Old photos falsely shared as 'warships from all over the world heading to South China Sea'

Multiple social media posts have misrepresented photos of a 2017 joint patrol between US and Japanese navies in the Sea of Japan, falsely claiming they show recent images of "warships from all over the world" heading to the disputed South China Sea. The false posts were shared hundreds of times amid escalating confrontations between Chinese and Philippine ships as Beijing stepped up efforts to push its claims to the disputed waterway.

"Dozens of warships from all over the world are heading to the West Philippine sea," read the caption of a June 14 Facebook post, using Manila's term for the South China Sea waters to the immediate west of the Philippines.

The post -- shared more than 240 times -- featured a photo of an aircraft carrier and a second image of other vessels though it did not specify which country the "warships" were from.

The claim circulated online after a series of confrontations involving Chinese and Philippine vessels in the disputed waters in recent months.

Beijing claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, brushing aside competing claims from several Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines and an international ruling that its stance has no legal basis.

<span>A screenshot of the false Facebook post, captured June 18, 2024</span>
A screenshot of the false Facebook post, captured June 18, 2024

Similar claims were also shared more than 1,000 times in other Facebook posts including herehere, here and here.

Some social media users appeared to believe the posts with one commenting, "Heading to their new Battlefield."

"Thank you for all you supporting the Philippines... Good luck and God bless you all," another said.

As of June 20, 2024, there have been no official reports of warships converging on the South China Sea.

"Based on our daily monitoring, we have not received such reports from our frontline units," Ariel Coloma, spokesman of the western command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, told AFP on June 19, 2024.

The photos in the false posts were from an unrelated exercise in the Sea of Japan.

Misrepresented pictures

Reverse image searches on Google found the photos posted here and here on June 1, 2017 by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) -- a US military public affairs service (archived links here and here).

DVIDS indicated the pictures were taken in the Sea of Japan, a waterway between the Japanese archipelago, the Korean peninsula and the Russian far-east.

They showed joint operations between the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Japan Sea, the agency said.

"The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group operates with the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in the western Pacific region," its caption said.

Below are screenshot comparisons of the false post (left) and the original photos on the DVIDS site (right):

<span>Screenshot comparisons of the false post (left) and the original photo on the DVIDS website (right)</span>
Screenshot comparisons of the false post (left) and the original photo on the DVIDS website (right)

The US Navy also published a similar video of the vessels on June 2, 2017 (archived link).

Philippine news organisation Rappler has debunked similar posts that misused the old photos.

AFP has repeatedly fact-checked misinformation on the South China Sea dispute here, here and here.