2024 / 6 / 16

Disinformation and Civil Defence: How Did Taiwan’s Civil Society Counter Foreign Information Manipulation?

作者:You-Hao Lai

Table of contents
Image credit: Fake news by Jeso Carneiro/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED.

Over the past decade, Taiwan has been recognised as the biggest target of foreign disinformation. Despite this challenge, it has sustained a thriving democracy, achieving the rank of 10th globally and the top position in Asia, according to The Economist. The successful conclusion of Taiwan’s presidential election on January 13th this year was another testament to its effective response to external information manipulation. As observed by Freedom House, Taiwan, while confronted with the strongest CCP influence efforts, has demonstrated the most remarkable resilience, largely attributable to the proactive engagement of its civil society. This article explores the critical role played by Taiwan’s civil society. Throughout 2023, Taiwan had endured an escalating flood of foreign disinformation that increasingly targeted the election as the voting day approached. To safeguard democracy, Taiwan’s civic groups adeptly countered China’s influence operations by rigorously fact-checking false content, tracking and halting its spread, and strengthening citizens’ resistance to disinformation exposure. 

How Disinformation Operates 

Before exploring civil society’s response, it’s important to understand the mechanics of disinformation operations. Disinformation typically undergoes three stages to effectively influence public discourse and democratic decision-making: the production and dissemination of false information and, ultimately, swaying the beliefs and perceptions of its audience. In Taiwan, a significant portion of disinformation is sourced from overseas. According to V-Dem’s data, Taiwan has been rated as experiencing “extremely often” foreign government disinformation dissemination over multiple years. By comparison, disinformation from the domestic government and political parties is much less frequent. The dissemination channels of disinformation in Taiwan are diverse and intricate. China’s operations involve an interplay of three modes: direct involvement by Chinese official organisations; local influencers, PR companies, and media outlets motivated by financial gains; and news organisations, fan pages, and ordinary netizens driven by material or ideological interests. Lastly, Taiwan’s status as a Chinese-speaking country with deeply polarised national ideologies makes it a conducive environment for China’s influence operations. 

Countering Disinformation: The Role of Civil Society 

In response to China’s information warfare, the Taiwanese government has been more proactive since 2018. It crafted a four-pronged approach: “identify, clarify, restrain, and punish.” Each government agency formed social media teams dedicated to clarifying disinformation within two hours using 200 words and two images. The government also partnered with digital platforms to mitigate the spread of misinformation and engaged educational and broadcasting authorities to boost citizens’ media literacy. Additionally, it revised criminal laws to discourage participation in disinformation campaigns. However, these punitive measures are not only delayed in effect but also pose a risk to free speech. Also, the government’s clarifications might not always be perceived as credible, particularly by those with differing political views, and curbing disinformation heavily relies on private-sector collaboration. Thus, civil society plays a crucial role in ensuring independent fact-checking, lower disinformation visibility, and effectively advancing media literacy education. 

First, civic groups have tirelessly fact-checked an ongoing flow of disinformation. In their recent 2024 election analysisDoublethink Lab (DTL), an NGO focused on Chinese influence operations, highlighted that China aims to exploit existing domestic disputes in Taiwan to intensify societal divisions, spreading disinformation in areas like defence, foreign affairs, social security, and fundamental livelihood issues. Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC) countered this by publishing over 200 online verifications and analyses. A notable issue was the alleged moral failings of the ruling party’s candidate. For instance, a widely circulated pre-election video claimed Lai Ching-te had a mistress and an illegitimate child. This video sparked over 16,000 inquiries within the first ten days of January on Cofacts, a crowdsourcing fact-checking platform, matching the inquiries of the next five most queried topics combined. In response, MyGoPen, another fact-checking entity, promptly clarified the lack of evidence for these claims and identified the video as a typical AI-generated deepfake.  

Furthermore, a plethora of short videos alleging “electoral fraud” appeared suddenly post-election. Given the potential of such false claims to erode trust in democracy, MyGoPen swiftly issued four reports in a single day to address allegations of vote hiding and counting discrepancies. TFC had also actively debunked rumours about election preparations a month prior. These fact-checks were additionally disseminated on media partners’ websites, such as Yahoo! News and the Central News Agency. Major messaging apps and social media companies forged partnerships with these fact-checking groups. For example, Meta, when notified of disinformation, would label and limit the spread of such content and alert those trying to share it. Collaboration between media and digital platforms has significantly boosted the impact of fact-checking in dispelling disinformation. 

By sharing their findings with digital platforms, Taiwanese civic groups have made a significant impact in curbing the spread of disinformation. In a follow-up to their 2022 efforts, DTL launched the “Foreign Interference Monitoring Hub” this year, collaborating with MyGoPen, Cofacts, Taiwan Media Watch Foundation, and a group of scholars. Together, they analysed the sources and patterns of foreign information operations during the election period. This initiative revealed that after January 9th, numerous fake accounts on platforms like X and TikTok began spreading claims about Lai Ching-te’s supposed illegitimate child. On January 12th alone, 1,638 accounts posted over 7,500 messages, many repetitive, signalling Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour (CIB) intended to sway public opinion. These efforts were linked to a Cambodian fake account network, which amplified content in Facebook groups to affect the audience’s views.  

Moreover, the audience was targeted with misleading claims about the current President, with content from “The Secret History of Tsai Ing-wen” e-book circulating in various formats on social media before the election. Additionally, the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG) noted that around the election day (January 10th to 16th), 469 TikTok videos challenging the election’s integrity garnered over 16 million views, with 35 new TikTok accounts contributing to this narrative. When CIB was detected, civic groups informed the relevant digital platforms, leading to the removal of these fake accounts and fan pages. Continuing their fight against CIB, Meta took down 7,704 Facebook accounts and nearly a thousand pages last August, underscoring China’s strategy of cross-platform, large-scale influence operations targeting regions, including Taiwan. The proactive measures of civil society have been instrumental in intercepting and countering the tide of disinformation. 

Finally, civic groups are dedicated to minimising the impact of disinformation on the public. Supported by Google, TFC launched the Taiwan Media Literacy Project in 2021, targeting a wide array of individuals, particularly those in need of improved literacy skills. Collaborative partners include the National Association for the Promotion of Community Universities, offering civic education to the middle-aged and elderly, and FakeNewsCleaner, a grassroots organisation focused on imparting fact-checking skills in Taiwan’s rural and vulnerable communities. These groups weave media literacy into diverse community activities and produce online content and training for netizens. Additionally, IORG and the Taiwan Pàng-Phuānn Education Association have partnered with high school teachers to develop information literacy courses, training students to scrutinise media content. The Kuma Academy, specialising in civil defence education, conducts about 20 basic camps monthly, covering topics like information operations and providing advanced courses in cybersecurity and Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT).  

In response to the growing concern over AI-generated disinformation, TFC included AI literacy in its last year’s annual workshops. Along with MyGoPen, they have championed the identification of AI-manipulated information, explaining practical detection skills in their fact-checking reports. Also, with the anticipation of increased disinformation about “vote rigging,” TFC outlined four narrative patterns of election fraud rumours in mid-December 2023, aiming to pre-emptively “vaccinate readers against rumours,” as stated in their blog post. Especially in an era where generative AI greatly reduces the cost of creating false content, civil society groups are empowering every Taiwanese citizen to bolster their media and digital literacy, defending against the infiltration of political disinformation. 

To conclude, during the 2024 election, Taiwan’s civic groups effectively mitigated the negative impact of disinformation at various stages — production, dissemination, and reception — thereby safeguarding the critical information infrastructure necessary for democratic decision-making. Emerging threats, however, are on the rise: AI has dramatically reduced the cost of generating false content, leading to more sophisticated and decentralised coordinated behaviours. As RAND has predicted, generative AI impacts not just the content of messages but also significantly enhances the credibility of “messengers” such as bot accounts. Additionally, the selection and amplification of domestic disputes in Taiwan serve to obscure the “China factors” behind information manipulation, increasing the Taiwanese public’s vulnerability. The weaponisation of emerging technologies, along with Taiwan’s existing societal divisions, appears to encourage authoritarian regimes. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s civil society will remain unyielding in the face of these formidable challenges. It is in the collective actions of its citizens that flourishes a hope — a hope to resist authoritarianism and safeguard the very survival of democracy. 

You-Hao Lai is pursuing his SJD degree at The George Washington University Law School, with a focus on constitutional law and technology regulation. He also holds a non-resident fellowship at the Research Institute for Democracy, Society, and Emerging Technology (DSET), a governmental think tank in Taiwan. Before starting his doctoral studies, he worked as an attorney at the Cogito Law Office. He served as a legal and policy advisor to the President of the Judicial Yuan, Taiwan’s highest judicial organ. He holds his LL.M. from National Taiwan University College of Law and Harvard Law School. 

The original article was published on the website of Taiwan Research Hub at The University of Nottingham as part of a special issue on “2023 to 2024: Looking Back, Thinking Ahead.”


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