TDB Vol. 3 No. 6: Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy

TDB Vol. 3 No. 6: Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy

Taiwan is at the forefront of the authoritarians’ war on information. Through multilateral symposia and an engaged civil society, it is developing new strategies to meet this direct challenge to democracy. Alison Hsiao and Nathan Liu show us what’s being done.

 

Held in September, the 2019 Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) on “Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy II” International Workshop was a follow-up to the successful cooperation between Taiwan and international partners last year. The co-hosts of this year’s event expanded to include not only the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), but also the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, and the Swedish Trade and Investment Council in Taipei.

The return of the workshop shows that it was well received and its achievements were recognized, TFD Chairman Jia-chyuan Su said in his opening remarks, adding that it also attests to the fact that “the problem of disinformation has continued to be a challenge to democratic countries around the globe.”

Information battlefield

Chairman Su said that in recent years, people in democracies worldwide have begun to become aware that the amount of resources that certain authoritarian regimes have poured into foreign propaganda and social media platforms is beyond our imagination.

“In the case of Hong Kong’s recent protests, we’ve witnessed that the Chinese government has used state powers to manipulate certain media outlets in order to obfuscate what really happened in the city. We’ve also seen that many groups, fan pages, and accounts on the major social media platforms have been spreading disinformation intentionally, aiming to influence how internet users perceive the protests in Hong Kong and sway the international public opinion,” he said.

The disinformation surrounding Hong Kong’s protests is only the tip of the iceberg, Su said, adding that Taiwan is the main battlefield where foreign forces engage in influence operations through disinformation to harm democratic values. According to the latest report released by V-Dem, a research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, Taiwan is the most targeted among the 179 countries investigated for the spread of false information by foreign governments.

Also addressing the opening ceremony, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the spread of disinformation poses a serious threat to Taiwan’s democracy, especially as the presidential elections held early next year approach.

Japan’s Deputy Representative to Taiwan Nishiumi Shigehiro called for a balanced approach to tackle issues surrounding disinformation, adding that while democracy allows voters to choose their leaders based on correct information, we also have to be careful not to respond to disinformation at the expense of freedom of expression — also the very foundation of democracy.

Swedish Representative to Taiwan Håkan Jevrell cautioned that while information can be used rather harmlessly to influence our behavior, such as tempting a targeted population to buy certain consumer goods, authoritarian states are also using those tools to undermine our democracy.

NDI Vice President Shari Bryan likewise raised alarm over the challenges brought by technological advances that have fundamentally changed how we access and share information and exposed us to possible internal and external manipulations. “The threats and challenges are complex and evolving everyday and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “We have to work together to equip our leaders in each community and country with the knowledge and the tools they need to assess their information environment … to counter the efforts of anti-democratic actors.”

American Institute in Taiwan Director William Brent Christensen said the U.S. National Security Strategy states that a geopolitical competition is currently being waged between free and repressive regimes and governments, adding that “nowhere is this truer than in the information battlefield.” The U.S., he said, is grappling with the spread of disinformation as foreign actors seek to use social media to influence elections, divide the American public, and undermine confidence in democratic institutions. “Taiwan is also on the frontline of this battle and faces the same challenges,” he said, adding that “responding to the challenge of disinformation is something no one society or government can do alone.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby said there are few better places than Taiwan to have discussions on defending democracy through media literacy, both because of the success Taiwan has had in building the right to respect democracy as well as the threat posed by outside forces.

“Taiwan’s 2020 elections are just a few short months away, and China once again seeks to use disinformation to undermine the vote, divide the people, and sow seed of doubt in democratic system,” he said. “China has invested heavily to develop more sophisticated ways to anonymously disseminate disinformation through a number of channels, including social media. As their malign methods evolved, the motivation remains the same: to weaken democracy and the freedom that citizens of Taiwan have come to enjoy after so many hard years of struggle.”

Strategies to counter hostile disinformation

In his keynote address, Jakub Kalensky, a senior fellow at the Eurasian Center at the Atlantic Council who focuses on disinformation campaigns initiated by Russia, said that while the penetration of Russia’s operations in Europe often uses online platforms, journalists have also been complicit in this campaign. “Fear” toward differences is what the operations are after, which agents of disinformation manipulate to stir public emotions.

To counter the threat of disinformation, Kalensky proposed four strategic measures: (1) effectively documenting the threats; (2)  raising the public awareness; (3) repairing the weaknesses exploited by agents of disinformation; and (4) systematically punishing information aggressors to dissuade any further incidence, which is “not done often but has to be done otherwise we’ll never stop information aggression.”

Documenting threats is a daunting task and is “best done by governments since they have much bigger resources and since it is closely connected to security,” he said.

However, while already conducted by many organizations and government agencies, the task of monitoring has still not been performed sufficiently, he said. “We still don’t know how many channels the disinformers control, how many messages per day they spread, how many people they target, and because of that, we cannot even properly say whether there is an increase or decrease of a disinformation campaign in a particular country. We have impressions, but we lack solid data. We see fragments of the disinformation ecosystem, but we do not see the whole picture.”

On raising awareness, Kalensky called for “activity from every part of society — governments, journalists, NGOs, media, and private business,” each of which has different target audiences.

There are “systemic weaknesses” in our societies that need to be repaired, he said. Media literacy education “of the whole population will probably be more a role for the government, but also media can try and adhere to the highest possible journalistic standards,” Kalensky said. He also called on big tech companies to “stop promoting the disinformation-oriented outlets, de-rank them from search results, and label the content as toxic” in the social media environment.

But as we will always have some weaknesses, which “means the information aggressors will always have some weaknesses to exploit … it is necessary to start systematically punishing the disinformers,” he said, adding that this is not an appeal to create new rules or new laws, since in many cases there are already existing ones to be used.

“Individuals who are helping spread disinformation should be named and shamed by the media, by politicians, by NGOs, and by academics. The most aggressive and the most visible propagandists should be sanctioned,” he said. “Punishing the most visible propagandists and … individuals participating in spreading disinformation would send a clear signal that we do not tolerate the spreading of lies and hatred.”

Kalensky demanded equally strong measures from democratic countries and politicians when it comes to disinformation-oriented outlets, adding that access to them should be limited or cut off, providing them “with no accreditation, no access to press conferences, no statements for them, and no answers to their questions.” “These restrictions would make it clear that they are not media, as they themselves admit, but weapons in an information war,” he said.

Taiwan’s efforts

Taiwan’s civil society has been proactively involved in efforts to combat disinformation, including some creative initiatives launched by young people who are deeply anxious about “filter bubbles” and their impact on elderly users. Those initiatives seek to both combat Chinese interference in the short term and to strengthen Taiwan’s information landscape for the future.

With the January elections approaching, more attention has been paid to disinformation. In previous TDB articles, Alison Hsiao introduced China’s disinformation campaign and efforts to combat it through its partnership with the U.S. International media such as Foreign Policy, the Financial Times and Reuters have also highlighted the problem with in-depth investigations.

One Chinese tactic is to influence Taiwanese media companies.

Anger over Chinese influence in the media led to a protest in June calling for the government to discipline “red media,” meaning outlets that are used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to spread information. According to the organizers, more than 100,000 people attended the protest, held on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei. Protesters called for legislation requiring greater transparency in media funding and foreign connections. Those in attendance were especially concerned with disproportionate coverage of ostensibly pro-China politicians by certain media outlets. For example, the National Communications Commission (NCC) found that CTiTV dedicated 70% of its airtime during May on Kuomintang (KMT) mayor and presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu.

This spring, Taiwanese students began collaborating on projects to tackle this challenge. The Youth Combatting Fake News Front (青年抵制假新聞陣線) is a coalition of over 100 student organizations which agreed to oppose unchecked facts, biased media, and Chinese dis/misinformation. The movement started with a campaign to “take back the TV remote,” in which students refused to watch news that disproportionately covered pro-China stories. Since its creation, the Front has petitioned media companies and legislators to commit to reforms.

In an interview, founder I-jou Wu (吳奕柔), a 21-year-old student at National Taiwan University (NTU), said the Front is best positioned to engage with other young people and the public. For example, the Front engages with students through workshops, forums, and high school visits. Wu added that the goal is not only to better inform her peers about China’s information warfare but to equip them to discuss the issue with older relatives. She explained that young people are usually sensitive to the importance of freedom and civil liberties. In contrast, parents and grandparents that grew up before democratization may not naturally understand the severity of China’s actions. For Wu, the current conflict in Hong Kong epitomizes the potentially existential threat that China poses to democracy.

Check your facts

While the Front and the anti-red-media protests focus on China and its influence on traditional media, others have taken a broader perspective. Many organizations feel a responsibility to fight all dis/misinformation, not just that which originates in China.

Fact-checking organizations are among the most prominent combatants. The Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC), for example, is collaborating with Facebook, LINE, Google, the National Education Radio Station, and the Chinese Television System (CTS). The Internet platforms are sources where news can be verified, and all the partners are avenues for distributing the fact-checked reports. The TFC also hosts workshops such as “Let’s Talk,” a dialogue series with young people.

Cofacts (真的假的) is a fact-checking platform developed in response to fake news shared in the closed messaging app LINE (a popular platform among Taiwanese). LINE users send suspicious links to the Cofacts account, and a bot will automatically reply if the article is already checked and in the Cofacts database. If not, a Cofacts volunteer will write a response. In the past year, Cofacts has received approximately 209,000 forwarded messages.

The results have been impressive. Nick Monaco, of the Institute for the Future and Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, told reporters that “I’m not just being flattering in talking about Cofacts being a really innovative bot and solution for disinformation.”

One insight from Cofacts is that dangerous fake news may not necessarily be political. Some websites can be generated by content farms seeking profit. False advertisement, celebrity gossip, and medical information may lack the malicious intent of political propaganda but can still be harmful to society. For example, Cofacts has encountered websites that are encouraging cancer patients to reject modern medicine. Other lessons about fake news have been discovered by researchers such as Austin Wang and Puma Shen, who are busy examining Cofacts’ open data.

Cofacts founder Johnson Liang emphasizes that people who spread fake news are often “digital immigrants,” meaning that they are new to the Internet, such as the elderly. Research by the National Development Council has revealed that older people tend to be the most susceptible to fake news. Disputing an elder’s post can be regarded as rude or awkward, especially because sharing articles may be a gesture of affection, a way to say “I’m thinking of you.” Many fact-checkers have tried to address this problem. Cofacts has designed its messages to be gentle and friendly. A different chatbot, Aunt Meiyu (美玉姨), uses the Cofacts database but can be added to a group chat and will automatically check for fake news; therefore, only the automated responses are rude, not real family members or friends. Trend Micro’s Dr. Message has collected its own database to combine the two approaches (of Cofacts and Meiyu). Rumor&Truth and MyGoPen are fact-checking websites targeted towards elders that have features to ease navigation.

The Fake News Cleaner (假新聞清潔劑) initiative uses another tactic to reach older neighbors. This group of volunteers hopes to cultivate media literacy through face-to-face interactions. After the 2018 referendums revealed divisions within Taiwanese society, the group recognized the need to break through echo chambers and bridge generational gaps. Fake News Cleaners go to public areas to engage strangers, especially the elderly, in conversations about fake news. They employ tactics to be approachable, including discussing health news rather than politics, designing messages that appeal to elders, and use games. For example, volunteers might ask passersby to identify problems in an article, with a useful prize as a reward. Their goal is to spread awareness with compassion, not condescension. Some organizations such as community associations, colleges, and senior centers have invited the Fake News Cleaners to present seminars about fake news. The organization says these seminars have been successful because they are in-person opportunities to use empathetic communication.

Combatting disinformation and fake news is a daunting task, one which Taiwanese civil society is committed to meeting head-on.

 

Feature photo: The 2019 Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) on “Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy II” International Workshop opened on Sept. 10, 2019.

TDB Vol. 3 No. 3: The Ins and Outs of Taiwan’s Landmark Vote on Same-Sex Marriage

TDB Vol. 3 No. 3: The Ins and Outs of Taiwan’s Landmark Vote on Same-Sex Marriage

After years of battling in the legislature and on the streets, a watershed ruling by the Constitutional Court and referenda victories by conservatives, a middle-ground bill was finally passed by the Legislative Yuan on May 17 giving same-sex couples most, though not all, of the same rights as heterosexual couples. But the campaign isn’t over, not for those who oppose marriage equality, and not for members of the LGBTQ community who argue that there is still room for improvement. Alison Hsiao walks us through the issue.

 

More than 500 Taiwanese same-sex couples registered their marriage on May 24, two years to the day after the Council of Grand Justices issued the historic Constitutional Interpretation No. 748, which required the country’s legislative body to make amendments to existing laws to guarantee marriage equality within two years. Since then, controversies abounded as to which laws were to be tweaked or implemented for same-sex couples. Referenda opposing any changes to the Civil Code and calling for a separate law were held, and passed, on Nov. 24, 2018. The Tsai Ing-wen administration came up with a creatively named bill that aimed for the middle ground on the issue, and used its legislative majority to secure its passage. Thus, on May 24, marriage equality was finally achieved in Taiwan…almost.

20 couples attended the collective wedding ceremony held by the Taipei City Government after registering their marriage at Xinyi Household Registration Office on May 24. (Olivia Yang/TFD)

Recognized progress

Marc and Shane were among the couples who had registered their marriage at Taipei’s Xinyi District Household Registration Office on May 24. In a relationship with his partner for the past 12 years, a highly emotional Shane said after registering that in the past he had not dared to display his rainbow flag on his way home despite waving it prominently during his first pride parade. “Today I’m here standing in front of so many people to say outright that I’m getting married, that I’m gay. I feel blessed and really proud of my country for being so progressive.”

Marc and Shane registered their marriage the first day after the same-sex marriage law went into effect.

But many had actually felt despair over the country’s conservativeness just six months ago, when the referenda proposed by anti-same-sex-marriage groups garnered overwhelming public support — with a bit of help from confusing questions.

Referendum Question No. 10 rejected the possibility of the country changing the wording of the Civil Code to include same-sex marriage. And Referendum Question No. 12 said that same-sex couples’ right to “live permanently together” should be governed by a separate law. (Note that although the referendum question deliberately avoided mentioning “marriage,” the explanatory note accompanying the question said the groups believed “marriage equality” should be upheld.)

The twist was that in order to comply with Judicial Interpretation No. 748, which demands “marriage equality,” the groups asked in the referendum questions not whether one approves of same-sex marriage (which would have been a direct challenge to the Interpretation, whose legal status is equivalent to the Constitution), but whether one agrees that the Civil Code should remain unchanged and that same-sex unions should be governed separately.

► See: TDB Volume 2 No. 8 The Anti-Same-Sex-Marriage Referendum Questions and their Implications

The referendum that called for a separate law for same-sex unions — which many in the LGBTQ community regarded as discriminatory — passed on Nov. 24. In response, the government proposed a separate bill and had parliament endorse it before the May 24 deadline.

The Tsai administration, which was not of one mind on the issue, had sought to avoid antagonizing conservatives through using the language of “same-sex marriage” while keeping its promise and the spirit of “marriage equality” enshrined in Interpretation No. 748.

The expedient but clever move, proposed by the Executive Yuan, was a bill titled “The Enforcement Act of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 748.” It was ostensibly in full compliance with Interpretation No. 748, and the words “same-sex marriage” did not appear in the title. This also explains why it was considered a concession to the opposition within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus, when Premier Su Tseng-chang agreed to remove “same-sex marriage” in Article 2 of the original bill and instead insert “register marriage” in Article 4, a day before the legislative vote.

The vote on Article 4 of “the Enforcement Act of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 748” bill, which included the wording “registering marriage,” decided the nature of relationships for same-sex unions. Of the 113 lawmakers in the Legislative Yuan, 93 were present and 66 voted yes, including 54 from the DPP, seven from the Kuomintang (KMT), and five from the New Power Party. The seven KMT lawmakers, mostly of the younger generation, are reported to have had a heated exchange with the KMT caucus leadership in the caucus meeting before the vote, and some party members have called for them to be punished following the vote.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know now that the passage of the bill was not a foregone conclusion. Local reports revealed that the Tsai administration was still tallying and anxiously calling DPP legislators to talk them into casting a yes vote mere hours before the vote in the legislature. According to many DPP lawmakers, Premier Su Tseng-chang’s powerful message to the DPP caucus, in which he compared the historic moment to the Kaohsiung Incident 40 years ago, when only 15 lawyers, including Su himself, defended political activists against an authoritarian regime, was the game changer.

‘Disinformation’

When the bill was being debated on the legislative floor on May 17, anti-same-sex-marriage lawmakers urged the Legislative Yuan to “respect the referendum results,” which they contended represented the “new public will” and superseded Interpretation No. 748. Even if that were true (and it is not), the bill in no way violates the referendum results.

“Two years ago there was still discussion in the legislature over different versions of the same-sex marriage bill, which included the Civil Code-amending version and a separate-law version. So it is exactly because we respect the referendum results that we have only this bill [of a separate law] today,” the New Power Party’s Freddy Lim told the legislature before the vote.

Lim also denounced several lawmakers, who said of the bill that it “polarized society and manufacturing social conflicts.”

“You know very well that it is not the case, but you decided to go along with those distorted views and disinformation,” he added.

Lim’s denunciation did not prevent the spread of this narrative. On its front page the following day, the Chinese-language China Times headlined its top article, “Slapping the referendum [results] in the face.” Anti-same-sex-marriage groups staged a protest on May 25, in which they accused the Tsai administration of “trampling on the popular will” and declaring that “democracy is dead.”

KMT Legislator Lai Shyh-bao (left) makes remarks at the Legislative Yuan with a placard asking his colleagues to “respect the new popular will of 7.65 million votes.” Anti-gay groups including one that calls themselves “Taiwan Citizenship Solidarity Organization,” staged a protest (middle and right, photo credit: TCSO) a day after the Act went into effect, driving a hearse lamenting “the death of democracy.”

‘Not over’

For anti-same-sex-marriage groups, the fight is not over. They have called on the public to take lawmakers and parties who supported same-sex marriage “off the shelves” in the next elections. On the day the Act coming into effect, anti-same-sex-marriage groups announced they were forming a new political party containing the name “stable power” and would field candidates in the 2020 legislative elections.

For its part, the LGBTQ community is also determined to deal with the unfinished state of the country’s marriage equality. Victoria Hsu of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) said on May 25 — the day the alliance organized a traditional Taiwanese-style wedding banquet for same-sex couples on Ketagalan Boulevard — that since the law initiated by the referendum results can be amended or rescinded two years after its implementation, they will continue to push for the inclusion of same-sex couples in the Civil Code.

The Taiwanese traditional roadside wedding banquet held on May 25, which the TAPCPR said was the realization of a promise made in 2013 when the organization held the first wedding banquet at the same location to campaign for a then-proposed marriage equality bill. Organizers said they will come back to this spot when same-sex marriage is achieved. (photo credit: TAPCPR)

“We understand there was immense pressure on the administration, and this separate law is the best we can have so far,” Hsu said. However, the inability of a same-sex spouse to adopt his or her partner’s non-biological children, the inability to register transnational same-sex marriages in cases where a partner is from a country where same-sex marriage is not legalized, and the non-applicability of in-law relationship to same-sex couples, show that there is still discrimination in how same-sex marriage is treated, she added.

“After May 24, 2021, legislators will have the right to include what is now governed by the separate law into the Civil Code. The reason we have a separate law is exactly because the referendum results are being upheld, so those spreading the rumor about the legislation flouting the referendum results should just stop,” Hsu said.

Chi Chia-wei with the pen: Chi, regarded by many as the godfather of the country’s gay rights movement, received the pen that was used by President Tsai Ing-wen to sign the same-sex marriage law into effect as a gift from the president.

 

TDB Vol. 2 No. 9: Defending Democracy: Hong Kong Under Chinese Influence and Taiwan’s Countermeasures

TDB Vol. 2 No. 9: Defending Democracy: Hong Kong Under Chinese Influence and Taiwan’s Countermeasures

Experts from Hong Kong and Taiwan highlight the ‘sharp power’ tactics used by the Chinese Communist Party to erode freedoms in its near-abroad and beyond.

 

The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy on Nov. 21 hosted a panel discussion in Taipei involving scholars and democratic activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Titled “Defending Democracy: Hong Kong under Chinese Influence and Taiwan’s Countermeasures,” the discussion was about how Hong Kong’s democracy and society have changed under China’s influence and how Taiwan can learn from the Hong Kong experience in order to counter such influence.

The Hong Kong Civil Hub published the report titled “China’s Sharp Power in Hong Kong” in September, showing how Hong Kong has become the “experimental ground” for China’s “sharp power,” which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would apply to other free societies after the tactics have been tested in the autonomous city. Similarly, the recently published U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report points out that Beijing has continued to encroach on Hong Kong’s political autonomy.

Nathan Law, who was elected at the age of 23 to Hong Kong’s legislature and got disqualified for “failing to sincerely take the oath of office” in July 2017, told the panel that the Commission report has recommended the U.S. reassess its policy of treating Hong Kong and China as separate customs areas, as Beijing has continued to take Hong Kong as a legitimate front to bypass trade barriers and import sensitive military-related products to the Chinese mainland and even to North Korea and Iran. “The U.S. has come to realize the harms the Chinese government could do to the U.S. national security via Hong Kong,” Law said.

Beijing expects Hong Kong to follow Singapore’s example — closed politically but open economically and with a government that is “not by the people but is still able to be of the people and for the people.” But without autonomy, Law said, it is highly doubtful that Hong Kong could have a government that is for the Hong Kong people. For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), “Hong Kong could only have a government that serves PRC’s needs and is by the PRC, of the PRC, and for the PRC.”

“Recently in Hong Kong, there are many ‘integration’ projects launching or being finished,” he said, referring to the recently opened Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai Bridge and a new plan to build artificial islands. “The hundreds of billions [of Hong Kong dollars] could have been used to support the local policies and social welfare system, but they weren’t. It shows that what matters is actually Beijing’s needs rather than the Hong Kong people’s.”

Experts from Hong Kong and Taiwan discussed China influence last month at TFD. (from left to right: Leung Kwok-hung, Cheng, Law, TFD President Ford Liao, Wu, Leung Man-to, Tseng)

Academia Sinica Institute of Taiwan History associate research fellow Wu Ruei-ren, who has been paying close attention to Hong Kong’s democratic movements in the past years, said the concept of sharp power is authoritarian powers’ malign corrosion of other sovereign countries via manipulation and cooptation. What Beijing has been doing to Hong Kong, however, is a suzerain exercising its ruling power over its sphere of control; there was no need of guise [of its power], and the reason why Beijing is still trying to keep its actions under the radar is not because it respects the sovereignty of Hong Kong but that it needs to maintain the appearance of ‘one country, two systems’ so as to keep the status of the city as a global financial hub and a separate custom.”

While “sharp power” penetrates another sovereign state via non-governmental sections, Beijing has co-opted Hong Kong’s traditional business leaders and British-trained government officials, Wu said. “This is what a foreign regime, lacking in local ruling base, would do in a new territory in order to create its own social support. The series of suppression after the Umbrella Movement was belated house-cleaning; Beijing has been neutralizing the influence of the native political elites, by co-opting the old elites and repressing the new ones. This kind of putting down’ [rebellions in] Hong Kong is actually colonial in character, which reminds us of the Kuomintang’s actions of suppression and cooptation in Taiwan after 1947,” Wu observed.

He stressed that Beijing’s “sharp power” against the de-facto independent Taiwan, on the other hand, is like what it does to other democratic countries, which is “combined attacks,” including military intimidation, diplomatic isolation, using economic leverage, and reaching to local pro-China collaborators. “Taiwan is a textbook case [of how ‘sharp power’ is used].” Entertainment and cultural groups in Taiwan have remained indifferent to or are deliberately overlooking politics, “but we have to understand that it is impossible to separate politics from the economic and cultural spheres and that we need to have a renewed understanding of China’s totalitarianism,” he said.

What Taiwan needs to do now is to expose China’s influence, make good use of the fact that Taiwan is a sovereign country to establish internal security mechanisms, reiterate democratic values to inoculate the Taiwanese people against the influence of “sharp power,” and “to raise the costs of those who try to collaborate with China — which means punishment,” Wu said.

The U.S. once believed that incorporating China into the liberal economic system could lead to its democratization, but what we see instead is that China’s anti-democratic ideology has proliferated and abetted a global democratic backsliding. “We need to be aware that [China’s] influence is global, and in this sense we share the same destiny that we must defend and safeguard democracy together,” he said.

Wu recommended that different sectors in Taiwan and between Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s civil societies should collaborate “to share information and experiences,” adding that working with what is left of Chinese civil society is likewise crucial. Hong Kong’s Alliance for True Democracy convener Joseph Cheng said the importance of cooperation is evinced in Beijing’s accusations of “convergence of forces” in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “It means it really is fearful of the alliance.”

National Cheng Kung University political science professor Leung Man-to, who was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Taiwan for 17 years, said that when facing the CCP, “there is only one kind of attitude, which is that you have to distrust it and then distrust it.”

Beijing’s control over Hong Kong is through media and the economy, he said, adding “1.3 million people in Hong Kong now live below poverty line; that is one seventh of the Hong Kong population.” “Beijing only cares about maintaining the city’s financial freedom so that [the Chinese elite] can undertake money-laundering and profiteering activities,” Leung said.

“Beijing is also good at polarizing people, making your fellow people either your friends or enemies. This is what it has been applying to Taiwan, too, using many controversial issues to manufacture serious divides,” he added.

Cheng also called on Taiwanese media to be aware of China’s united front tactics and be as objective as possible in their reporting to avoid polarization, while Hong Kong’s veteran democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung said we need to understand that the influence of China as a new imperial power is global. The Taiwanese government must be aware that there can be no political independence if Taiwan’s economy isn’t so.

 

For more on Chinese/authoritarian influence, see also:

“Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance”

“Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence”

“Authoritarian advance: Responding to China’s growing political influence in Europe”

“The Hard Edge of Sharp Power: Understanding China’s Influence Operations Abroad”

 

 

Feature image: From Flickr CC BY 2.0.

TDB Vol. 2 No. 7: Taiwan, U.S. Join Forces in Countering Disinformation

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.

Legislative Speaker and TFD Chairman Su Jia-chyuan gave opening remarks at 2018 GCTF opening ceremony.

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.”

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.

Digital Minister Audrey Tang

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.

 

A Weibo post claiming that Taiwan government is exchanging treasured artifacts with Japan for a 50-year exhibition was screengrabbed and, with text added, circulated in LINE closed groups. The National Palace Museum issued a statement denying the rumor and made a downloadable jpg-format of the statement, understandably, for easy spreading.

 

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.

The photo of Taiwanese armored personnel carriers driving down a street was coupled with a story claiming 8,000 US marines were to station at the newly-built AIT compound in Neihu, Taipei for disinformation spreading. (Photo: Mirror Media)

 

Joint efforts

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.

TDB Vol. 2 No. 6: ‘Asymmetry’ and the Threat of Disinformation

Fake news have successfully penetrated democratic societies due in part to public complacency, the explosion of social media, and deficiencies in the media environment. New measures to counter disinformation spread by anti-democratic forces are being mooted by governments, but it will be a long time yet before the effects of this new assault on reality can be properly mitigated. Alison Hsiao discusses recent developments in Taiwan.

 

Most Taiwanese are familiar with the joke in which a Taiwanese celebrates the fact that he or she is free to comment on politics and to lambaste the Taiwanese president — and the Chinese replies, “I can lambaste the Taiwanese president, too!”

When the term “sharp power” was introduced, the authors of the report drew our attention to the idea that authoritarian regimes are “exploiting a glaring asymmetry” by “[raising] barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously taking advantage of the openness of democratic systems abroad.” Authoritarian regimes may have problems selling their repressive system as an alternative to the liberal-democratic order, but by freely launching propaganda campaigns calling democracy “foreign” and “Western,” inefficient, and unable to deliver, they have won some adherents in democratic societies.

They have also been wily enough to criticize democratic institutions using democratic standards and are quick to dismiss democracy as “no better” than other systems of governance. The most recent case involves Beijing accusing the UK of “violating” a Chinese reporter’s freedom of speech when she was forced to leave a venue after she threw a tantrum during an event on the erosion of freedom and rule of law in Hong Kong after handover in 1997.

 

The cover photo of Biyun Temple’s Facebook page, showing the temple celebrating the 91th anniversary of the establishment of the PLA.

In Taiwan, we can see the five-star red flag waved in the capital and raised at a “shrine to the Chinese Communist Party” which the owner called “the united front patriotic education base.” The CCP mouthpiece Global Times reacted strongly to the demolition of the “base,” which was ruled an illegal construction in violation of the Mountain Slopes Conservation and Utilization Act (international coverage undoubtedly helped the local government summon up the political courage to tear it down and end a controversy that had begun in 2017). The hawkish party publication called on Taiwanese authorities to “provide legal space for the activities organized by the pro-unification groups, whose calls are in accordance with the PRC Constitution and do not violate Taiwan’s laws as long as they are not violent, and therefore should be treated equally as all other political forces without being subjected to political discrimination.”

Contrasting the self-righteous language with the fate of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che for holding discussions about history and democracy with people in China, or with the Chinese citizen who was detained for expressing the wish to celebrate the Republic of China’s National Holiday, the asymmetry is evident, and this has been fueled, in part, by our complaisance. All of this now calls for counteractions.

Rumors kill

The inroads made by disinformation — a phenomenon with a long history but whose detrimental effects have been amplified in a world connected by the Internet and social media platforms in particular — also epitomize the “glaring asymmetry” and how it is being exploited.

A Taiwanese diplomat deployed in Japan committed suicide earlier this year, allegedly due to the pressure he was under over how much assistance — unjustifiably little, some believed — Taiwanese nationals trapped at Kansai Airport during Typhoon Jebi received from Taiwan’s representative office (TECO) in Japan. The pressure snowballed after information appeared and gained attention on PTT, the country’s largest online bulletin board system. The post alleged that China had dispatched buses to the isolated Kansai Airport to extract its nationals, and that at least one Taiwanese national admitted to have taken the ride by agreeing to be a Chinese national, all allegedly because the Taiwanese government “had done nothing.”*

The heated debate and finger-pointing soon escalated, with accusations that officials at Taiwan’s representative office had failed to do their job. Few netizens, however, questioned whether the source of the “news” should be examined for its authenticity before they plunged into the debate.

The diplomat is said to have complained about disinformation in his suicide note.* It was later discovered that the buses which the Chinese embassy dispatched to pick up Chinese nationals were only sent after the trapped Chinese had been transported out of Kansai Airport by buses provided by airport authorities. In other words, Chinese nationals did not in any way get privileged treatment because of their embassy’s move in terms of how and when they left the airport. It was later found out that the initial post (Sept. 6) on PTT which claimed that China had made a laudable diplomatic effort in Japan came from an IP address located in Beijing.

When influence operations meet open societies

Ethan Tu, dubbed the father of PTT, came to PTT’s defense after the platform was accused of acting as “a source or abettor of fake news.” In his response, Tu underscored the fact that PTT is an open forum, and added that it was also PTT users who first expressed doubt about the “Chinese power” hype made by posts from Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform. He also pointed out that it was Taiwanese online news outlets that amplified the controversy and that they never bothered to correct or update the reports after their authenticity had been called into question by PTT users.

Taiwanese news outlets compete for “clicks” and have a penchant for sensational content and headlines in order to attract readers, as the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun has correctly pointed out. This can be exploited by the “Taiwan-targeting team” set up by the CCP Central Propaganda Department and the China Internet Information Center, according to the Japanese paper, which quoted a source saying that the team would be rewarded with bonuses if the disinformation it deliberately initiates receives coverage in Taiwanese media.

Another one of the team’s guiding principles is to spread rumors that concern people’s daily lives. These can be about anything from the plummeting price of bananas to President Tsai Ing-wen riding a fully armed armored personnel carrier and “refusing” to come down during an inspection at flood-devastated areas in southern Taiwan in August.

The media environment, along with the unexpected consequences of social media platforms — originally designed to encourage people interactions but more often than not giving rise to filter bubbles instead — have compounded the spread of malicious disinformation.

Much discussion has been devoted to the idea of amending existing laws to put the kibosh on the deliberate spreading of disinformation in the country, which in turn has given rise to misgivings about the possible abuse of new regulations. Legislation or not, there is a need to raise public awareness on how our open environment and political biases may be — and have been — exploited to the advantage of those who wish to destabilize Taiwanese society.

The establishment of the Taiwan FactCheck Center and the introduction of media literacy in Taiwan’s new K-12 curriculum are a good start, but the immediate effects will still be limited. For one thing, people who turn to the FactCheck Center probably already harbor healthy skepticism, but this does not help those who generally consume news uncritically. Also, media literacy does not only concern future adults but current ones as well, so more immediate solutions are necessary. The government must therefore bolster public trust through transparency in its operations, and by collaborating with civil society to keep the public aware by exposing and delegitimizing disinformation.

Feature image: From Flickr CC BY 2.0.

 

*There have been new developments and debates concerning the diplomat’s suicide after this article was published. Please refer to the reports (1, 2) for the updates.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

Using ‘content farms’ and other means, Chinese elements are suspected of generating much of the disinformation that has been circulating concerning the Tsai administrations’ pension reform plans. They have also helped mobilize protesters. J. Michael Cole looks into this worrying interference in Taiwan’s democracy. 

 

Taiwan’s national security apparatus on Monday confirmed that a recent wave of increasingly virulent protests against President Tsai Ing-wen’s pension reform efforts have been influenced by China.

According to government information, Chinese elements (presumably agencies involved in political warfare) have played a role in mobilizing protesters and spreading disinformation about pension reform via electronic media. Various web sites, as well as the LINE instant communication tool, have been used to disseminate “fake news” about the government’s plans. The national security apparatus has confirmed that the information originated in China.

Besides domestic online platforms, China has also been using microblogging sites in China, as well as WeChat and popular “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) such as COCO01.net to spread disinformation and interfere with government policy back in Taiwan.

Content farms are platforms that pay large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of content that is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. While such platforms were initially designed to generate advertising revenue, groups and regimes have quickly realized the potential of content farms to manipulate public perceptions. Using techniques that have been tried and tested by authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, “repeater stations” — online and traditional media that willingly take part in “fake news” efforts or that fail to properly corroborate information — are then relied upon to broadcast the disinformation to a wider audience.

On several occasions, anti-independence slogans were chanted at the protests against pension reform, which also suggests that the movement has been co-opted by the Chinese side.

▶︎ See also “TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill”

Over the past six months, members of Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) have also been identified at various protest sites. Chang, who in an interview with foreign media in 2014 confirmed that he works closely with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), led members of his organization at an anti-pension reform protest outside the Legislative Yuan in April. Since 2013, the CUPP has also been involved in activities targeting independence activists and members of civil society in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chang is also a former head of the Bamboo Union, a major crime syndicate in Taiwan with roots in China.

Physical violence is also a m.o. of those organizations, and the protests against pension reform have often led to violent clashes, resulting in injuries. Other organizations with a history of violence, such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have also participated in the protests.

Worryingly, protest organizers appear to have insiders in Tsai’s security apparatus — retired members of the police and national security apparatus ostensibly still have good contacts within the active force — and on several occasions have been able to obtain details about her daily schedule and itinerary. The groups have threatened to shadow President Tsai and Vice President C. J. Chen and thus could compromise the leadership’s personal security. Last week organizers also threatened to disrupt the upcoming Universiade in Taipei.

Taiwanese authorities have been closely monitoring the developments and have implemented measures to counter the disinformation.

 

Top photo: Members of the China Unification Promotion Party protest outside DPP headquarters in 2015 (J. Michael Cole).

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