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.

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