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Taiwan: The Frontline of the
Disinformation Wars
Shaken by a recent viral falsehood allegedly traced to
a Shanghai content farm,Taiwan’s online ecosystem is
repairing its democratic defense mechanisms.
By Nick Aspinwall

On September 5, when Typhoon Jebi throttled Japan and forced the
evacuation of Osaka’s flooded Kansai International Airport, a
separate storm of unsubstantiated social media rumors began
brewing in Taiwan.

In a post on the Professional Technology Temple (PTT), an online
Taiwanese forum similar to Reddit, a user claiming to be a
Taiwanese citizen awaiting evacuation said he had been rescued
by the Chinese government, which had sent 15 tour buses and
invited Taiwanese nationals onboard.

The post was quickly picked up by Taiwan’s Chinese-language
Apple Daily and Sanlih TV News. It was followed by a widely
circulated September 6 report by China’s state-run Xinhua news
agency, which said China had evacuated 32 Taiwanese citizens,
citing the Chinese consulate in Osaka. Another September 6 report
by China’s state-run Global Times, itself picked up by several
Taiwanese news outlets, claimed that Taiwanese tourists boarding
the buses were told they could only board if they identified
themselves as Chinese.
Taken at face value, the deluge of news items collectively exhibited
Taiwan’s failure to assist its citizens during a time of crisis, leaving
them at the mercy of Chinese goodwill.
The problem: The rumors weren’t true. Government officials now
believe they were the work of state-sponsored Chinese actors
aiming to destabilize Taiwan.

Within two hours, other PTT users had refuted the original post
and traced it to an IP address registered in mainland China. The
post, according to PTT founder Ethan Du, was taken down that
same day. But false stories continued to spread throughout
Taiwanese social media and news outlets, even as doubts arose
when a Taiwanese tourist who had been stranded at Kansai
Airport said buses could not enter the flooded airport in the first
place.

On September 15, the nonprofit Taiwan Fact Checking Center (TFC)
debunked the story after contacting the airport, which said it had
turned down an offer from the Chinese government to send shuttle
buses.

Their report was released just one day after Su Chii-cherng, the
director-general of Taiwan’s Osaka representative office,
committed suicide. According to Japanese public broadcaster NHK,
Su left a note expressing that he was pained by the scathing public
criticism of his office, spurred by the cacophony of false reports,
for not doing enough to help its citizens.
What happened in Osaka, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang
said, was a situation “where people collectively look back and start
to think, maybe we rushed to conclusions. Maybe we should have
stopped and said: ‘Is it true or not?’”

Tang, who became Taiwan’s first digital minister in 2016, rolled out
the country’s pioneering vTaiwan digital platform for policy
deliberation and debate which, by encouraging participatory
behavior and open engagement with public officials, aims to help
eradicate the climate of fear and distrust in which rumors and
outright lies breed. Outside of government, Taiwan’s civic tech
community, g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”), has produced tools such
as Cofacts, a fact-checking social media chatbot, part of a culture of
innovation in Taiwan that has flourished under the shadow of its
neighbor, China.

However, the threat of state-sponsored disinformation, which
officials say is increasing as Taiwan’s November 24 local elections
approach, has led some top officials to discuss adopting a more
direct strategy. Shortly after the September Kansai incident, the
investigative bureau of Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice said it had
found “unequivocal evidence” that Beijing was responsible for
disinformation intended to divide Taiwanese society. The false
Kansai Airport post, said Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Deputy
Minister Chen Ming-chi, “originated from a content farm in
Shanghai.”
“Our laws should be amended in response to the threat” posed by
Chinese influence, said Chen, speaking at a conference held by the
government-funded Institute for National Security and Democracy
Research (INDSR) think tank on October 9. “Our laws should be
able to prevent, prosecute, and punish any sabotage activities.”
Taiwan is now considering amending its National Security Act to
potentially criminalize the spread of false information online. Any
eventual implementation of such considerations – which would
require laws allowing the government to access citizen data –
remains firmly within the realm of speculation.
However, free speech advocates have reacted with grave concern.
Legislative approaches like those proposed by Taiwan “inevitably
end up becoming mechanisms for silencing dissent,” Ethan
Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, told The
Diplomat at g0v’s October biennial summit.
Taiwan is no stranger to propaganda: Throughout its long cross-
strait détente with China, both the Republic of China (Taiwan) and
People’s Republic of China have blasted messages loud and soft at
each other. The digital disinformation threat Taiwan now faces,
however, is as new to the young democracy as it is to the rest of the
world.

Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang.

Audrey Tang, Pixabay

When The Diplomat spoke with Tang in her office in Taiwan’s
Executive Yuan, or cabinet, she had just attended a workshop held
by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy at which Taiwan’s
democratic defenses against disinformation received international
praise. Taiwanese civil society takes immense pride in its
democracy, but a question now lingers of whether its transparency
serves as a strength, or as an Achilles heel.

For Tang, openness is a natural defense against disinformation. She
personally abides by a philosophy of “radical transparency,”
sharing written transcripts of everything from internal Cabinet
meetings to interactions with lobbyists and journalists (including
her interview with The Diplomat). This, she says, snuffs out rumors
about her before they can spread. “If you have a good friend who
you are meeting every week, if you hear gossip about that friend,
of course you will ask” about it, she said. “But if that friend takes
three months to get back to you… then of course there’s a lot of
room for speculation.”
A longtime civic tech pioneer and hacker, Tang, 37, has gained
notoriety for engaging online critics who post inflammatory
messages – a practice she calls “troll hugging.” She said that, in her
view, most faulty online information is spread by aggrieved
netizens “who don’t get sufficient social interaction, like hugs or
kisses, offline.”

Tang distinguishes misinformation, consisting of individual
speculation from frustrated internet trolls along with misguided
journalistic reports, from disinformation, which she said consists
of “organized and intentional” campaigns “ignoring context and
basically sowing discord, fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” In Taiwan,
both can be described by the Mandarin term jia xinwen, or “fake
news,” a term Tang refuses to use in either Mandarin or English.
The term also leads to an incorrect conflation between false
information with domestic origins, regardless of intentionality, and
organized foreign-sourced disinformation. Experts, such as Nick
Monaco of Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project,
agree that the overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s so-called jia
xinwen still comes from within the country.
Tang prescribes media literacy as an antidote to immunize the
populace against faulty information. Next year, new curricula will
be introduced to grades one, seven, and 10 that will teach children
to critically analyze news reports and advertisements. Tang hopes
this will “mold minds … [to] become less susceptible to the top-
down broadcast messaging era.”
She also spearheaded the Executive Yuan’s “Real-Time News
Clarification” website, which aggregates government responses to
information that may be false or dubious. Launched in May 2018,
the website has posted 834 clarifications as of October 22 and
generally provides public explanations within four to five hours of
a news release. “When people see speculation or rumors in the
morning news,” said Tang, “they get into the habit of waiting until
noon” for a government clarification.

Tang insists the cabinet clarification website is not a fact-checking
tool. Its role has received criticism from skeptics such as Lin Fu-
yueh, director of Public Affairs at Taiwan Media Watch, a press
freedom watchdog that, along with the Association for Quality
Journalism, supports the independent Taiwan Fact Checking
Center. Lin told me he worries that the website labels items as
misinformed when “the media or people disagree with the
government’s idea,” citing a recent item on a controversial coal-
fired power plant proposal.
Tang, however, stressed that the website exists for the government
to proactively provide its viewpoint. She does think the website can
at times confuse its respective responses to misinformation,
disinformation, and criminal offenses. To fix this, she said, it will
soon roll out a color-coded or tagged hierarchy to allow users to
sort by category. She also noted that opposition parties are, of
course, free to set up their own platforms.

“It’s great that [critics] can talk candidly,” she said, pulling up a
world map of press freedom by country on a projector and
pointing to Taiwan, alone in a sea of relatively unfree countries.
“We take pride in being the only green dot there.”
The line between disinformation and criminality, however, is now
at stake in Taiwan. Resulting legislation, if deemed to overreach,
could potentially threaten Taiwan’s green hue on the press
freedom map.
Prior to discussions of amending the National Security Act,
legislator Chiu Chih-wei of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party
(DPP) proposed an amendment to Article 63 of Taiwan’s Social
Order Maintenance Act, which would make the spread of false
information online punishable by fines or detentions of up to three
days. The idea was slammed by opposition legislators, netizens,
and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
While momentum for such an amendment has petered out, some
officials do insist that Taiwan use the “sword of the state,” as DPP
legislator Cheng Pao-ching put it when blasting the National
Communications Commission (NCC) for not using a law allowing it
to punish broadcasters who fail to verify facts and promote
fairness in news and commentary. At the October 4 hearing, NCC
chairwoman Nicole Chan responded to harsh attacks from
incensed fellow DPP legislators by saying free speech concerns had
led to that particular sword being kept in its sheath.

The following week, Chen, the MAC deputy minister, told an
audience of ministerial officials, foreign envoys, and private sector
defense representatives at the INDSR think tank conference – held
to discuss responses to Chinese cybersecurity and “sharp power”
threats – that Taiwan must embrace a punitive approach as it
“navigated in the troubled water” between free speech and
national sovereignty.

“Given Taiwan’s authoritarian past,” said Chen, “our civil society is
highly concerned if the government takes any action that might
constrain the freedom of the press.”

In June, Chinese journalist Ye Qinglin was barred from reporting in
Taiwan for spreading “false information through fake news” and
“creating cross-strait conflict,” according to a MAC statement made
prior to Chen’s appointment as deputy minister.

The decision, noted Chen, was widely criticized by Taiwanese press
freedom advocates. But he said that Taiwan cannot treat Chinese
media in the same manner as the United States; in September, the
U.S. forced Xinhua to register as a foreign agent. Cracking down
further on foreign peddlers of journalistic falsehoods, he said,
would require public support that does not currently exist.
“The political will is simply not there,” said Chen. “We would like to
see if the people become angrier with the media and give us some
space to take some action.”

Ma Ying-han, the head of the military’s cybersecurity command
unit, said at the conference that, as Taiwan responds to an
escalating Chinese campaign of cyberattacks and disinformation,
“there’s an ethical line that we will watch over and not cross.”

Taiwan, which endured decades of martial law under Chiang Kai-
shek and held its first democratic presidential election in 1996, is
understandably wary of approaching such a line. It is now
grappling with the question of when, exactly, false rumors and
outright online lies transition from protected speech into a matter
of national security.
Tang is promoting a digital communications bill, spawned from
participatory discussion on vTaiwan, which she said “links the
penal code that's regulating the existing, offline world and say[s]
these behaviors have their equivalence online.” The bill would thus
provide a framework to apply existing laws against social discord
(such as making harmful threats) to the online world. “Before, it
was kind of a grey area,” she said.

The law would also put into law a clear distinction between
misinformed yet legal online speech and criminality. If
disinformation leads to someone committing a criminal offense,
she said, “of course it will be a threat to national security.”
Potentially thorny questions as to which online speech should be
defined as criminal in nature would be sorted out by democratic
processes. “For any emergent issue, there should be a multi-
stakeholder conversation with civil society, the social sector, and
international actors” once the bill passes, said Tang. The bill is
scheduled to be debated and voted upon by Taiwan’s legislature
this autumn.

Wu Jun-deh, a researcher in INDSR’s division of cyber warfare and
information security, told me Taiwan needed quicker, more
effective methods to counter an improving Chinese cyber force.
In recent years, said Wu, meddling attempts would succumb to
rookie mistakes such as using simplified Chinese characters
(Taiwan uses traditional characters). He pointed to a May PTT post
falsely claiming an envoy from Honduras, one of Taiwan’s 17
remaining diplomatic allies, was visiting Beijing in anticipation of
switching its recognition to the PRC. The story, which was quickly
refuted, was sourced to a Chinese IP address after observers
noticed its use of a term for “Honduras” used in China but not in
Taiwan, he said.

Wu did stress that sourcing information was difficult – echoing
Tang, who noted that IP addresses, which are incredibly easy to
spoof, cannot be relied upon. The Honduras PTT post, however,
was identified by an anonymous national security official as being
linked to a Chinese state-sponsored disinformation mill with ties to
a task force responsible for spreading false information within
Taiwan.
In his remarks at the INDSR conference, Ma said the so-called 50
Cent Party – the infamous, shadowy group of Chinese internet
commentators that allegedly publishes articles and forum posts on
behalf of the Chinese government – is expanding its campaign of
automated disinformation. However, much like Russian meddling
in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the exact scope and intent of
such organized, bot-driven disinformation campaigns remains
unclear.

As analysts continue to try and quantify the threat, Lin of Taiwan
Media Watch firmly believes that politicians in the ruling DPP
should not be involved in regulating speech. “They worry about the
security of our nation. They worry about [remaining] the ruling
party of Taiwan now,” he said. “We want to send a message to
government: Don’t do this. This will be very bad for free speech.”
Huang Chao-hui points to Taiwan on a map illustrating Reporters Without Border’s 2018 free
press rankings.

Nick Aspinwall

Lin, while not a fact-checker himself, is a regular presence at TFC’s
humble offices. Tucked into a small third-floor walkup in the
outskirts of Taipei, the center began operating in August, bringing
on veteran journalist Huang Chao-hui to serve as chief editor
overseeing a small four-person team of fact-checkers. Nobody at
TFC, just a few weeks into its existence, expected a disinformation
whopper on the level of Kansai.

The center quickly ran into financial issues during its response to
the false Kansai story, said Huang, who is also an assistant
professor at National Taiwan University’s journalism school. “We
didn’t have the money to hire an expert translator,” she said.
Eventually, she enlisted one of her Japanese-speaking students to
translate a list of seven questions which were sent to a fact-
checking center in Japan and forwarded to the Japanese
government.

TFC was initially hesitant to enter the post-Kansai social media
frenzy, holding out hope that Taiwanese news outlets would find
the truth. “We didn’t jump in immediately,” Huang told me. “We
were hoping the media would come up and do some clarification.
After three to four days, we realized nobody was doing that.”

Huang echoed a common refrain of Taiwanese reporters when she
said the country’s competitive media environment prioritizes
immediacy over accuracy, creating a fertile ground ripe for
exploitation by bad actors.

“The responsibility is still on the media to fact-check, even though
they have very limited time and energy,” she said. “After the Kansai
case, the truth was revealed, but nobody saw it. The fake news kept
spreading.”

Her team of fact-checkers has workshopped solutions that reach
beyond its limited scope – as of the time of writing, TFC has
published 24 fact-check reports in just under three months, with at
least three editors laying eyes on each item.
Huang vehemently opposes a legislative approach to resisting false
information, noting that TFC already faces pushback from some
reporters it fact-checks who, eager to maintain their own
relationships with politicians, recite incorrect or contradictory
information provided by public officials. Instead, Huang wants the
government to pressure social media companies to support media
accuracy, either via user experience (for example, clear
demarcations on Google search results indicating a story’s
accuracy) or through funding fact-checkers in news outlets.

Wu of INDSR believes this is the most prudent solution, arguing
that Big Tech must take “social responsibility” even at the expense
of profitability. Both Huang and Wu mentioned Germany’s NetzDG
law against internet hate speech, which requires social media
companies to remove offensive posts within 24 hours but has in
some cases driven more attention to the voices it attempted to
muzzle.
“You don’t want to silence people,” said MIT’s Zuckerman, “and
have them disappear and go underground to the dark web, to
places you can’t interact with them.”

“The tools to counter disinformation can be weaponized by bad
actors,” warned Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at
the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. In some
instances, he told me at October’s g0v summit, “trust in
government is such that government isn’t always the most credible
actor to respond. Sometimes, an independent actor is far more
credible.”

Johnson Liang (left), founder of Cofacts, explains the LINE fact-checking chatbot's functionality
at g0v Summit 2018.

g0v Summit 2018
One actor operating in this space in Taiwan is Cofacts, an open-
source chatbot that allows users of the popular private messaging
app LINE to submit links or messages for fact-checking by a team
of volunteer editors. According to a 2016 Nielsen survey, 91 percent
of Taiwanese aged 12 to 65 use LINE every week.

The app is also particularly attractive to disinformation merchants.
According to Tang, “they know these are closed channels” where
rumors can rapidly spread before appearing on open platforms
like Facebook. Cofacts, which originated from a 2016 g0v
hackathon, aims to penetrate the shadowy annals of LINE chat
groups which, like those of WhatsApp, are rife with scams and
falsehoods.

Editors respond to about 250 inquiries each week from over 45,000
LINE accounts that have downloaded the chatbot; real-time data
visualizations are publicly available online. Replies to popularly
submitted messages, said Cofacts founder Johnson Liang in an
open response to questions from The Diplomat, generally take one
to two days to turn around. The chatbot responds to about 70
percent of queries, according to Liang, and judges just over a third
of them to be false.

“In LINE chatrooms I am in, I would receive internet hoax[es] and
rumors from time to time,” said Liang. “Cofacts makes netizens like
me less stressed when faced with such hoax[es].”

As electoral politics have taken hold of Taiwan, Cofacts has fielded
numerous inquiries on various candidates featuring “persuasive
opinion and propaganda” as of late, said editor Billion Lee. Items
on LGBT issues are also frequently submitted – Taiwan is
scheduled to hold referendums on same-sex marriage and sexual
education in November – as are rumors on public health, said
Liang.
Cofacts, however, is not designed at present to counter an “internet
army” like China’s 50 Cent Party – nor can it insulate itself from
potential infiltration such as what plagued PTT, which suspended
new user applications after the Kansai Airport incident due to
what a system administrator called a “loose regulation process.”
“We are as vulnerable as PTT is, since we do allow all to become
editors,” said Liang. He hopes that, like PTT, Cofacts will be able to
employ “creative counter measures” to root out mis- and
disinformation players as it grows in scale.

At present, Cofacts stands as one of the creative, laudable civic
lines of defense rolled out by Taiwan against the threat of cross-
strait online falsehoods darting across the screens of Taiwan’s
social media-crazed population.

“The war of the 21st century,” said Huang of TFC, “is information.”
Taiwan is venturing into this present-day digital battlefield facing
the same hefty civic dilemmas as many of its democratic
counterparts. Its response may dictate whether it can be, as U.S.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby said in remarks at
the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, an “invaluable model” for
its Asia-Pacific neighbors.

The Author

Nick Aspinwall is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.