taipei, taiwan – While China flexed its muscles with large-scale military exercises off the coast of Taiwan last month, Billion Lee was busily countering an attack on her home online.
False stories claiming that the United States was preparing for war with China, that China was evacuating its citizens from Taiwan, or that Taiwan had lobbied millions for US house speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the island spread across popular social media. media platforms Facebook and LINE .
A fabricated photo of a People’s Liberation Army soldier watching a Taiwanese naval vessel through binoculars was circulated by Chinese state media Xinhua before being picked up and distributed by international media outlets such as the Financial Times and Deutsche Welle.
While government agencies rushed to clarify and urged citizens to ensure they don’t fall victim to information warfare by “enemy foreign forces,” much of the work fighting the false stories fell to amateur debunkers of fake news like Lee. , who co-founded fact-checking chatbot Cofacts in 2016 with the open-source g0v community.
“We have a saying: don’t ask, why isn’t anyone doing this? Because you are nobody. If no one has done this before, you’re the one who makes the determination,” Lee told Al Jazeera.
Cofacts will automatically respond to false or misleading messages distributed through the LINE messaging app with a source report. Fact checks are written and reviewed by a group of more than 2,000 volunteers, including educators, doctors, students, engineers and retirees – anyone who wants to become a fact checker can become one.
The idea is to make reliable information accessible to everyone, Lee said, including by empowering Taiwanese civil society to verify the facts rather than leaving the work to the government. Cofacts is just one of many Taiwanese civil society organizations that believe that the primary responsibility for combating disinformation lies with citizens.
“All of our civil society organizations have some sort of division of labor,” Puma Shen, director of DoubleThink Lab, a research group that focuses on Chinese influence campaigns in Taiwan and around the world, told Al Jazeera.
“Some focus on fact checks, others on workshops, and we focus on account activities.”
For Shen, Taiwan’s democratic values, including freedom of expression, are a critical part of the solution to state-sponsored disinformation.
“If you really want to convince the public, I think the government should tell the public, ‘Hey, we have a big problem with fake news and misinformation.’ But then let the nonprofits take over,” he said.
Disinformation campaigns, usually in the form of conspiracy theories, propaganda and fake news stories spread by content farms, bots and fake accounts, are considered “cognitive warfare tactics” by the Taiwanese government.
Many campaigns are specifically aimed at cultivating mistrust of the US – one of the island’s strongest diplomatic and military supporters, despite not officially recognizing Taipei – a tactic that may work given the waning confidence among Taiwanese that the US would come to their aid in the event of a war, Shen said.
In March, the Digital Society Project identified Taiwan as the No. 1 target for foreign governments for the dissemination of false information over the past nine years. According to a report from the National Bureau of Asian Research last year, Taiwan serves as a testing ground for Chinese information campaigns before they are carried out elsewhere, and is an important hub in the dissemination of information to regions such as Southeast Asia.
Information warfare is as old as the tensions between Beijing and Taipei, but the real-world consequences of the unchecked spread of disinformation in the 2018 incident served as a wake-up call for both the government and civil society.
That year, Su Chii-Cherng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan, died by suicide after Chinese media spread a fake story claiming he failed to help Taiwanese citizens escape during a typhoon there. Many also believe that Chinese propaganda and misinformation greatly influenced that year’s midterm election results in Taiwan.
Concerns over the spread of disinformation also increased that year as a result of a series of referendums on controversial topics, including nuclear energy and LGBTQ rights, which caused deep divisions in society.
“There were parents who kicked kids out, couples who broke up because they had different points of view. And then we started thinking about, what did we miss? We’ve been thinking about the filter bubble and how the algorithm puts us in an echo chamber,” Melody Hsieh, co-founder of Fakenews Cleaner, an NGO that leads media literacy workshops with Taiwanese citizens, told Al Jazeera.
The events of 2018 led to the launch of Fakenews Cleaner, among other anti-disinformation organizations. Since its inception, the group has gathered 160 volunteers and organized nearly 500 activities across Taiwan, from lectures in classrooms and nursing homes to public outreaches in parks and festivals.
The main target audience is Taiwanese aged 60 and over, a demographic considered particularly susceptible to health-related misinformation and phishing.
“Sometimes we give classes with the elderly and some of them get very angry and get up and say, ‘Why hasn’t the government done anything? They should have an organization to stop the content farm.” The older generation has lived through the White Terror,” Hsieh said, referring to the repression of civilians on the island during the era of military dictatorship prior to democratization in the 1990s.
“I’ll tell them if we make a law or… [government] organization, if different parties come to power they may be able to pressure you like the White Terror… We say the most important thing is to learn how to protect themselves.”
Attempts by the government to curb the spread of fake news have been highly unpopular because of Taiwan’s democratic values, but also because of its authoritarian past. One of the most common – and controversial – laws used today to punish individuals or groups for spreading false information, the Social Order Maintenance Act, is a remnant of martial law in Taiwan.
The government of Taiwan continues to introduce bills to increase control over information, most of which do not become law. In June, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission introduced the Digital Intermediary Services Act, which would establish obligations and provisions for certain platforms with large audiences and streamline the process of removing illegal content.
The proposed law has been hotly debated; a poll circulated on Facebook by Taiwan’s opposition party, the Kuomintang, found that a majority of people opposed the bill, which has since been shelved.
Still, many Taiwanese believe that the government has an important role to play in the information war, as long as it refrains from controlling content — especially given the staffing and funding constraints faced by wholly voluntary, not-for-profit organizations.
Some experts argue that the government should focus on improving media literacy education in schools, tackling phishing scams and improving data privacy.
As relations between the straits intensify, China’s information warfare tactics could outgrow the traditional unmasking or fact-checking methods used by the government and NGOs, said TH Schee, who has worked in Taiwan’s internet sector for 20 years.
Footage of Taiwanese soldiers throwing rocks at a Chinese civilian drone last month were real, but were circulated “not only to test our response, but also to create false information by editing video clips.” [and] in the online community” in an effort to create divisions and discredit the Taiwanese military, the Ministry of National Defense wrote in a statement.
“Information warfare has been all about disinformation for the past four years. But now you’re seeing real information with different interpretations that can cause harm or mistrust in your government,” Schee told Al Jazeera.
“That will continue to grow and grow, and I don’t think the government has yet found a way to deal with real information that causes harm.”
Schee said preventing the information war should be a society-wide effort that requires a preventive, rather than reactionary, approach. For non-governmental groups, that could mean working directly with journalists to create a better media environment, he said, while the government may need to take citizens’ privacy more seriously.
“Introducing stronger privacy and protecting the user from having their online behavior or data being manipulated or monetized would be a very good start,” he said. “This may not sound very direct, but it’s about protecting your citizens from the harm of disinformation without censoring the content.”