In this age of social media and flourishing online technologies, disinformation can spread like a virus. It goes viral. In pluralistic democracies, such as Taiwan, disinformation poses a complex challenge—because anyone armed with a smartphone and basic editing tools can take part in its dissemination.
Prior to the pandemic - prior to 2020 - Taiwan had already been cited as the country most exposed to disinformation operations. The attacks largely come from the PRC regime in Beijing, and we know their motivations: to destabilize our democracy, society, and government institutions in order to impose their brand of authoritarianism.
For example, during the anti-ELAB protests in Hong Kong, a trending message made its rounds across Taiwan’s social-media landscape, attempting to portray the Hong Kong protesters as so-called “rioters” who allegedly were paid $20 million to murder members of the police force. That, of course, was a gross misrepresentation of the protestors’ mission, but the intention of the campaign was clear: to lessen the influence of the anti-ELAB movement on the Taiwanese presidential election. The message was actually trending only on Taiwanese social media, because the citizens of Hong Kong would have easily seen through the veil of disinformation. The message was not meant for a Hong Kong audience.
According to Taiwan FactCheck Center, this piece of disinformation was traced back to the Weibo account of 中央政法委长安剑, the PRC Central Political and Law Unit. They had created the original fabrication by misusing a Reuters photo, attempting to paint the image as a depiction of teenage protestors engaging in violent activity simply over the purchase of iPhones. The second-level remixers then built on the image by creating supporting narratives. This disinformation campaign was clearly attributed to the PRC regime.
Taiwan faces disinformation campaigns such as these on a daily – indeed, hourly - basis. This trend has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, with an estimated 25% of all pandemic-related disinformation believed to have come from the PRC.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, pandemic anxiety has stoked the flames of disinformation—and we’ve seen the challenges posed by pandemic-related misinformation, mal-information, disinformation, ultimately leading to our so-called “infodemic,” as the WHO calls it.
Instead of using centralized initiatives in order to fight the ongoing ‘infodemic,’ Taiwan employs a decentralized, human-centered approach. During the pandemic, Taiwan adopted what I call the “fast, fair, and fun” approach, and the “humor over rumor” tactic to combat coronavirus misinformation, which gives the public room to laugh at nonfactual information.
Here’s a fun example. In Taiwan, we have a cute Shiba Inu, or 總柴, who translates all of the information published by the Central Epidemic Command Center, or CECC, using very cute dog pictures. For example, for physical distancing, we have a picture that says, “If you’re outdoors, please keep the space of two Shiba Inus away, and if you’re indoors, keep the space of three dogs away from one another.”
Another instance from February last year shows how we used viral humor not only to disseminate science, but to combat disinformation—‘fighting fire with fire,’ as it were.
At that time, we saw the online spread of false allegations claiming that Taiwan’s increased medical grade face-mask production had compromised its ability to make bathroom tissue paper. To keep people from hoarding toilet paper, we released a meme featuring Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang—who is the head of the Cabinet—shaking his backside, along with the caption, “We only have one pair of buttocks.” Let me explain the humor: The word “stockpile” is pronounced in Mandarin as “囤,” which sounds exactly like buttocks, or “臀.” The picture also showed a table clarifying that materials for toilet paper are imported from South America and have no bearing on medical mask production, because raw materials for masks are sourced locally.
The logic behind our strategies is very simple. Any approach that begins with censorship faces extensive resistance—because in a pluralistic democracy, any communication that looks like a takedown or censorship is simply a nonstarter. Therefore, we need to think of innovative ways to outrun and outpace the conspiracy theorists and disinformation campaigns.
This is not easy, because most disinformation is motivated by outrage, which is one of the most viral emotions. Outrage leads to revenge, discrimination, and the beginnings of hate speech, rendering people’s capacity for empathy null and void. When people start sharing stories with mindless abandon, we then have the real problem of an “infodemic” on our hands. Because of this, we need to vaccinate ourselves against the “virus of the mind.” We now realize that humor has a very high “R-value” and has the capacity to spread more dramatically than even outrage, as proven quite effectively in Taiwan. So far, we’ve succeeded in containing the “infodemic” without censorship or top-down “takedowns.”
Personally, I believe it’s difficult for a single piece of disinformation to get everybody enraged if people are competent in critical and creative thinking. It’s just like biodiversity—it’s harder for a biological virus to take hold if there is ample biodiversity in the ecosystem. The same idea holds for democracy.
In Taiwan, we put an emphasis on “media competence” (媒體素養) instead of “media literacy” (媒體識讀). This is a conscious choice, because in Mandarin, literacy, or 識讀, assumes that you’re a reader or a viewer, a consumer of information, whereas competence, or 素養, means that you’re a producer, a co-creator—a steward of information, data, and media.
The government of Taiwan has incorporated media competence into our basic training modules, not just for basic education, but also for government and educational personnel in a variety of ways. For example, the Ministry of Education established the Media Competence Education Promotion Committee, which convenes once every four months to review and formulate policy.
We are putting efforts in building related core competencies among students in accordance with our 12-year Basic Education General Guidelines, and media competence has also been included in various seminars and training workshops for educational and government personnel.
Instead of a standard answer-based media education system, we are looking to incorporate lifelong lessons in media production and newsroom operations, such that people can see themselves as contributors to journalism. Compared to censorship and takedowns, I believe this is a longer-lasting solution, or “vaccine,” to the ongoing disinformation crisis.
Taiwan’s resolve to combat online disinformation stems from its grounding as one of Asia’s most open societies. In addition, I would also say that Taiwan takes freedom of speech extremely seriously, regarding it as a right that cannot be traded in any shape or form.
Even in the face of a global pandemic, Taiwan ranked 5th in the world and 1st in Asia in the most recent “Freedom on the Net 2021” report published by Freedom House in September. I believe the reason behind this achievement is our vibrant online landscape, supported by meaningful and affordable internet access, an independent judiciary that protects free expression, and the administration that has worked to make its system and policy rationale as transparent as possible to our citizens.
When it comes to debunking disinformation, again, we do not believe that a centralized and opaque approach is the most reliable. To prevent its further dissemination, disinformation is verified and clarified through joint endeavors by what I call a People-Public-Private Partnership. We have established a government mechanism that offers immediate and effective clarification and a neutral, independent, third-party fact-checking and media self-regulation mechanism.
For example, platforms such as the g0v community invites citizens to engage in open collaboration and work together to identify disinformation, developing apps such as the Cofacts LINE bot. Other mechanisms involve consultations by experts, such as the Taiwan FactCheck Center, which was accredited in November 2018 as a third-party fact checker by the International Fact-Checking Network.
In a sense, disinformation is just a symptom of a larger disease. Disinformation is the result of a lack of trust among the people, but also between the governments and their citizens.
In Taiwan, we deeply embrace democracy, humanity, openness and freedom of speech. With these core values, we can create a friendly environment for collective intelligence and social innovation. With intense efforts from the social, public and private sectors, now we know there is a way to augment transparency and give scientific knowledge a higher basic transmission rate than conspiracy theories and innuendo.
With that, I would like to extend my sincerest appreciation for the kind invitation to the EU DisinfoLab. I trust the discussions will be lively and interesting, leading to concrete and meaningful actionable results.