Taiwan’s amateur fact-checkers wage war on fake news from China

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Taiwanese civil society organizations are working to combat misinformation, rather than leaving the job to the government.

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Taipei, Taiwan – While China flexed its muscles with a large-scale military exercise off the coast of Taiwan last month, Billion Li was busy countering the attack on her home online.

False stories that the United States is preparing for war with China, that China is evacuating its citizens from Taiwan, or that Taiwan has paid millions to lobby for US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the island have circulated on the popular social networks Facebook and LINE. .

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A fake photo of a People’s Liberation Army soldier watching a Taiwanese naval ship through binoculars was circulated by Chinese state media Xinhua before being picked up and distributed by international outlets such as the Financial Times and Deutsche Welle.

While government agencies were quick to issue clarifications, urging civilians to take care not to fall victim to the “hostile foreign forces” information war, much of the work of combating false narratives fell on the shoulders of amateur fake news whistleblowers like Lee. who co-founded the fact-checking chatbot Cofacts in 2016 with the open source g0v community.

“We have a saying: don’t ask why nobody does it? Because you are nobody. If no one has done this before, you have to install something,” Lee told Al Jazeera.

Cofacts automatically responds to fake or misleading messages distributed on the LINE messaging app with a report from the source. The fact checker is written and reviewed by a team of over 2,000 volunteers, including teachers, doctors, students, engineers, and retirees—anyone who wants to be a fact checker can become one.

The idea, Li said, is to make reliable information available to everyone, in part by giving fact-checking powers to Taiwan’s civil society, rather than handing the job over to the government. Cofacts is just one of many Taiwanese civil society organizations that believe their citizens have the primary responsibility for fighting disinformation.

“All of our civil society groups 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 of them focus on fact checking, some focus on workshops, and we focus on account activities.”

For Shen, Taiwan’s democratic values, including freedom of speech, are an important part of the solution to the problem of state-sponsored disinformation.

“If you really want to convince the public, I think the best way is to tell the government, ‘Hey, we have a huge problem with fake news and misinformation.’ But then let non-profit organizations do it,” he said.

Disinformation campaigns, usually in the form of conspiracy theories, propaganda, and fake news spread by content farms, bots, and fake accounts, are viewed as “cognitive warfare tactics” by the Taiwanese government.

Many of the campaigns are specifically aimed at encouraging distrust of the US, which is one of the island’s strongest diplomatic and military backers despite not officially recognizing Taipei. war, Shen said.

In March, the Digital Society Project named Taiwan as the No. 1 target for foreign governments for spreading misinformation over the past nine years. Taiwan is acting as a testing ground for China’s information campaigns before they are carried out elsewhere, and is an important hub in the dissemination of information to regions such as Southeast Asia, according to a report prepared by the National Bureau of Asian Research last year.

The information war is as old as tensions between Beijing and Taipei on both sides of the strait, but the real consequences of the uncontrolled spread of disinformation in the 2018 incident sent a wake-up call to both the government and civil society.

That same year, Su Chii-Cherng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan, committed suicide after Chinese media circulated a fake story claiming that he had not helped Taiwanese citizens escape during a typhoon. Many also believe that Chinese propaganda and misinformation heavily influenced Taiwan’s interim election results that year.

Concerns about the spread of disinformation also intensified that year with a series of referendums on controversial topics including nuclear power and LGBTQ rights that created deep divisions in society.

Fakenews Cleaner runs media literacy workshops aimed at warning Taiwanese about the dangers of disinformation. [Courtesy of Fakenews Cleaner]

“There were parents who kicked out children, couples broke up because they have different points of view. And then we started thinking about what we missed? We thought about the filter bubble and how the algorithm puts us in an echo chamber,” Melody Hsi, co-founder of Fakenews Cleaner, an NGO that conducts media literacy workshops with Taiwanese citizens, told Al Jazeera.

The events of 2018 spurred the launch of Fakenews Cleaner among other anti-disinformation organizations. Since its inception, the group has gathered 160 volunteers and held nearly 500 events across Taiwan, from lectures in classrooms and nursing homes to community outreach in parks and festivals.

Its primary audience is Taiwanese aged 60 and over, a demographic considered particularly susceptible to health-related misinformation and phishing scams.

“Sometimes we have classes with elders and some get very angry and stand up and say, ‘Why didn’t the government do anything? They need to have an organization to stop the content farm.” The older generation went through white terror,” Xie said, referring to the repression of civilians on the island during the era of military dictatorship before democratization in the 1990s.

“I tell them if we make a law or [government] organizations, if different parties come to power, maybe they will be able to put pressure on you in the same way as white terror… We say that the most important thing is to learn how to defend yourself.”

The government’s attempts to stop the spread of fake news have been highly unpopular due to Taiwan’s democratic values ​​as well as its authoritarian past. One of the most widespread and controversial laws used today to punish individuals or groups for spreading false information, the Public Order Law, is a holdover from Taiwan’s martial law period.

The Taiwanese government continues to introduce bills aimed at strengthening control over information, but most of them never became law. In June, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission introduced the Digital Intermediation Services Law, which will establish obligations and regulations for certain platforms with large audiences and make it easier to remove illegal content.

The proposed law was heatedly debated; one poll circulated on Facebook by Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang party found that most people oppose the bill, which has since been suspended.

fake news taiwan
Fakenews Cleaner organizes lectures to help Taiwanese identify disinformation that is primarily aimed at senior citizens. [Courtesy of Fakenews Cleaner]

However, many Taiwanese believe that the government plays an important role in the information war if it refrains from controlling content, especially given the staffing and financial constraints faced by all-volunteer non-profit organizations.

Some experts argue that the government should focus on improving media literacy in schools, fighting phishing and improving data privacy.

As cross-strait relations intensify, China’s information warfare tactics may outgrow the traditional methods of debunking or fact-checking used by the government and non-governmental organizations, said T. H. Shi, who has worked in Taiwan’s Internet sector for 20 years.

Footage of Taiwanese soldiers throwing rocks at a Chinese civilian drone last month was real, but was circulated “not only to test our answer, but to create false information by editing video clips.” [and] distributing them to the online community” in an attempt to create discord and discredit the Taiwanese military, the National Defense Ministry said in a statement.

“In the past four years, the information war has been reduced to disinformation. But now you are seeing real information with different interpretations that can cause harm or cause distrust in your government,” Shi said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

“It will grow and grow and I don’t think the government has yet figured out a way to deal with real information that causes harm.”

Shi said that getting ahead of the information war should be an effort by the whole society, using a preventive rather than a reactionary approach. For non-governmental groups, he said, this could mean working directly with journalists to create a better environment for the media, while the government might have to take civilian privacy more seriously.

“Introducing stronger privacy and protecting the user from manipulation or monetization of their online behavior or data would be a very good start,” he said. “This may not sound so straightforward, but it is about protecting your citizens from the harm of disinformation without censoring content.”

Credit: www.aljazeera.com /

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