Fact check: Shipping map misrepresented in posts about delays amid China COVID-19 lockdown

The claim: Map shows ships waiting to dock along Chinese coast

In Shanghai and other Chinese port cities, restrictive measures taken by Communist Party officials in service of the country's strict COVID-19 policy have shut down some factories and created significant supply chain delays for a range of consumer goods.

In a map that went viral on Twitter in connection with the lockdown, hundreds of icons representing ships seem to be clustered around ports on the Chinese coast. It accumulated more than 21,000 retweets in 10 days.

"Ships waiting to dock because of China’s insane COVID strategy," tech entrepreneur Aaron Ginn captioned the photo. "This is intentional."

The claim about the map spread widely to other platforms, appearing in numerous Facebook posts as well as on Reddit and Substack.

But it's not accurate, according to experts who spoke with USA TODAY. The image shows every ship – including those underway rather than stationary.

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USA TODAY reached out to Ginn and several users who shared the claim for comment.

Workers wearing protective gear stack up boxes with food over a cart to deliver in a neighborhood during a COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown in the Jing'an district in Shanghai on May 7, 2022.

Most ships in photo are not 'waiting to dock'

Shipping delays have increased significantly since lockdowns began in Shanghai and other large Chinese cities in early March, as CNN reports, but the map doesn't tell us much about them. 

A visual comparison shows that the photo in the viral posts is a screenshot taken from MarineTraffic.com, a website that tracks and aggregates data from the Automatic Identification System transponders that large ships are required to have on board. USA TODAY reported on a similar misrepresentation of the map in 2021.

Instead of only showing "ships waiting to dock" because of supply chain delays, the map shows every vessel in the vicinity of Chinese ports, MarineTraffic spokesperson Georgios Hatzimanolis said. 

"Most of the vessels pictured are not waiting to dock," he wrote in an email to USA TODAY. "Many of them are fishing vessels and other types of vessels that are not waiting to dock." 

Hatzimanolis also said the map doesn't show an irregular or extreme traffic buildup.

"China is the world's largest exporter and one of the world's largest importers, so traffic in the region is always busy," he wrote. "We are not witnessing a worsening of the situation at the moment."

The map is color-coded to distinguish between types of ships. All cargo and tanker ships in the area, represented in green and red respectively, are there to engage in trade, according to Hatzimanolis. But the screenshot also shows a number of other categories of ships, including fishing, passenger and unspecified vessels.

Fact check:Image of live shipping map shows those underway as well as those waiting to dock

The map in the posts shows a large number of ships that are in motion, represented with triangular icons, which are less likely to be waiting to unload or receive a container from a port. Circular icons represent ships that are anchored or stopped.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that a map shows ships waiting to dock because of COVID-19 lockdowns in China. According to MarineTraffic.com, from which the photo of the map was taken, most of the icons on the map represent ships in motion that are not waiting to dock. In addition, many of the ships on the map are not engaged in trade, but instead are fishing, passenger or other types of vessels.

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