Taiwan’s amateur fact-checkers wage war on fake news from China | Internet

Taipei, Taiwan – As China flexed its muscles with large-scale military exercises off Taiwan last month, Billion Lee was busy countering an online attack against her home.

False stories claiming the United States is preparing for war with China, that China is evacuating its citizens from Taiwan, or that Taiwan has paid millions to lobby for US Spokesperson Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the island have spread to the popular Social media platforms Facebook and LINE.

A fabricated photo of a People’s Liberation Army soldier monitoring a Taiwanese Navy ship through binoculars was circulated by Chinese state-run media Xinhua before it was picked up and circulated by international media outlets including the Financial Times and Deutsche Welle.

While government agencies rushed to issue clarifications and urged civilians to be careful not to become victims of an information war by “enemy foreign forces,” much of the work to combat the false narratives fell on amateur fake news debunkers such as Lee, co-founded fact check chatbot Cofacts in 2016 with the open source g0v community.

“We have a saying: Don’t ask why nobody does it? ‘Cause you’re nobody If no one has done this before, you’re the one building,” Lee told Al Jazeera.

Cofacts automatically replies to fake or misleading messages circulating on the LINE messaging app with a source report. Fact Checks are authored and reviewed by a group of more than 2,000 volunteers, including teachers, doctors, students, engineers and retirees – anyone who wants to become a fact checker can become one.

The idea, according to Lee, is to make reliable information available to everyone, in part by empowering Taiwan’s civil society to fact-check, rather than letting the government do the work. Cofacts is just one of many Taiwanese civil society organizations that believe the primary responsibility for countering disinformation lies with its citizens.

“All of our civil society groups, we kind of have a division of labor,” Puma Shen, director of the DoubleThink Lab, a research group focused on Chinese influence campaigns in Taiwan and around the world, told Al Jazeera.

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“Some of them focus on fact checks, some on workshops, and we focus on account activity.”

For Shen, Taiwan’s democratic values, including freedom of expression, are a crucial part of the solution to state-sponsored disinformation.

“If you really want to convince the public, I think the best thing for the government to do is tell the public, ‘Hey, we have a huge problem with fake news and disinformation.’ But then let the nonprofits take over,” he said.

Disinformation campaigns, usually in the form of conspiracy theories, propaganda, and fake news spread by content farms, bots, and fake accounts, are considered “cognitive warfare tactics” by the Taiwanese government.

Many campaigns are specifically aimed at stoking distrust of the US – which is one of the island’s strongest diplomatic and military backers, despite not officially recognizing Taipei – a tactic that could work given Taiwanese’s dwindling confidence in the US would come to their aid in the event of a war, Shen said.

In March, the Digital Society Project identified Taiwan as the No. 1 target for foreign governments for spreading false information over the past nine years. According to a report produced by the National Bureau of Asian Research last year, Taiwan acts as a testing ground for Chinese information campaigns before they are carried out elsewhere and is a key hub in information dissemination in regions like Southeast Asia.

Information warfare is as old as cross-strait tensions between Beijing and Taipei, but the real-world consequences of the unchecked spread of disinformation in 2018 served as a wake-up call for government and civil society alike.

This year, Su Chii-Cherng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan, died by suicide after Chinese media spread a fake story claiming he failed to help Taiwanese citizens escape during a typhoon there. Many also believe that Chinese propaganda and disinformation heavily influenced the results of Taiwan’s midterm elections this year.

Concerns about the spread of disinformation have also been heightened this year by a series of referenda on controversial issues, including nuclear power and LGBTQ rights, which have fueled deep divisions within society.

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Fake news from Taiwan
Fakenews Cleaner conducts media literacy workshops aimed at educating Taiwanese about the dangers of misinformation [Courtesy of Fakenews Cleaner]

“There were parents who kicked out children, couples who broke up because they had different views. And then we started thinking, what have we missed? We’ve been thinking about the filter bubble and how the algorithm puts us in an echo chamber,” Melody Hsieh, the co-founder of Fakenews Cleaner, an NGO that runs media literacy workshops with Taiwanese civilians, told Al Jazeera.

The events of 2018 fueled the launch of Fakenews Cleaner, alongside other anti-disinformation organizations. Since its inception, the group has accumulated 160 volunteers and held nearly 500 activities across Taiwan, from lectures in classrooms and nursing homes to outreach activities in parks and at festivals.

The primary target group is Taiwanese aged 60+, a demographic considered to be particularly vulnerable to health-related misinformation and phishing scams.

“Sometimes we do classes with elders and some get very angry and stand up and say, ‘Why didn’t the government do something? They should have an organization to stop the content farm. The older generation went through the White Terror,” Hsieh said, referring to the repression of civilians on the island during the era of military dictatorship prior to democratization in the 1990s.

“I’ll tell them if we make a law or [government] Organization, if different parties come to power, maybe they can put you under the same pressure as the White Terror… We say the most important thing is to learn how to protect yourself.”

Attempts by the government to crack down on the spread of fake news have been extremely unpopular, given Taiwan’s democratic values ​​but also its authoritarian past. One of the most widespread — and controversial — laws used today to punish individuals or groups for spreading false information, the Maintenance of Social Order Law, is a holdover from Taiwan’s martial law era.

Taiwan’s government continues to introduce legislation aimed at increasing its control over information, most of which never become law. In June, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission introduced the Digital Intermediary Services Act, which would establish obligations and regulations for certain large-audience platforms and streamline the process of removing illegal content.

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The proposed law was hotly debated; A poll circulated on Facebook by Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang party found that a majority of people opposed the law, which has since been suspended.

fake news Taiwan
Fakenews Cleaner organizes lectures to help Taiwanese spot misinformation, with the main audience being senior citizens [Courtesy of Fakenews Cleaner]

Still, many Taiwanese believe that as long as the government doesn’t monitor content, the government has an important role to play in the information war, especially given the staffing and funding constraints that only volunteer nonprofits face.

Some experts argue the government should focus on improving media literacy in schools, cracking down on phishing scams and improving privacy.

As cross-strait ties intensify, China’s information warfare tactics may outgrow the government’s and NGOs’ traditional debunking or fact-checking methods, said TH Schee, who has worked in Taiwan’s internet sector for 20 years.

Footage of Taiwanese soldiers throwing rocks at a Chinese civilian drone last month was genuine but was circulated “not only to test our response, but also to create false information by editing video clips.” [and] spreading them in the online community” in an attempt to create divisions and discredit Taiwan’s army, the Ministry of National Defense wrote in a statement.

“For the past four years, information warfare has been all about disinformation. But now you are seeing real information with different interpretations that could cause harm or suspicion to your government,” Schee told Al Jazeera.

“This will continue to grow and grow and I don’t think the government has found a way yet to deal with genuine information that is causing harm.”

Schee said advancing information warfare should be a societal effort that takes a pre-emptive rather than a reactionary approach. For non-state groups, this could mean working directly with journalists to create a better media environment, he said, while the government may need to take civilian privacy more seriously.

“By introducing stronger privacy and protecting users from manipulation or monetization of their online behavior or data, that would be a very good start,” he said. “It might not sound that direct, but it’s about protecting your citizens from disinformation without censoring the content.”

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