More and more, democracies are beginning to identify the means and objectives of authoritarian disinformation. Such cooperation is essential, as anti-democratic forces are learning from each other and continually improving their tactics. Alison Hsiao reports on a recent bilateral initiative between Taiwan and the U.S.
Goethe once said, “The truth must be repeated again and again because error is constantly being preached round about us. And not only by isolated individuals but by the majority.” More than two centuries later, the admonition is more relevant than ever, and was quoted by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Chairman and Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan in his opening remarks at a workshop aiming to combat disinformation earlier this month.
The 2018 Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF) workshop on “Defending Democracy through Media Literacy” was co-hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. GCTF was launched in 2015 to “institutionalize and serve as a platform for expanding one of the brightest areas of U.S.-Taiwan relations: cooperation on regional and global issues.” In 2018, cooperation between the two likeminded democracies turned to the wave of propaganda tactics that have buffeted the globe in recent years, a phenomenon only new in the sense that advances in technology have enabled hostile actors to spread content “farther and faster at less cost,” as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby said during the opening ceremony of the workshop in Taipei.
The U.S. is grappling with the spread of disinformation, and Taiwan is “also on the front lines,” AIT Director Brent Christensen said, adding that “we all have much to learn from Taiwan about how to marshal our academic, policy, and technical resources to confront external pressure.”
Taiwan has indeed long been subjected to constant and ferocious espionage attacks and hacks from China, and the use of disinformation, a phenomenon that goes back centuries, has been aided by the recent technological leap in the mobile industry and social networking. For Beijing, spreading disinformation also has strategic benefits when coupled with the measures it has been tabling to lure Taiwanese youth and professionals. Discrediting the Tsai Ing-wen administration and Taiwan’s democratic institutions would make incorporation in a system with Chinese characteristics, and possible future unification, less alarming to the Taiwanese — so Beijing’s theory goes.
Asked during her keynote speech at the opening ceremony about the channels China uses to spread disinformation in Taiwanese society, Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang responded, “Many.”
“If there is any channel that you can think of, that’s probably used for that purpose,” as any channel that can spread information is a channel via which disinformation can also be spread, she said.
It is true that “ not all IP addresses [of those found spreading disinformation] traced back to a [Chinese] region are necessarily linked to the [Chinese] government,” Tang said. The addresses “can also be linked to the [Chinese Communist] party or to the military,” she quipped, evoking snickers and laughters from the audience with a tacit understanding of the indivisibility of party, military, and government in China.
Tang added that we can nevertheless “make what we know public and rely on an international collaboration framework and independent and investigative journalists to piece together the puzzle.”
Taiwan as a testing ground
The importance of multilateral collaboration and independent media was shown in a recent issue published by local media outlet Mirror Media. The report shows that Taiwanese national security and intelligence agencies, during exchanges of information with Taiwan’s allies, obtained a copy of a strategic report detailing how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force — established in December 2015 as part of the PLA’s major reform to be in charge of cyber, electronic, information and space operations — has been emulating Russia’s activities in its annexation of Crimea and interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Beijing’s aim is to support a pro-Beijing administration in Taiwan in 2020, using next month’s local elections around Taiwan as a “trial run.”
The report reveals that the strategic intentions of the external forces targeting Taiwan by using new media is to amplify the effects of disinformation in public opinion, delegitimize the current government, and hollow the trust between the government and the people, between the administration and the military, and people’s mutual trust. The ultimate aim, the strategic report reportedly says, is “to utterly alter Taiwanese people’s ‘misrecognition’ of and dependence on the Western electoral system and debilitate Taiwan militarily, politically, and psychologically.”
Besides those traced back to China, IP addresses behind comments about specific electoral candidates on PTT, Taiwan’s largest online bulletin board, have been found to originate in Russia, Venezuela, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Indonesia (those are believed to be “bots”).
In 2017 there were 19 million Facebook users in Taiwan, out of a total population of 23.5 million people; LINE, a popular social media app, also reported it had 19 million users in 2018. Posts and messages carrying doctored or out-of-context photos accompanied by misleading stories or lies are difficult to debunk within closed/chat groups. Besides the rumor that cost the life of a Taiwanese a diplomat in Japan, the report offers “classic examples” of disinformation from China that was deliberately spread to stir up panic and discord in Taiwan. Among others, this includes “news” claiming that the Democratic Progressive Party-led Tsai government intended to exchange artifacts stored at the National Palace Museum with Japan for a 50-year exhibition and leasing Taiping Island (Itu Aba) in the contested South China Sea to the U.S. military. The sources were found to be Weibo (China’s Twitter-like platform), WeChat groups, as well as “content farms” funded by China.
The most intimidating form of disinformation is not outright lies, but rather news-like posts that are partly true or based on bits of information from credible news stories. The disinformation about leasing Taiping Island to the U.S. was based on a Taiwanese government announcement that it would turn the island into a base for humanitarian aid and scientific research. Comments by a Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesperson against the “leasing proposal” gave authenticity to the claim. Also based on a true event was the disinformation — coupled with an old photo of Taiwanese armored personnel carriers driving down a street — about a brigade of 8,000 U.S. marines allegedly arriving in Taiwan to be stationed at the newly built AIT compound in Neihu, Taipei. This bit of disinformation received much attention, in part due to the fact that news outlets were reporting at the same time that the U.S. normally dispatches Marines in uniform as guards at American embassies.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry is well aware of the danger. Also describing Taiwan as “on the front lines when it comes to coordinated attacks of disinformation,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the ministry is no stranger to such attacks as it deals with them “on a daily basis.” “The topics of disinformation range from potential switches in diplomatic relations to issues with very real national security implications.”
“For every falsehood we discredit,” he said, “more come to take their place.”
Multilateral cooperation is therefore necessary to fight a malaise that is “prevalent across many government agencies in Taiwan and around the world,” Wu said. “On this issue [of disinformation], we seek to share information, contribute our strengths, and work more closely with our like-minded partners and countries from around the region.”
Governments need to join hands and so must civil societies. Cofacts, a collaborative fact-checking platform which combines “chatbots” and a hoax database developed by a Taiwanese tech community, has much to share in its experience in combating disinformation embedded in closed chat groups. Rumor&Truth and Mygopen are also website-based bottom-up effort to debunk rumors and “fake news.” There is room for non-government actors to form networks and learn from each other in a world where authoritarian governments evolve and learn from each other’s tactics.