Can Taiwan continue to fight Chinese disinformation?

Can Taiwan continue to fight Chinese disinformation?

Suspicious videos that began circulating in Taiwan this month appeared to show the country’s leader advertising cryptocurrency investments.

President Tsai Ing-wen, who has repeatedly risked Beijing’s wrath by asserting her island’s autonomy, appeared to claim in the clips that the government helped develop investment software for digital currencies, in using a term common in China but rarely used in Taiwan. His mouth appeared blurred and his voice unfamiliar, leading Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau to consider the video almost certainly a deepfake – an artificially generated parody – and potentially created by Chinese agents.

For years, China has bludgeoned Taiwan’s information ecosystem with inaccurate narratives and conspiracy theories, seeking to undermine its democracy and divide its people in an effort to assert control over its neighbor. Now, as fears about Beijing’s growing aggression mount, a new wave of disinformation is heading across the strait separating Taiwan from the mainland ahead of crucial elections in January.

But perhaps as much as any other place, the small island is ready to face the onslaught of misinformation.

Taiwan built resilience against foreign interference that could serve as a model for the dozens of other democracies voting in 2024. Its defenses include one of the world’s most mature communities of fact-checkers, government investments, international education partnerships media and, after years of warnings about Chinese intrusion, a sense of public skepticism.

The challenge now is to maintain the effort.

“This is the main battleground: fear, uncertainty and doubt are designed to keep us up at night so that we do not respond to new threats with new defenses,” said Prime Minister Audrey Tang. of Taiwan, which works to strengthen cybersecurity defenses. against threats like disinformation. “The main idea here is just to stay agile.”

Taiwan, at highly online company, has repeatedly proven to be the world’s top target of disinformation from foreign governments, according to the Digital society project, a research initiative exploring the Internet and politics. China has been accused of spreading rumors during the pandemic about the Taiwanese government’s handling of Covid-19, the researchers said. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island as House Speaker last year sparked a series of high-profile cyberattacks, as well as the emergence of demystified online posts and images that fact-checkers linked to China.

However, despite its best efforts, Beijing has struggled to influence public opinion.

In recent years, Taiwan’s voters have elected a president, Ms. Tsai, from the Democratic Progressive Party, whom the Communist Party sees as an obstacle to its goal of unification. Experts and local fact-checkers said Chinese disinformation campaigns were a major concern in the 2018 local elections; The efforts appeared less effective in 2020, when Ms. Tsai won back the presidency with a landslide victory. His vice-president, Lai Ching-te, retained the lead in the polls to succeed him.

Tsai has repeatedly spoken about her government’s efforts to combat Beijing’s disinformation campaign, as well as criticism that its strategy aims to stifle the speech of political opponents. At a defense conference this month, she said: “We give the public knowledge and tools that refute and report false or misleading information, and maintain a careful balance between maintaining the freedom of information and the refusal of the manipulation of information. »

Many Taiwanese have developed internal “alarm bells” for suspicious stories, said Melody Hsieh, co-founder of Fake News Cleaner, a group focused on information literacy education. His group has 22 speakers and 160 volunteers who teach anti-misinformation tactics at universities, temples, fishing villages and elsewhere in Taiwan, sometimes using gifts like handmade soap to motivate participants.

The group is part of a strong collective of similar Taiwanese operations. There’s Cofacts, whose fact-checking service is integrated into a popular social media app called Line. Doublethink Lab was led until this month by Puma Shen, a teacher who testified this year before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government. MyGoPen owes its name to a homophone in the Taiwanese dialect meaning “don’t fool me anymore”.

Citizens have asked for help in verifying the facts, for example when a recent uproar on imported eggs raised questions about videos showing black and green yellows, Ms. Hsieh said. Such a request would have been unthinkable in 2018, when high emotions and damaging rumors around a controversial referendum inspired the founders of Fake News Cleaner.

“Now everyone will stop and think, ‘That seems strange.’ Can you help me check this? We suspect something,” Ms. Hsieh said. “I think it’s an improvement.”

Yet fact-checking in Taiwan remains complicated. False allegations recently revolved around Mr. Lai, an outspoken critic of Beijing, and his visit to Paraguay this summer. Fact-checkers discovered that a memo at the center of a claim had been manipulated, with modified dates and figures. Another statement was born on an English-language forum before a new X account quoted it in Mandarin in a message shared by a Hong Kong news site and relayed on Facebook by a Taiwanese politician.

China’s disinformation work has had “measurable effects,” including “deepening Taiwanese political and social polarization and widening perceived generational divides,” according to a RAND Corporation study. Concerns about election-related fake news prompted Taiwan’s government last month to set up a dedicated task force.

Taiwan “has always been Beijing’s testing ground for information warfare,” with China using social media to interfere in Taiwanese politics since at least 2016, according to RAND. In August, Meta shut down a Chinese influence campaign it described as the largest operation of its kind to date, with 7,704 Facebook accounts and hundreds more on other social media platforms targeting Taiwan and other regions.

Beijing’s disinformation strategy continues to change. Fact-checkers noted that Chinese agents were no longer distracted by pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as they were during Taiwan’s last presidential election. Now they have access to artificial intelligence capable of generating images, sound and video – “potentially a dream come true for Chinese propagandists,” said Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, a researcher at RAND.

A few months ago, an audio file appearing to show a rival politician criticizing Mr. Lai circulated in Taiwan. The clip was almost certainly a deepfake, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice and AI detection firm Reality Defender.

Chinese disinformation messages appear increasingly subtle and organic, rather than flooding the area with blatantly pro-Beijing messages, the researchers said. According to researchers, some false narratives are created by Chinese-controlled content farms and then spread by agents, bots or unwitting social media users. China also attempted to buy established Taiwanese social media accounts and may have paid Taiwanese influencers to promote pro-Beijing narratives, according to RAND.

Misinformation directly related to China-Taiwan relations became rarer from 2020 to 2022, according to the Taiwan Fact Check Center said last month. Instead, Chinese agents appeared to be focusing more on fueling social division in Taiwan by spreading lies about local services and health problems. Sometimes, other experts said, questionable articles about medical cures and celebrity gossip led viewers toward conspiracy theories about Taiwanese politics.

The ever-present threat, which the Taiwanese government calls “cognitive warfare,” has led to several aggressive attempts has repression. An unsuccessful proposal last year, modeled on European regulations, would have imposed labeling and transparency requirements on social media platforms and forced them to comply with court-ordered content removal requests.

Critics have denounced the government’s anti-disinformation campaign as a political witch hunt, raising the specter of the island’s not-so-distant authoritarian past. Some have pointed out that Taiwan’s media ecosystem, with its diverse political tendenciesoften produces pro-Beijing content that can be wrongly attributed to Chinese manipulation.

HAS an event in June, President Tsai highlighted that “large-scale, well-funded disinformation campaigns” pose “one of the most difficult challenges,” pitting Taiwanese citizens against each other and eroding trust in democratic institutions. Defending against misinformation, she said, must be “a whole-of-society effort.”

Fact-checkers and watchdog groups said public apathy was a concern – research suggests that the Taiwanese made limited use of fact-checking resources in previous elections – as did the risk of being spread too thin.

“There are mountains of misinformation,” said Eve Chiu, general director of the Taiwan FactCheck Center, which employs about 10 fact-checkers every day. “We can’t do everything.”

Attempts to increase interest in media literacy have included a national campaign: “humor against rumor”, which exploited jokey meme culture and a cute dog character to debunk false narratives. In September, the Taiwan FactCheck Center also held a virtual national youth competition that attracted students including Lee Tzu-ying, Cheng Hsu-yu and Lu Hong-yu.

The three civics classmates, who finished in third place, acknowledged that Taiwan’s noisy politics allowed misinformation to sow confusion and chaos. Their Taiwanese peers, however, have learned to exercise caution.

“If you see something new, but you don’t know if it’s real or fake, you need to check it out,” Ms Lee, 16, said. “I just want to know the truth, it’s very important to me.”

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David B.Otero

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