As China ramps up its fake news campaign, the Taiwanese are finding ways to fight back. They've formed unique alliances with their government and are working to restore public trust.
From COVID-19 to US top politician Nancy Pelosi's controversial visit, each major affair in Taiwan is another chance for China to flood the island with disinformation and reunification propaganda. But Taiwanese organizations are fighting to preserve their independence by setting the record straight.
In March, Taiwan made headlines when it once again topped the Digital Society Project's world ranking of countries receiving the most fake news online. The annual survey is based on data from the Swedish democracy research institute V-Dem.
Since the island began separating from the mainland in 1949, the latter has been refining its approaches to encourage reunification by capturing the Taiwanese imagination. What started with megaphones and songs has shifted to increasingly malicious conspiracy theories and fabricated rumors.
A threat Taiwan won't give in to
"This is fear-mongering to wear down Taiwanese people," Summer Chen, from the nongovernmental organization Taiwanese FactCheck Center (TFC), told DW. She is chief editor at TFC, one of many nonprofit initiatives fighting disinformation online. "China has tried to threaten us like this before," she said. One of the most worrying recent attempts were jokes about sexual violence against Taiwanese citizens on popular social media channels.
But neither Taiwan's government nor its people appear willing to give in to the threat. Elected on a platform of Taiwanese nationalism, President Tsai Ing-Wen's government has joined a unique alliance with nonprofit organizations to combat China's disinformation campaigns.
Strong democracy, low media trust
Freedom House, a partially US government-funded nonprofit promoting democratic rule, ranks Taiwan's democracy as the second freest in Asia, and equally as free as Germany's. China's efforts to influence Taiwanese media are one of the group's top concerns for Taiwan's "vibrant and competitive" democracy.
But while the country's democracy may be strong, trust in legacy media is quite low; Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Taiwan 43 out of 180 countries in its 2021 Press Freedom Index. Despite strict licensing regulations, China has infiltrated a number of print and broadcasting outlets to run China-friendly content and suppress criticism of the PRC.
To avoid Chinese propaganda, many Taiwanese users have shifted to social media and crowdfunded, open-source foundations, such as The Reporter, for news.
Teaching media literacy
However, users face new threats in the digital realm, ranging from microtargeting, data theft and slanted search algorithms, to fake information, cyberattacks and bots that drive specific narratives. When hidden among soft content, such as popular dance moves or lifestyle and beauty tips, disinformation is hard to spot and easy to share.
"This is a very serious issue," said Taiwan's National Security Director Chen Ming-tong in an article on DW's Simplified Chinese website explaining that trendy Chinese apps such as TikTok or Xiaohongshu, which is similar to Instagram, not only collect an excessive amount of user data but can also serve as a vector for "cognitive warfare."
To fortify younger generations against this, Taiwan's Ministry of Education incorporated media literacy into its latest teaching guidelines. These require schoolchildren ages 6 to 18 to learn how to "effectively use technology, information and media of all types."
The decision followed recommendations from the Taiwan Media Watch foundation, a nonprofit that works to uphold press freedom. The foundation also develops material for teachers to use in class.
Alarm over Chinese TikTok's popularity in Taiwan
Fact-checking, verification for chat apps
But as Taiwan has been shoring up its defenses on social media, China has been shifting its strategy to spreading rumors via private messenger apps.
LINE is arguably the most popular of such apps in Taiwan. In the runup to Taiwan's 2020 presidential election, apparent users in LINE chat groups perpetuated baseless claims against incumbent president Tsai Ing-Wen — such saying she had faked her PhD degree. The independent research center DoubleThink Lab traced at least half of the fake news in such chat groups back to China.
In response, Taiwanese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) worked with their government to create a verification tool for LINE. Based on code by CoFacts, an open-source volunteer initiative, LINE Factchecker is a chatbot that lets users submit suspect material. It provides quick evaluations and links to further information by verified sources.
The Taiwan FactCheck Center developed a comparable add-on with Facebook. Here, a backend tool alerts factcheckers at TFC and a similar NGO, MyGoPen, to viral and misleading posts on the platform. Once they determine that content is false, the user, and anyone the user has shared it with, receive an alert and details on the correct information.
Takeaways from COVID-19
To preserve public trust, NGOs like TFC are careful to keep their distance to the ministries they work with. "TFC essentially observes and audits the government for the public," Chen explained in a report by DoubleThink Lab on Taiwan's distinct response to disinformation. It makes a point of neither receiving state funds nor endorsing government policies.
But it can take more than transparent accounting to win over a wary public. Taiwan is applying positive lessons it learned from managing COVID-19, such as how greater accessibility leads to higher levels of public trust and compliance. A number of initiatives now leverage this, with fact-checking channels bearing endearing names like Aunt Meiyu, and volunteer-run services such as g0v (gov-zero) that explain policy decisions in simple and understandable terms.
Impact goes beyond Taiwan's borders
However, the outbreak of COVID-19 also taught Taiwan an unsettling lesson. In late 2020, researchers at DoubleThink Lab observed similar COVID-19-related disinformation and propaganda coming from China in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines — and even Romania, Slovakia, Russia and the UK. They concluded that Taiwan was a "testing ground" for online Chinese disinformation tactics, with the most successful campaigns being replicated in other countries after having demonstrated impact in Taiwan.
False information concerning Taiwan military affairs has also infiltrated global news. In early August, China's state outlet Xinhua News Agency supplied an image said to depict a Chinese soldier observing the Taiwanese navy on the Taiwan Strait.
The image circulated widely until senior photojournalists raised concerns. TFC investigated and found that a technician had combined several images to suggest that Chinese and Taiwanese Armed Forces were much closer than they truly were. Chen told DW it was the first instance of her organization uncovering fake images of the recent military tensions in global news. She fears it will not be the last.
Edited by: Cristina Burack
This article was corrected on August 29, 2022. Taiwan did not separate from the PRC in 1949. Instead, the Chinese Nationalist Party retreated to the island, and the PRC was established on Mainland China.