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.
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.
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.