Ukraine Disinformation Fight Sounds Warning Bells for Taiwan

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Ukraine Disinformation Fight Sounds Warning Bells for Taiwan

Short of a drastic overhaul, Tsai Ing-wen’s administration must gain a firmer understanding of vulnerabilities in the domestic information environment.

Ukraine Disinformation Fight Sounds Warning Bells for Taiwan

In this April 12, 2017 photo, Taiwan’s “digital minister” Audrey Tang speaks during an interview in Seoul, South Korea.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Taiwanese see propaganda everywhere. Decades of Martial Law will do that. Under the Kuomintang (KMT) dictatorship, indoctrination saw a generation of Taiwanese rendered “politically and socially inert,” to quote sociologist Hsiau A-chin. With that dark experience in living memory, the democratization of the 1980s and 1990s remains cherished – and any hint of backsliding triggers anxiety.

The 2018 local elections are a case in point. Following a drubbing at the polls for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), there were claims of external, mainly Chinese, interference in the vote and the concurrent referendum on same-sex marriage. A newly assembled Disinformation Coordination Team (DCT) advised the Central Election Committee to push for two bills – one to stop foreign sponsorship of campaign advertising and another to permit injunctions against misleading ads.

Both were rejected. The judiciary’s objection to involvement in the latter evoked memories of an era when the separation of powers in Taiwan was at best nominal.

The loose structure of the new DCT was also telling. “Creating a formal organization solely to deal with disinformation would be unwelcome, if not suicidal, politically,” said Kao Shih-shiuan, an independent policy researcher.

“The legacy of martial law makes people instinctively detest the possibility of government-led propaganda,” explained Kao, who produced a report on disinformation in Taiwan for the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research in 2021.

Along with other Taiwanese analysts, Kao – who previously worked for Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan research organization focusing on disinformation – has kept an eye on Ukraine. He highlights the move by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to establish a dedicated Center for Countering Disinformation last year under the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. Such a move, he believes, would be neither desirable nor practical for Taiwan.

“The current arrangement [of the DCT] serves as an acceptable modus operandi to overcome existing departmentalism inside the executive branch,” Kao said. It also helps “bypass technical barriers” to the establishment of a formal body.

Public concerns about government overreach are echoed by representatives of other civil society organizations. At an April “hackathon” in the southern city of Tainan, organized by g0v, a collaborative open government community that has gained international renown, Yu Chih-hao said Tsai’s administration was “restraining itself from establishing an anti-fake news law.”

Drawing parallels with Zelenskyy’s suspension of 11 Russian-affiliated political parties in March, Yu cited discussions in Taiwan’s legislature of a mechanism to disband political parties found collaborating with foreign powers.

“This would cause a backlash,” said Yu, codirector of IORG, a civilian research organization working on information literacy and countering authoritarianism. “This ultimately is about what the public believe. In order to maintain trust, the separation between government efforts and ours should be maintained.”

Billion Lee was another participant in the hackathon. A cofounder of Cofacts, one of the world’s largest open-source fact-checking initiatives, Lee believes that the problem of disinformation in Taiwan is partly age-related. “Many people from my parents’ generation who suffered under martial law and the White Terror have no trust in the government,” said Lee. “We think that making it [fact-checking] as open and decentralized as possible will be more attractive.”

Others are more skeptical about the efficacy of the current approach. T.H. Schee is a 20-year digital veteran who fronts Open Knowledge Taiwan, a community of think-tankers and digital enthusiasts currently focusing on civil defense issues.

His assessment of fact-checking initiatives is blunt. “They’re futile,” said Schee, who served as an advisor to Taipei City Government between 2016 to 2018. “How many news items do Cofacts check each day? It’s less than 10. It’s a needle in – not even a haystack – but an ocean!”

However, Schee stressed that there might be a role for such operations at the onset of an invasion.

“If war breaks out, everyone will need information in those first 24 hours,” he said. “That’s when fact-checking will be important.”

War is naturally seen as a game-changer by most analysts. “Info ops antebellum and during war time are vastly different, and so are the respective counter strategies,” said Kao. “In wartime, I think Taiwan’s government should and would set up a centralized agency. Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of such channels in sustaining overall morale by acting as an authoritative source on information.”

Furthermore, said Kao, Ukrainian civilians have been encouraged to participate by “collecting intel for the military.”

While this is something Taiwan should be looking at, Schee is doubtful that the country’s information environment would support such a response.

“The thing about Ukraine is the focus on the three Ts: Telegram, Twitter, and TikTok,” he said. “Taiwan just does not have that.”

The high-level of encryption of in Ukraine (which, along with the similarly secure Signal app, has seen nearly 200 percent growth in installs in the country since the onset of the war), the status of Twitter as the preferred platform for connecting policymakers with the public, and the short-video optimization of the latter have been skillfully leveraged by the Zelenskyy administration, Schee noted.

However, all three platforms have low usership in Taiwan and, where the government does engage, the platforms are clumsily utilized. “Taiwan’s government does not have a strong Twitter presence because they see it has negligible market penetration,” said Schee. “In fact, government agencies in Taiwan don’t even have internal social media guidelines. A lot of accounts are tied to a single government official while on duty, so when he or she leaves the post, the account is abandoned.”

The dependence on the LINE instant messaging app, which is based mainly in Japan, also spells trouble in Schee’s view. “Telegram is technically so much better for lots of reasons: functionality, security, responsiveness, and interface,” he said.

More importantly, LINE’s ad-driven business model means they don’t have the development resources to support the amount of traffic Telegram can handle.

“If you want to get information out on Telegram you can use a broadcast channel, where you can have a million subscribers,” said Schee. “In LINE, if you want that, you’d have to pay half a million New Taiwan dollars per month, and you’d need them to enable that function.” Schee points out that Tsai, who has about 1.1 million subscribers, must foot the bill for her personal LINE account.

Ukrainians aiming to influence the war narrative gravitate to Telegram, said Schee, “because it can harness the info flow and distribute it at a very fast internet tempo.”

To make matters worse, the most compromised platform of all enjoys 30 percent usership in Taiwan, the place where it can cause the most harm. Schee remains baffled as to why Taiwan’s authorities have not cottoned on to the dangers posed by WeChat, an app that is part of China’s mass surveillance network.

“They’ve been ignoring its existence,” he said. “That’s a media environment where the Chinese government and media can control the messages flowing through.”

This points to a more fundamental problem with Taiwan’s information environment: the blurred lines between internal and external interference.

The furor over info ops during the 2018 poll centered around the surprise victory of pro-China KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu, who claimed the mayorship of Kaohsiung, traditionally a DPP stronghold. While some analysts saw incontrovertible evidence of Beijing’s hand, others were wary of potentially skewed data.

“There are those who aren’t comfortable with the research,” said Schee. “Disinformation came from all parties in 2018. This was well-recognized. It’s not just from the CCP or from outside the border.”

Acknowledging similar concerns, Kao believes that any future centralized department will have to proceed with caution.

“The situation is complicated, as the government wouldn’t use the relevant mechanisms to respond only to PRC-led disinfo but also to counter genuine domestic cases,” said Kao. “This is a distinction that cannot be easily applied in every case.”

More recently, the establishment of a Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA) has again raised questions about the government’s role in policing disinformation. The MODA will take on functions and responsibilities previously handled by various agencies, and while disinformation is not officially within its remit, there has been speculation about the new ministry tackling the issue.

“Multiple government agencies and probably legislators would love to see it meddling in the disinfo scene,” said Schee, who highlighted an increase in prosecutions for “spreading rumors” under the Social Order Maintenance Act.

Minister without portfolio Audrey Tang, who is widely known by the title “digital minister,” has been tasked with convening the MODA, but the final decision on who will head the new ministry has not been announced at time of press.

Behind the scenes, representatives of internet multinationals and human rights groups are said to be engaging another minister without portfolio, Lo Ping-cheng, with a view to his possible assumption of the MODA stewardship.

Either way, with local elections looming in November, Schee believes that the government’s approach is unlikely to change dramatically.

“If Tang turns out to be the new minister, legislators might ask her to work on disinformation,” said Schee. “But even then, I doubt the response on disinformation would be too different.”