Never say ‘fake news!’ Plus other advice from Taiwan on countering disinformation

VANCOUVER — Taiwan’s success in battling online disinformation campaigns can yield lessons for other countries also struggling to counter false narratives and mistruths shared online, says the country’s digital minister.

Audrey Tang said disinformation campaigns meant to interfere with Taiwan’s democracy and society launched by mainland China have given Taiwan an edge in developing ways to counter such campaigns, methods other nations can implement.

“The importance, here, is that we are kind of in the front line,” Tang told the Star. “So, the more we share our counter-cyber security or counter-disinformation playbook, the more time other jurisdictions have in preparedness.”

Disinformation campaigns were in full swing in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread and the United States held its presidential election. Since the Nov. 3 election, efforts attempting to discredit the validity of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory have emerged.

Such disinformation campaigns have surfaced in Canada, too, with some pushing false information on the pandemic while others spread rumours about nefarious government plots.

Marcus Kolga, founder of Toronto-based Disinfowatch, said though disinformation hasn’t played a huge part in Canadian elections yet, the threat is real and growing.

“The underlying (thread) is one that promotes an erosion of trust in our public officials,” said Kolga, pointing to recent movements calling COVID-19 a hoax. “If that … continues going, we’re headed in the same direction as the U.S.”

He said the effects of disinformation campaigns such as QAnon, a conspiracy theory with no basis, which claims Trump is fighting a ring of elite pedophiles, were clear in the U.S. election.

Kolga said such theories are now firmly rooted in the U.S. via social media and given oxygen by foreign organizations, such as the “news” station Russia Today.

Last Spring, both the U.S. and Australia accused Beijing of being behind some major global disinformation campaigns.

In June, Twitter suspended nearly 24,000 accounts posting pro-Chinese Communist Party narratives and another 150,000 accounts amplifying the messages by sharing them, the Associated Press reported.

Taiwan has been common target of such campaigns.

Beijing claims Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, even though the island nation has had its own sovereign government for decades. Taiwan rejects China’s claim and has endured Beijing’s attempts to influence its politicians and society to support the mainland.

Taiwan has countered these efforts to influence the Taiwanese public with a robust system designed to counter false narratives. The strategy was lauded as a success, after the country’s January 2020 election, for thwarting attempts to influence the vote by disinformation efforts in favour of the Chinese Communist Party.

Tang stresses there are two important facets to Taiwan’s approach.

“The government needs to trust the people,” Tang said. “This is the most important thing. If we do not treat people as adults, then it creates a distance. And then the social sector will not be empowered.”

Part of Taiwan’s system involves recognizing, because of social media, all members of the public are, in effect, part of the media more generally.

“There is no viewer in Taiwan. We are all media-producers,” she said. “They just need to be more journalistic.”



The strategy teaches media competency, which Tang stressed is different than simple media literacy. Media competency, she said, essentially trains members of the public in the same skills a journalist has for verifying and disseminating information.

Tang said it’s similar to a vaccine; teaching such skills inoculates the public against disinformation, so a natural response across the public will kick in to actively fight mistruths when they appear. The aim is to have the factual version of the story go viral.

The public is trained how to spot misinformation, in things such as techniques for checking the veracity of a photo used in a meme and creating counter memes to quash the reach of the false one.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has also started a media literacy program to help.

The approach includes government and independent fact-checking centres run with the help of professional journalists working to expose disinformation from a variety of sources in real time and making the correct information available to the public.

Government can issue press releases quickly to set the record straight and citizens can also counter the narratives if they see them pop up in their social media.

An important facet of Taiwan’s efforts is never using the term “fake news” when talking about disinformation. The phrase is an insult to journalists, Tang said, and reporters are one of the most important assets for countering disinformation.

Tang said words terms like “info-demic” or “disinformation crisis” are better descriptions.

“If you say, ‘fake news,’ you paint yourself against the journalists and that’s a lost cause,” she said.

With free speech concerns in mind, the government also encouraged self-regulation among social media platforms. Five major platforms, including Facebook and Google, have established “regulatory principles” around false information.

—with files from The Associated Press

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