Why the world must pay attention to the fight against disinformation and fake news in Taiwan

On Saturday, Taiwan will hold its presidential election. This year, the outcome is even more important than usual because it will signal in which direction the country’s people want its relationship with China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, to move. Also crucial are efforts against fake news. Taiwan has one of the worst disinformation problems in the world, and how it is handled is an important case study for other countries.

Yesterday, Twitter said in a blog post that it has held trainings for the two main political parties in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), as well as Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, in addition to setting up a portal for feedback during the election. Late last month, the state-owned Central News Agency reported that Facebook will set up a “war room” to counteract disinformation before the election, echoing its efforts in other countries (the company previously established a regional elections center at its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore).

But the fight against disinformation in Taiwan started years before the current presidential election. It now encompasses the government, tech companies and nonprofit groups like the Taiwan FactCheck Center, and will continue after the election. As in other countries, the fake news problem in Taiwan takes advantage of complex, deep-rooted ideological, cultural and political rifts among Taiwan’s population of 24 million, and it demonstrates that fake news isn’t just a tech or media literacy problem, but also one that needs to be examined from a social psychological perspective.

How fake news spreads in Taiwan

This year’s election is taking place as the Chinese government, under President Xi Jinping, makes increasingly aggressive efforts to assert control over Taiwan, and as the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong underscore the fissures in China’s “one country, two systems” model. The two leading candidates are incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the DPP, and opponent Han Kuo-yu of the KMT, who favors a more conciliatory relationship with China.

The Chinese government has been linked to disinformation campaigns in Taiwan. Last year, the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden researched foreign influence in domestic politics and placed Taiwan in its “worst” category, along with Latvia and Bahrain, as the countries where foreign governments most frequently use social media to spread false information for “all key political issues.” By comparison, the United States ranked 13th worst on the list, despite being targeted by Russian disinformation operations.

But disinformation also comes from many other sources, including Taiwanese politicians from different parties and their supporters, “cyber armies” whose aim is to influence voters and content farms that sensationalize and repost content from media outlets. It is spread through platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, messaging app Line, online bulletin board PTT and YouTube.

The problem has escalated over the past five years, according to an April 2019 report by CommonWealth Magazine reporters Rebecca Lin and Felice Wu. During the previous presidential election, cyber armies consisting of supporters for some politicians, or workers for political parties and public relations companies, began engaging in online information wars, creating an opportunity for foreign influence. Wu Hsun-hsiao, former legal counsel to PTT, told the magazine that in 2015, more dummy accounts entering from China began to appear on the bulletin board and Facebook. “The rise of emerging online media has generated a considerable amount of noise, and China has discovered the influence it has,” he told CommonWealth.

Over the last two years, YouTube has also become an increasingly potent way to spread disinformation, often through short videos that take clips and photos from news outlets and re-edit them to present misleading narratives about major news events. “They take advantage of the myth that ‘to see is to believe’ by massively disseminating false information in the run-up to the election,” Wang Tai-li, a professor in National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism told the Liberty Times. Last year, Google published posts on its Taiwan blog that said it had partnered with volunteers and organizations like MyGoPen, Taiwan FactCheck Center and the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network to increase awareness of disinformation and flag fake news on its platforms, including YouTube.

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s legislature passed the DPP-backed Anti-Infiltration Bill, meant to stop Chinese influence in Taiwanese politics. The legislation was opposed by KMT politicians, including former president Ma Ying-jeou, who made controversial statements comparing the bill to restoring Taiwan’s four decades of martial law, which ended in 1987.

But part of the challenge of fighting fake news in Taiwan is lack of awareness. After local elections in November 2018, Wang conducted a survey that found 52% of respondents did not believe there was foreign interference, or said they did not know enough to judge.

Fighting back

Much of the work, however, is being done by volunteers and private citizens. Last month, Los Angeles Times reporter Alice Su wrote about organizations like the Taiwan FactCheck Center, a nonprofit that does not receive funding from the government, political parties or politicians. In July 2018, the group began collaborating with Facebook, where posts flagged as containing false information bring up a screen with a link that takes users to a Taiwan FactCheck Center report before they are allowed to view the content.

Su also covered other groups, like DoubleThink Labs, which monitors Chinese disinformation networks in Taiwan, and CoFacts, a crowdsourced database that operates a factchecking Line chatbot. But these groups and social media platforms are up against thousands of posts containing disinformation each day, including in private chat groups that can’t be monitored.

Last month, Facebook said it had removed for rules violations 118 fan pages, 99 groups and 51 accounts, including an unofficial fan page for Han called “Kaohsiung Fan Group” that had more than 150,000 members.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson said, “Over the last three years, we have dedicated unprecedented resources to fighting malicious activity on our platform and, in particular, to protecting the integrity of elections on Facebook–including this week’s election in Taiwan. Our approach includes removing fake accounts, reducing the spread of misinformation, bringing transparency to political advertising, disrupting information operations and working with Taiwan’s Central Election Commission to promote civic engagement. We have teams of experts dedicated to protecting Taiwan’s election, and we look forward to ensuring that Facebook can play a positive role in the democratic process.”

The pervasiveness of fake news

Efforts to combat fake news often results in more disinformation spread by people who believe their views have been unfairly targeted. According to the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), by the time the Kaohsiung Fan Group was removed, it had 109 admins and moderators, a number the SIO said was “unusually high compared to the average admin and moderator counts for Taiwanese political groups of either affiliation (pro-Han Kuo-yu groups averaged 27, and pro-Tsai Ing-wen Groups, 10).” Furthermore, several moderators had “suspicious” profiles, including zero or one friend, profile photos that were not of people and “minimal human engagement” on their posts.

But despite that evidence, the SIO also noted that the mass removal “prompted conspiratorial theories about why they were taken down in the first place,” with posts in other pro-KMT groups speculating that it had been done in coordination with the DPP.

An illustration of how sticky fake news can be once it takes root is disinformation about the validity of Tsai’s PhD from the London School of Economics, which continue to circulate through Taiwan even though the university issued a statement confirming the degree.

As in other countries, disinformation in Taiwan also highlight and widen existing political social and cultural rifts. In the United States, for example, fake news campaigns by Russian agents capitalize on already highly polarizing issues, including race, immigration and gun control.

In Taiwan, the specific issues may be different, but the objective is the same. As Su wrote in the Los Angeles Times, many posts “try to stir emotions on hot-button issues–for example, false claims that Tsai’s government has misused pension funds to lure Korean and Japanese tourists to make up for a drop in visitors from the mainland, and that organizers of Taiwan’s annual gay-rights parade received stipends to invite overseas partners to march with them.”

Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage last year, despite aggressive efforts by conservative groups to stop it. Before it was passed, CoFacts documented viral posts that linked same-sex marriage with the spread of of HIV. Creators of fake news continue to take advantage of the issue by spreading homophobic disinformation, including claims that the DPP spent NT$30 million (about $980,000) to organize Taipei’s Pride Parade, even though the event is funded by its organizers and does not receive sponsorship from political parties.

Disinformation is difficult to combat, and the use of online platforms to spread it is rapidly emerging as one of this century’s most serious problems. But online tools, observers and fact-checkers, more vigilance by social media platforms and understanding the social and cultural issues exploited by disinformation can also be used to fight it. Taiwan’s rampant fake news and disinformation problem has reached the point of crisis, but it may also reveal which solutions are most effective at combating it around the world.