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Drop in cellphone users in China wrongly attributed to coronavirus deaths

March 30, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Drop in cellphone users in China is proof that the coronavirus has killed 21 million in the country, far more than the official count.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The decline in cellphone users is not linked to the number of people who died after being infected with coronavirus. Major cellphone carriers in China attributed the drop to people with multiple phone numbers canceling some service during the outbreak. 

THE FACTS: Major cellphone carriers in China reported a loss of nearly 21 million subscriptions in January and February as the virus spread in the country. 

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More than 81,500 cases of the virus and about 3,300 deaths have been confirmed in China since the outbreak was first reported in the city of Wuhan in December, the AP has reported. 

According to online data published by China’s three largest cell phone carriers, subscriptions dropped a total of 20.65 million in January and February: China Mobile Ltd. reported a drop of nearly 7.25 million subscribers in the two-month period, while China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd. lost 7.8 million subscribers and China Telecom Corp. lost 5.6 million in February alone. 

A number of false reports misinterpreting the data have emerged on social media, with claims that the figures are connected to the number of people who died from the virus. 

“Is China hiding the real COVID-19 death toll? 21 million phones vanish,” read one headline. 

Another video post about the report was falsely titled “BREAKING: WUHAN SUPER VIRUS KILLED 21 MILLION PEOPLE IN CHINA ACCORDING TO CELL PHONE RECORDS.” 

A representative with China Mobile Ltd. said while the situation was related to the COVID-19 outbreak, it was not related to deaths, but changes in lifestyle.

“It was mainly due to reduced business and social activities resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak,” a spokesperson with the company confirmed to the AP. “Many customers in China have multiple SIM cards and it is common that they use their non-primary SIM cards to do these activities.” 

A China Unicom representative acknowledged the difficult market forces at work: “For the first two months of 2020, while facing challenges such as market saturation, keen market competition and the novel coronavirus outbreak, the company upheld self-discipline on rational and orderly competition.”

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China Telecom did not respond to the AP at the time of publication. 

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536


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