The Battle Against Disinformation

A demonstration against fake news, especially efforts by media sympathetic to China to influence local politics, attracted thousands of protesters in Taipei. Photo: Martti Chen

Taiwan is seeking to fight back against fake news with stricter new legislation, media-literacy education, and fact-checking mechanisms. 

When President Tsai Ing-wen last year was in an armored car visiting areas in southern Taiwan affected by flooding, a Facebook fan page devoted to news accused Tsai of feeling contempt for the victims. The evidence offered was a screenshot of a conversation attributed to the car’s driver from messaging service LINE Corporation saying the members of the military accompanying Tsai had their firearms loaded and ready to use against the citizenry. It turned out the LINE message had been doctored. A man was later arrested for spreading fake news. 

Another notorious fake news case featured a video of a seemingly exasperated Premier Su Tseng-chang throwing his pen down after signing a condolence book at the funeral for a friend’s mother in his hometown in Pingtung County. The clip was doctored to make it seem as though the incident was at a funeral for a railway police officer stabbed to death by a passenger. 

The altered video, posted online in July, was reportedly accompanied by a message saying: “This is the funeral of a fallen officer. If you did not want to be there, you did not have to go. Why did you display such arrogance, throwing the pen in anger?” 

An investigation revealed the fake video to be the work of a software engineer who is supporting the Nationalist Party presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu.

Taiwan has fought a long battle for democracy. During the authoritarian period that ended with the lifting of martial law in 1987, public communication was strictly controlled. Political activists were in a constant struggle with censors and the secret police for the right to freedom of public information. 

Now Taiwan enjoys what those earlier activists had sought – an abundance of information. But that circumstance has only brought a different set of problems. Information, many experts say, is now becoming the main arena where Taiwan’s democracy is being undermined. 

“Fake news in the last one or two years has become an extremely serious social problem in Taiwan,” says Minister without Portfolio Lo Ping-cheng. “And it’s not just a social problem. It’s a political problem and even a national security problem.”

At the same time, it’s an issue that requires a delicate balance. While fake news represents a threat to democracy, so would excessive controls on freedom of expression and freedom of the press in an effort to crack down on disinformation. 

President Tsai’s inspection tour of typhoon damage in the south became the subject of disinformation. Photo: Office of the President, R.O.C.

Creators of fake news are often local troublemakers or people with a political axe to grind. But Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Karen Yu is among those who trace much of the disinformation appearing on popular social media sites to “content farms” in China. “There’s another kind of army from China, a cyber army,” Yu says. “Disinformation in Taiwan is a brand new social problem, so we need some innovation in our legal system.”  

Both Yu and Lo cite the Digital Society Project from the V-Dem Institute in the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, which surveyed experts all over the world. The study found that from 2013 to 2018, globally Taiwan suffered the most serious disinformation attacks spread from outside its borders. 

“We see that countries being affected the most about foreign governments’ dissemination of false information but doing the least in their own countries are Latvia and Taiwan,” notes a Digital Society Project working paper.

Ahead of the coming presidential and legislative elections in January 2020, the flood of disinformation on social and traditional media is expected to increase. Already more than 100 people have been prosecuted since last December for creating fake news under the Social Order Maintenance Act. 

Some experts say links to China are difficult to prove. For example, the IP addresses of the disseminators may come from other countries. Some academics also question the degree to which disinformation, even if it is flowing freely, influences Taiwanese elections.

“We jump to the conclusion that these factors heavily influence election results, but the causation has not been established,” says Liu Ting-chi, an associate professor at the College of Law of National Chengchi University (NCCU). 

Nevertheless, the government has been responding to the perceived threat with a raft of legislative amendments. Five of over ten amendments to existing bills proposed to counter disinformation have already been passed by the Legislative Yuan.

Yu notes that the legislation includes a strict legal definition of “disinformation.” It has to meet the three conditions of being fake, motivated by malice, and harmful to individuals, organizations, or social order. 

NCCU’s Liu stresses that malice is the most difficult element to prove. “It goes to a person’s or organization’s mindset. There’s no magic way to do that.” 

Lan Chang, Google Taiwan’s head of communications, adds that perceptions of disinformation can be very subjective. For example, one YouTube viewer might see a video of President Tsai Ing-wen saying outrageous things and regard it as satire, while another viewer might take it literally.

New laws on the books

The five amendments passed by the legislature mainly involve increased fines for spreading disinformation. It is left to government agencies and the courts to determine if a report is disinformation.  

One of the five new laws is an amendment to the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act stipulating that disseminating false news about a disaster that causes grievous harm to others is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Similarly, amendments to the Communicable Disease Control Act specify penalties of up to NT$1 million for false media reports having a serious impact on disease prevention. Various amendments to the Food Administration Act and the Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation call for prison sentences of up to three years for spreading rumors about food safety that harm the public interest or cause damage to other persons.

Fake news about agricultural prices have been an area of particular controversy in Taiwan recently. Newly enacted amendments to the Agricultural Products Market Transaction Act raise fines up to NT$300,000 for deliberately spreading disinformation that affect market prices and hurt the public or consumers. 

Legislator Yu notes that as farmers are an important support base for the ruling DPP, she suspects that “content farms” in China have been created to try to influence elections by demoralizing farmers through stories that claim fruit or vegetable prices have plummeted. In one example of how disinformation about food prices causes chaos, a photograph showing a truck dumping bananas by a roadside in Kaohsiung went viral as rumors swirled that prices had plummeted to NT$1 per kilogram, the Taipei Times reported.

In another much-cited case, TV station CtiTV, which tends to be friendly toward China, in April was fined NT$1 million by the National Communications Commission under the Satellite Broadcasting Act for failing to verify information given by a pomelo farmer during a political talk show before airing it. The farmer had claimed – falsely as it later turned out – that pomelo prices had plunged so low that 2 million tons had to be dumped into the Zengwen Reservoir.  

Critics said CtiTV was intending to hurt the DPP ahead of legislative by-elections on March 16. But some academics, such as NCCU’s Liu, criticized the NCC’s response as being excessive and setting a bad example for handling press-freedom issues in Taiwan. 

Liu argues that while allowing the farmer to vent his frustrations without checking the facts amounts to highly sloppy journalism, he couldn’t see the presence of any malice. The Satellite Broadcasting Act only contains a fact-checking requirement.

“It’s a problem because although fact-checking is an essential requirement for decent news organizations, whether it should be enforced by government agencies with harsh administrative penalties is another question,” Liu says. 

Government intervention in the process could lead to a “chilling effect” on media organization’s ability to carry out their journalistic duties. 

The chilling effect could even extend to deterring the publication of truthful information. “If strict fact-checking is enforced by the government, a journalist who cannot independently corroborate information from a credible  source would probably dump the news,” Liu says, noting that this factor would particularly affect breaking news.

In fact, Liu notes, government enforcement of fact checking would create more problems rather than solve them. In ordinary libel cases, the plaintiff bears the often-expensive cost of bringing suit and may decide against proceeding. “But if the government is involved, it has the power and the resources, so the chilling effect is even stronger.”

Ed Huang Ming-hui, associate professor of law at National Taipei University, agrees with Liu that the best way to counter disinformation is by providing counter-information, rather than legally restricting its circulation. In the case of the fake video of Premier Su throwing the pen, the Executive Yuan clarified that it was fake news “and within one day it was not an issue,” Liu says. 

“The government always has channels to make correct information known,” Liu says. In addition, Taiwan has a diverse media landscape that allows for a broad range of opinions that can counter disinformation. Some major newspapers and TV stations oppose closer relations with China, while others support that policy direction. 

Need for judicial approval

Among the handful of proposed amendments still undergoing discussion in the Legislative Yuan, one of the most controversial is the draft Digital Communications Act. The draft adheres to the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability, a set of guidelines on censorship and takedown laws established by an international consortium of NGOs in 2015 and widely accepted as a global standard. 

But social media companies became concerned late last year when officials from the Executive Yuan indicated that the draft bill might include an additional requirement calling for digital communications platforms or social media to review user reports of disinformation and remove such items without the need for judicial approval.  

Anita Chen, Google Taiwan’s head of government affairs and public policy, says this additional requirement, if enacted, would violate Google’s policy of being a neutral platform. The existing practice is that information appearing in Google’s products across the globe is taken off the internet only in response to a court order or if it violates the company’s own guidelines.

In an example of the latter, YouTube Community Guidelines prohibit certain categories of material, including sexually explicit content, spam, hate speech, and incitement to violence. Videos with these characteristics are pulled off the internet by the company. Google News also does not allow sites or accounts that impersonate other persons or organizations or misrepresent themselves.

“For a government to ask us to remove something without a court order or violating our (own) policies is not something that industry views as appropriate,” she says.

In December last year, the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents global internet technology companies doing business in the Asia-Pacific region, including Amazon, Twitter and Apple, wrote then-Premier William Lai complaining about this aspect of the bill and the lack of dialogue with industry over the issue. The group demanded that the bill be withdrawn. 

“The AIC is aware that other countries, such as Germany, have drawn up laws to combat hate speech. However, without first having a substantial period of stakeholder dialogue, modeling Taiwanese laws imprecisely on foreign statutes risk far-reaching consequences on the freedom of speech and human rights of the people of Taiwan,” the letter said.

Minister Lo has given assurances that the current draft of the bill does not include this requirement and adheres to the Manila Principle in Intermediary Liability. But he adds that no one knows what form the bill will ultimately take when passed, as some legislators believe the current version does not go far enough.

In addition, proposed amendments to the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act and the Presidential and Vice Presidential Election and Recall Act, which have both undergone a first reading, have also drawn criticism from academics and provoked disagreements between the Executive and Judicial Yuans. 

The draft amendments permit electoral candidates to apply to the judiciary to have election advertisements in the media containing false information about them to be removed from circulation or face up to NT$2 million in fines. The court has three days to make a decision. “The Judicial Yuan is concerned that it doesn’t have the time and capacity to look into false information and verify facts,” Professor Liu says. “Whether three days’ time is reasonable is a question.” 

Regardless of their various opinions, all those interviewed for this report agree that improving the public’s media literacy rather than imposing legal constraints is the best way to counter disinformation. Lo notes that media literacy guidelines will be inserted into the 12-year education program for the school year starting this September. There are also plans to incorporate media literacy courses into higher education and teacher training.

“We need to teach our citizens how to distinguish true information from false,” says Legislator Yu. 

Another positive development is a number of non-profit, fact-checking organizations have been established in Taiwan. One is Fakenews, based in Taichung’s Fengyuan District, which teaches elderly people media literacy with a philosophy that it’s best accomplished through face-to-face relationships, rather than talking about abstractions. It uses such approaches as guessing games conducted during mountain climbing.  

In addition, the Taiwanese government has begun communicating with global social media companies about the problem of disinformation, Yu reports, while these companies have started to extend their global policies for managing disinformation to Taiwan. Facebook, LINE, and Google this year all began collaborating with local fact-checking organizations. 

From the government’s perspective, the most fruitful outcome was in early June when the Executive Yuan teamed up with LINE, one of the most popular social media companies in Taiwan, to set up a rumor-busting page on LINE Today, the app’s main news feed. LINE has given the government free access to the LINE Today interface to publish rebuttals to fake news on the page. 

Max Chen, Facebook’s public policy manager, stressed in an email to TOPICS that globally Facebook continuously updates and builds technical systems to make it easier to respond to reports of abuse, as well as to detect and remove spam and eliminate fake accounts. “In Q1 of this year, we removed 2.2 billion fake accounts globally, 98.5% before anyone reported them to Facebook,” he says. 

In June this year, Facebook launched a third-party fact-checking program in Taiwan in partnership with the Taiwan FactCheck Center, an NGO certified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network. 

Facebook identifies and takes action against false news through a combination of technology and human review, including feedback from Facebook users, Chen says. “If the fact-checkers rate a piece of content as false, it will be shown lower on the News Feed – reducing future views by 80%,” Chen says. 

For its part, Google began working with NGO MyGoPen in January and Taiwan FactCheck Center in February, instituting a system where Taiwanese news items that have been fact-checked are identified online. 

Google has also undertaken various other initiatives. For example, in early June Google Taiwan held a three-day, in-depth training course on fact checking and online verification in partnership with the Taiwan FactCheck Center, where around 30 journalists and fact-checkers were trained by local and international experts from nations such as Germany.