and our methodology.)

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Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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