In October, the director of the National Security Bureau — Taiwan’s intelligence agency — warned the public against China’s possible interference in Taiwan’s elections set to be held on January 13, 2024. China might conduct and release opinion polls using local companies in Taiwan, the director said. In mid-December, a Taiwanese man was arrested for allegedly fabricating eight public opinion polls at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party in Fujian.

Dispatch from Taiwan,” a podcast by USIP and Taiwan-based Ghost Island Media, delves into the policy debates within Taiwan that could have implications for the region and beyond. Each episode features Taiwanese local experts and voices weighing in on social, economic and defense issues and discusses how Taiwanese society is responding to these challenges. 

When it comes to election interference from China and disinformation in general, Taiwan faces serious challenges. In a 2023 survey by Taiwan FactCheck Center, 83 percent of respondents said they had received misinformation in the previous year. Taiwan FactCheck Center is a civic society group whose chatbot on social media service LINE allows users to check for disinformation or misinformation against a database that is updated by its team of fact checkers. Similar digital tools include CoFacts and MyGoPen.

This episode tackles the spread of disinformation in Taiwan, the role of China and how civic society has stepped in to shore up digital resilience. The conversation includes expert views from Ming-shuan Wu from DoubleThink Lab, Eve Chiu from Taiwan FactCheck Center, and Alberto Fittarelli and Citizen Lab.

Transcript

Narrator: You know that game Two Truths and a Lie? You tell a group three stories -- two truths and one lie -- and the group needs to catch your lie. Now, people will for the most part share basic facts about themselves. I’ve never been to the UK. I’m allergic to cats. And I definitely don’t produce podcasts.

Did you catch my two truths and a lie?

All these facts are usually straightforward and easy to figure out. And the lies -- they’re silly and harmless. But what happens when the game involves not a person but a country like Taiwan, and the source of that lie - it’s its political rival, China?

Three months ago, as Taiwan was gearing up for the January elections, the director of the National Security Bureau warned the public against China’s possible interference. China might conduct and release opinion polls using local companies in Taiwan, he said. By mid-December, a Taiwanese surnamed Lin had been arrested for fabricating a total of eight polls at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party in Fujian, across the Taiwan Strait.

When it comes to election interference from China and disinformation in general, Taiwan faces a more serious problem than most other countries, says Wu Ming-shuan, co-founder and CEO of DoubleThink Lab, a Taiwanese non-profit that studies disinformation as well as various forms of China influence in the world.

Wu Ming-shuan: I think Taiwan is a more serious problem than the other people, because most of the country in the world, they don't have a party that [is] looking for close ties or more cooperation or eventually unify with China, or another country, right?

Narrator: He’s referring to the fact that one of the biggest differences between political parties and candidates here comes down to relations with China. But add to that mix, influence operations from China - it can be hard to tell what’s what. Wu Ming-shuan: The people we are fighting or against, or you know, having this debate is within our society, and we are a free society and a democratic society. Of course, they can believe what they believe. So it makes the scene very hard.

Narrator: Today, we tackle disinformation in Taiwan -- where it comes from, how, and why so much of it has spread. We look at China’s role in Taiwan’s disinformation problem, and how civic society has stepped up to begin its own efforts at fact checking in order to shore up digital resilience.

This is “Dispatch from Taiwan”, a podcast series where we take a deep dive into debates that influence Taiwan’s policies that can shape the region. My name is Emily Y. Wu, and I’m your host. Welcome to episode two.

Learning to distinguish between truths and lies is an essential skill for Taiwanese citizens navigating the news and information landscape. Between mainstream and social media, there is plenty of challenging political material with which to play two truths and a lie. During this election season, the issue of war and peace has been a common trope. It plays on the fear among voters that a war could be just around the corner.

Taiwan FactCheck Center is one of the many civil society groups whose mission is to fact check - one piece of information at a time. Its CEO, Eve Chiu, explains:

Eve Chiu: War and peace. Which party, which candidates, you're going to vote [for]. If you vote [for] somebody, you will get war. So don't vote [for] them if you want peace. That's the main story of that kind of disinformation rumor. And they will use a very terrible video or very terrible photo about war to make people feel fear and emotional.

Narrator: This fear can be drawn from any trigger point even if it’s unrelated to Taiwan. In October at the onset of the recent Israel-Hamas war, a photo of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son made the rounds on social media here. The photo says, Netanyahu is sending his son to the battlefields.

Eve Chiu: But the narrative [says], "Oh, Israel's Prime Minister has to send his son to the war. If your country is facing a war, you have to send your son. Do you want anyone to send your son or your children to war?"

Narrator: The thing is, this photo is old. It’s from 2014 when Avner Netanyahu was off to his compulsory military training. But the photo was being reused in 2023.

Eve Chiu: So they re-context the photo or video and put the name under the Israel-Hamas War recently, and during the Ukraine and Russia war also, to try to trigger the fear of Taiwanese people to [feel] scary about war, and to try to do everything to prevent from the war. The narrative is about, if you vote [for] some party or some candidate, you will have war.

Narrator: It’s in China’s interest to get the fake news out. It helps China shore up its unification narrative so that it might have a chance to take Taiwan without firing a shot.

Wu Ming-shuan: In Taiwan, since we [speak] Mandarin like in China - and also we are their number one target for their grand strategy to dominate the world - Taiwan, of course, received a tremendous amount of the disinformation that could attribute in different degree but it could attribute to a Chinese source.

Narrator: That’s Wu Ming-shuan from DoubleThink Lab. He explains one of the many tropes in China’s arsenal is to dismiss, or to diminish Taiwan as being inconsequential.

Wu Ming-shuan: They want Taiwanese people [to] believe that you are small, you are powerless, you are isolated. All these Western ally or other country, they don't care about you, they wouldn't help you at all. All they want is only interest like a semiconductor. In Taiwan, they don't actually care about your life. So there's no way you can stand against [the] great, powerful China. So the best choice you have is [to] shut up, or surrender, or just give whatever they want. They've been [telling] us that for maybe seven decades, that's their narrative repeatedly and repeatedly.

Narrator: Wu is referring to the perception that Taiwan is thought of as a small place, hence, lacking relevance and is without its own agency. But with a population of 23.5 million - roughly the same as Australia -- Taiwan actually has the 57th largest population in the world. Economy wise, it makes almost 90% of the world’s advanced chips. And in 2023, Taiwan had the 21st highest GDP in the world.

Well, geographically, it is small, especially compared to China. Wu Ming-shuan says this is a narrative shared by at least one other country in Europe that has its own giant neighbor next door.

Wu Ming-shuan: When I went to Kyiv, I also found that it is the same narrative, how Russia speaks to Ukraine, [saying] they are [a] small country. But then Ukraine compared to Taiwan, I was like, “No, they are not small at all.” They are like eight times bigger land, and also they have a double size of the population of Taiwan. But they deeply believe that. They believe they are small, they are powerless, right? So this is the way that they try to influence your society and try to make your society [lose] the will or power, to resist, or fight for your own freedom and democracy.

Narrator: Another common narrative tries to wedge between Taiwan and its closest western partner -- the United States. It’s the belief that U.S. isn’t to be trusted and won’t actually come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion, so Taiwan should scale back its relationship with the U.S. This belief has a name -- U.S. skepticism.

The narrative positions Taiwan as a pawn to the U.S. that is only helpful as long as it serves U.S. foreign policy interests – and thus, Taiwan can be discarded at will. As proof for that, skeptics point to Washington’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan in 2021 as well as Taiwan’s ongoing diplomatic isolation. About half a year ago.

Wu Ming-shuan: A politician in the U.S. very randomly, he made this comment saying that the U.S. would rather bomb TSMC.

Narrator: In May 2023, comments made by U.S. Congressman Seth Moulton became a convenient tool for disinformation agents. In a clip that went viral, Moulton seemed to have suggested blowing up TSMC, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, in the event of a Chinese invasion. Moulton later said this clip was, well, clipped. He says, “The CCP has once again tried to divide the U.S. and Taiwan using disinformation by deliberately taking a comment of mine out of context.”

Wu Ming-shuan: And ever since that this conspiracy of U.S. government actually have a secret plan to hollow Taiwan, and bought TSMC out of Taiwan, and with those established of the U.S. and the western country, is a perfect match because it's kind of, like a poof that U.S. never wanted to protect Taiwan, they only want our semiconductor.

Narrator: The conspiracy had begun a year prior to the Moulton’s clip. In May 2022 when TSCM first announced its plans to open fabs in Arizona, that conspiracy went something like this: the U.S. wanted to steal Taiwan’s semiconductor industry so they could dump Taiwan. It claims that Taiwan and TSMC were being played.

And so with Congressman Seth Moulton’s soundbite…

Wu Ming-shuan: All this conspiracy checks out. And they are so excited because they feel like, “Wow, we finally found the evidence,” even though that factory is not for the most advanced semiconductor, and all the other semiconductor factories [are] still going on here. They are so deep inside their own universe, and to reinforce what they believe. Now, we don't have any mechanism to go to those groups and to try to influence those people, or try to tell them something otherwise. I think this is a big societal problem that we need to deal with.

Narrator: DoubleThink Lab, in their report on Chinese information operations during Taiwan's 2020 presidential election, concluded then that the operations against Taiwan were most harmful when done offline - through the help of proxy actors who willingly amplify the messages; and online - through websites, forums, and social media. It also noted that these aren’t limited just to elections. They are all the time.

Taiwan FactCheck Center’s Chiu points to the different social media platforms that her group monitors. In particular, the global giant Facebook, the local app of choice LINE, and the domestic popular online forum, PTT. Sometimes items presented in the mainstream media as “Breaking News” or “Exclusives” were actually taken from social media. In some cases, PTT has been a source of falsified government documents.

This one about an alleged agreement between the country Paraguay and Taiwan’s Vice President, William Lai, who’s also a presidential candidate.

Eve Chiu: He [visited] [the] U.S. and also Paraguay, and during his visit abroad, there is a document [that] appeared on PTT. The document says William Lai signed a contract with [the] Paraguay government to give a big number of money for social housing of Paraguay.

And why is social housing? [It] is very interesting, because at that time, Taiwan had a domestic debate about social housing. Different [parties] blamed others [for not] do very well on social housing. Very interesting. So the rumor, the fake document is about social housing.

Narrator: The fact checkers began their work. And they discovered faked documents created to discredit the current administration of Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen in general, and her vice president William Lai in particular.

Eve Chiu: We found that, the very similar, almost the same document on the Paraguay government website. It’s signed by Tsai Ing-wen, President Tsai Ing-wen and Paraguay government in 2018. Almost the same. Except the name, and the date, and [the] number of money. Almost the same. Even the location of the stamp, even the signature - right hand signature is the same. This has been [remade] that document. And it's very sophisticated way to do this fake documents and post it on PTT.

Narrator: Last year, 83% of respondents said in a survey that they had received misinformation in the previous year. More than a third said this occurred on a daily basis.

Did you catch my narration earlier when I said disinformation found on social media can be carried by mainstream media? Rewind…

“Sometimes, item presented on mainstream media as 'Breaking News' or 'Exclusives' were actually taken from social media.”

So how did Taiwan (accidentally) make room for disinformation in its mainstream media?

The widespread presence of disinformation here can be startling because Taiwan prides itself on having a high level of civic awareness, which among other things, measures a society’s ability to spot and debunk fake news. Yet, in spite of this, its citizens and its media have repeatedly fallen for, and spread, false socio-political and economic narratives which experts and fact checkers eventually debunk – but not before the story gains traction.

Part of this can be explained by the backstory of Taiwan’s press.

From the 1950’s until the 1990s, Taiwan’s media was tightly controlled by the government. And it wasn’t until censorship ended then that the media industry mushroomed -– so much so that 5,000 newspapers and multiple 24-hour TV news channels were newly established for the consumption of less than 22 million people. That meant a race for eyeballs, ratings, sales. It became so competitive that some news editors became more willing to do what it took to get a story. And this free-for-all media atmosphere gave room for disinformation and misinformation to thrive.

Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang admitted that getting the public to tell the difference between misinformation and public debate is a challenge, because Taiwanese older citizens grew up on a diet of propaganda arising from decades under martial law. As a result, Taiwan relies on civil society to call out a piece of information which might have gone viral. Tang says the relevant ministries are then called upon to debunk rumors with a counter-narrative as soon as they come up. Most are able to do so within an hour after a rumor begins to spread.

But this task is not always as easy as Tang makes it, particularly as elections draw near.

In the run-up to the vote, the Taiwan FactCheck Center reported a jump in volume of warnings of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and points out that some of the disinformation was spread by mainstream media itself.

Last year, one of the oldest newspapers in Taiwan claimed that Taiwan was helping the U.S. build bioweapons against China. It cited what it said was an internal government document, which was later debunked as fake. The newspaper later apologized and withdrew the article.

So how do you tell if these might be disinformation campaigns from China?

Here’s Wu Ming-shuan from DoubleThink Lab.

Wu Ming-shuan: So the way we are seeing [is] that, whether some tropes or narrative can attribute back to China or Chinese state media is that, we are looking at that, whether they have a coordination echoing or amplifying those narrative, at a very, very short amount of time. They want to create this, like a huge volume, at a very small time [in] our online space. Those algorithms from different platforms, they will falsely believe those content or those topics are popular. They will help them to spread and amplify more. This is the core of their operation.

Narrator: The lab then looks at whether a certain topic is picked up quickly by Chinese state media, or vice versa.

One common tactic is the amplification of fear that already exists within the society. Let’s take food safety as an example. In 2021, Taiwan lifted a ban on the import of pork products coming from pigs which had been fed with ractopamine, an additive that makes pork leaner. While ractopamine pork is considered safe for humans to consume, it’s banned in many countries, including in the European Union and China.

Wu Ming-shuan: For instance like food security, how U.S., how Japan, they are selling us those pork or, you know, foods that is contained by chemical poison or radiated foods. And by amplifying that, they try to create this image [that] our current government is working with those countries, have evil scheme [to] try to undermine Taiwanese health, [and] to give those country what they want, right? So this is the kind of the main topic they are talking about.

Narrator: That disinformation thrives in a society like Taiwan where levels of civic awareness are high, comes as no surprise to Fittarelli, who says it’s all about human nature. Alberto Fittarelli is a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

Alberto Fittarelli: If you have a specific political opinion, a disinformation actor will try to play with your emotions and with your rationality, clearly. Right? So it will try to show you something that triggers your emotions, and that's kind of the lesser brain that we all have. Before thinking, we are already spreading it sometimes, right? So slowing down. And that goes with social media, but also with traditional media sometimes. So mainstream news, for example. That helps slowing down thinking, applying critical thinking when possible.

And asking the question, is what I am looking at an attempt to manipulate me, or is it legitimate political opinion? What do we actually think about it? Right? How would that answer change the way I think about what I'm looking at?

So typically, what happens even in [the] highly educated? There was actually a study by the Turing Institute in the U.K., about how social, educational segment within the audience doesn't affect the ability, or less ability, to believe in misinformation and disinformation that much. Right? It doesn't give additional tools. Because this information typically affects emotions, and emotions don't even touch the educational level. Right?

We all have emotions, we have feelings, and that's what disinformation will have to try and trigger, because that completely bypasses your brain, essentially. It goes straight into your heart, so to speak, right?

Narrator: Everyone knows disinformation is a problem in Taiwan, and that it doesn’t just have the potential to disrupt social order, it’s already doing that. So why hasn’t the government done anything about it?

Because it couldn’t.

In 2022 the executive branch of government tabled a Digital Intermediary Service Act, which was meant to push accountability for disinformation onto the social media platforms themselves. It could also give government agencies the power to moderate content – so they could take down content which they knew to be false. And while the Act was seen as the government’s way of dealing with disinformation – it also triggered memories of the censorship Taiwan experienced for decades through martial law and until the 1990s.

Wu Ming-shuan: We don't want to silence them, and we don't want to censor them, and we certainly don't want to give our government more power to censor people. How you maintain your freedom of expression and your democratic system, while you are against those foreign interference. So this is very difficult.

Narrator: So society pushed back and the bill was shelved, but civil society wasn’t ready to give up. It stepped up.

Today, Taiwan is home to multiple fact checking groups like Chiu’s Taiwan FactCheck Center, which combs through social media sites in search of specific types of disinformation.

Eve Chiu: We have a digital tool to do the monitoring, like a filter, then we know, we [have] got actually, we [have] got 70,000 users on LINE, also [on] other chatbots. We collect those claims, then we analyze them by numbers. If the number of sharing is higher, we will trigger our debunking. And the three criteria -- is it related to public interest? The second, is it spread widely? And the third, is it harmful or malicious to individuals or society?

Narrator: So, collect, analyze, debunk, feedback, and constantly be asking, is it related to public interest. Does it spread quickly. Is it malicious. Got it. And what does that look like for the internet user like you and me, when you’ve come across a fishy message?

Let’s go on LINE, Taiwan’s go-to private and group messaging app.

One. Add a fact checking bot as your friend.

Two. Copy and paste the fishy message to the chat bot.

Three. Receive an instantaneous fact check result from the database.

Four. Share this finding with your network.

Pretty cool huh.

It’s so easy to use that it’s the official recommendations from the Central Election Committee against disinformation.

Taiwan FactCheck Center isn’t the only tech-enabled defense tool. Groups like MyGoPen and CoFacts have similar chatbots. MyGoPen, which sounds like the Taiwanese phrase for “Don’t Fool Me Again”, has the financial support of Facebook and Yahoo. CoFacts was born out of a hackathon as an open-source, citizen-driven, collaborative fact-checking platform. Since its founding in 2016, its source code has been replicated and adopted in other countries, like in Thailand.

Unfortunately, no matter how efficient the fact checkers are, they are playing a game of catch up against a disinformation machine which Taiwan FactCheck Center’s Chiu admits has become more sophisticated thanks to artificial intelligence.

Eve Chiu: The AI made the content, if it’s video or photo we can still tell from the authentic one. There are some tips, and there are some digital tools already made by Taiwanese scientists, computer scientists. Then they share those tools with us, and try us to use it and to give them feedback. So we already use some - [it’s] not so mature, but it’s usable. But the soundbite is more difficult.

Narrator: Chiu is also concerned that AI will be used in the closing stages of the campaign to influence voters. And if it happened, how quickly can fact checkers like her group act to debunk the fabricated audio, photos, videos. And what if the speed of the spread is disproportionate to the time it takes to fact check, document, and debunk.

Eve Chiu: The day before the election or at the night before the election, if something improper or strange comes out, [it] won’t be possible to… I mean, maybe there is not enough time to do that. So we do. We do worry.

Narrator: It’s not all bad. DoubleThink Lab’s Wu doesn’t think AI will always come down on the side of disinformation. In fact, he believes there is an opportunity to turn the tide in truth’s favor.

Wu Ming-shuan: There is also surprise and the good news inside generative AI.

Last year when generative AI like Midjourney for image and also ChatGPT came up, we [were] so afraid that it will be used by our adversary to enlist like information warfare. But what we found is that, they definitely wanted to use that, but their first priority is to make those, their own generative AI, politically correct, which is very, very hard in the technology way.

Every time there's a Chinese version of a generative AI came up, Chinese netizens, citizens, they will flurry into their system and [ask] a lot of questions about politics, about whether you think Xi Jinping should step down, or what is Tiananmen Massacres. You know, those company they try very hard on how to censor those answers, and how to make sure their language model can produce the answer that always fits into [what] their government wants. And we know that is very difficult.

That [buys] our, you know, Western or democratic society more time ahead [of] them. Not to mention also, there's semiconductor it’s powered for those AI technologies, and now they are restricted for getting the most advanced chips. So that's also helping.

Narrator: So while Wu says there’s a gap at the moment between Chinese and western AI technology, he also says this is an opportunity to use AI in furthering the democratic dialogue.

So let’s get back to the game we were talking about at the start of the show: “two truths and a lie.” If fact checkers like Chiu tell us that their task of debunking fake news is Sisyphean, what hope do the rest of us have?

Before we roll over and give up, Chiu says distinguishing between facts and falsehoods can be made easier if we ourselves develop media literacy – the most important gadget in the toolkit against disinformation.

Eve Chiu: Just like COVID, if we say there's a pandemic or we say infodemic, information pandemic, it’s kind of sick, then if you have vaccine to prevent to be very sick, because you cannot prevent from disinformation forever, because they are everywhere, so you got to have immunity.

So you need to have the awareness. So that's why we need media literacy education. We have to let people know. Yeah, the behavior and this digital age, everyone needs to have awareness about -- do the checking of what you got. You don't believe it immediately. You have to be cautious and have the awareness of -- is it from our authentic resource? Or, is it from the resource I believe? Or, should I believe the source? And etc. We have to have that sense of it.

Narrator: This is especially relevant when voter opinion can be swayed by an outbreak of false information, like the one Taiwan witnessed in the closing days of the campaign.

A national alert was issued on Tuesday, January 9, just four days before the election, warning the public that China had launched a device which flew over Taiwan. It was a bilingual message. It read in English, “Alert. Air Raid Alert. Missile flyover Taiwan airspace. Be aware.” But that turned out to be a translation error. The Mandarin text correctly identified the flying object as a satellite. Less than an hour later, the Ministry of Defense apologized for its translation error.

It was the first time ever that an alert of this nature was issued.

In the end, Wu says it's important for voters who believe in democracy to stand for truth.

Wu Ming-shuan: The real problem here is when people lose the interest for facts. When people start to say that, who can decide what is true, [or] what is fake? Or, when people start to believe that there is disinformation from everywhere, right. So, so what?

Democracy cannot self exist without facts or without a healthy debate. That's exactly what our adversary wants [us] to believe. The reason that Russia or China they invest so much to disinformation and propaganda, is because fundamentally, they believe that people are easily to [be] manipulated. This is our duty and our job in a democratic society to prove they are wrong. To prove that the people are for us. We actually believe [in] those system and the facts, and also we will never lose our faith to make sure everybody gets those information.

Narrator: You’ve been listening to “Dispatch from Taiwan” from the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. and Ghost Island Media in Taipei, Taiwan. Thank you to all the guests who took their time to speak to us. We urge you to follow their work, and ours, on all of our websites and social media.

Views in the podcast do not reflect those of the United States Institute of Peace and Ghost Island Media.

Subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.


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