Taiwan’s defenses against information warfare gain attention

Taiwanese flag. (AFP)
Taiwanese flag. (AFP)

Summary

  • Western officials are studying the island’s methods for combating what its government says are attempts by China to sow fear

In response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China launched missiles, carried out military drills and sent jet fighters across the Taiwan Strait.

But the island’s government said that even before Mrs. Pelosi’s plane touched down, it was defending its people against a more-subtle assault from Beijing, one designed to sow fear through the use of disinformation.

Taiwan’s methods for defenses against such attacks are increasingly gaining attention from Western government officials and internet researchers. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper discussed Taiwan’s strategy on disinformation with the island’s digital minister during a visit to the island in July.

“It seems to be very effective, and we’re trying to bring back lessons learned," he said after returning.

Taiwan has ranked as the world’s biggest target for foreign disinformation for nine years in a row, according to V-Dem, a Swedish institute that produces annual reports on global disinformation. Taiwanese officials and information researchers say the source of the overwhelming majority of those attacks is China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has spent decades trying to persuade Taiwanese people to peacefully submit to Beijing’s rule.

Taiwan’s military said it identified more than 270 examples of false or misleading content earlier this month that were part of a Chinese disinformation campaign designed to hurt morale on the island and undermine the Taiwanese government’s credibility.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Every attack we get is a good drill," Lo Ping-cheng, a Taiwanese cabinet minister who leads a government task force charged with containing disinformation, told an audience of fact-checkers, schoolteachers and tech entrepreneurs at an event in Taipei earlier this month.

Taiwan’s first line of defense against such attacks is a coterie of nonprofit fact-checking groups, which use tools developed by tech companies and tight communication with Taiwan government agencies to find and debunk what they identify as disinformation before it spreads too widely.

The day after Mrs. Pelosi wrapped up her visit to Taiwan on Aug. 3, several users of Line Corp., a messaging app service that has 21 million active users in Taiwan, flagged a rumor spreading on the platform that China planned to evacuate its nationals in Taiwan by Aug. 8, a potential sign of an impending invasion. The claim was based on what appeared to be a screenshot of a Chinese state television broadcast with a line of text announcing the evacuation.

A custom-built fact-checking chatbot on the Line platform sent alerts about the rumor to MyGoPen, a fact-checking group whose name is a homophone for “Don’t Fool Me Again" in the local Taiwanese language.

MyGoPen’s founder, Charles Yeh, said he mobilized his seven-member team to review Chinese state-television footage. The team concluded the story was fake and sent a report to the local offices of Line, Google and Facebook, which took steps to keep it from spreading on their platforms.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Office, the government body in charge of dealing with China, put out a statement debunking the rumor and requested help from police in tracking down its origins. The following day, police said they had traced the screenshot to a woman in mainland China whom they accused of trying to sow public panic.

“Taiwan has the power now to resist," Mr. Yeh said.

Government investigators have formally probed nearly 900 cases of alleged disinformation since August 2019, filing prosecutions in 200 of them, according to Taiwan’s Investigative Bureau, which is responsible for tracing malicious information and enforcing laws. The government has toughened legal penalties for spreading disinformation.

Tech companies have also teamed up with Taiwan. Alphabet Inc.’s Google says it has trained more than 110 government officials, legislative and campaign staff in Taiwan on how to use tools such as reverse image search to fight fake information. Last year the company donated $1 million to help fund the Taiwan FactCheck Center, one of the island’s most active fact-checking nonprofits.

Line has spent roughly $5 million over three years on a “Digital Accountability Program" in Taiwan, which includes a public chatbot designed to flag suspicious content to users and a database of more than 50,000 fact-checking claims.

“Solving a problem on the internet needs to be done in an ‘internet’ way," said Roger Chen, Line Taiwan’s chief executive. “It would be a waste of time and effort to resolve a decentralized phenomenon with a centralized method."

While Taiwan’s efforts have garnered attention in the West, the government’s approach has drawn some criticism in Taiwan. Opposition politicians and some media scholars have accused Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of applying the “disinformation" label to political messages she simply doesn’t like, using the implication of foreign interference to constrict the space for political speech.

After public pushback, Ms. Tsai’s government recently shelved a draft law that would have fined internet platforms for failing to quickly remove content that courts determine is harmful.

“Some worry if they say anything wrong, the police would come to arrest them," said Katherine Chen, who teaches communication studies at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University and serves on Facebook’s Oversight Board.

Taiwan’s Presidential Office declined to comment, referring to a video address made by Ms. Tsai on Aug. 4, when she warned that China was trying to use information operations to cause turmoil in Taiwan. At a meeting of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic People’s Party on Wednesday, Ms. Tsai attributed public criticism of the draft law in part to a failure of communication.

Information researchers caution that it’s difficult to accurately measure how effective any given approach is in countering disinformation. Officials with the Investigative Bureau say China’s efforts to sow doubt and fear in Taiwan have grown increasingly sophisticated during the past two years, with most campaigns hidden under several layers of posting and reposting on social media that are difficult to peel back or counter.

Internet researchers and tech executives said Taiwanese people are now highly attuned to the possibility they are being manipulated by what they see online, which helps blunt the effect of disinformation that does slip through.

“Misinformation-disinformation was not really something that people talked that much about," said Irene Jay Liu, who leads Google’s News Lab in the Asia-Pacific region. “But now it’s something that a lot of people use in their daily vocabulary," she said, crediting it to Taiwan’s media literacy efforts.

Marcus Kolga, a senior fellow at Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute and founder of debunking group DisinfoWatch, wrote in a policy paper last year that Taiwan offered a model for protecting freedom of expression while still defending against disinformation.

“The lessons that can be learned from Taiwan are universal," he said. “We need to adopt, first of all, Taiwan’s sense of urgency to this threat. Because if we don’t do something now, the longer we wait, the worse the problem we’ll get."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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