“Dong suan,” get elected, chanted enthusiastic DPP supporters ecstatically on Saturday, January 11, when we mingled with crowds of visibly proud and determined voters in the Taiwanese presidential and parliamentary elections. And the crowd’s wish came true. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen won a convincing election victory with more than eight million votes, the highest number ever in a Taiwanese presidential election. She was not only up against her main opponent, Han Guo-yu; Tsai also overcame relentless Chinese bullying tactics and organized disinformation campaigns.
Taiwan is a country under constant and increasing pressure. The People’s Republic of China is willing to use all means to secure Taiwan in its orbit. Increasingly, it has encroached on Taiwan’s mainstream and social media landscape to shape the narrative in its favor and to discredit the Tsai Administration, which it views as insufficiently deferential to Communist Party directives based on “One country, two systems”—a prospect that has never looked less appealing to the Taiwanese following events in Hong Kong. Though precise attribution is often difficult, many suspect the direct or indirect influence of Chinese disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing distrust in institutions and politicians. To these should be added malicious rumors that President Tsai had faked her Ph.D.degree from LSE, and that she is a lesbian, to name just a few. Other campaigns have targeted the Taiwanese economy with stories affecting crop prices.
Under such pressure, moral panic often results in knee-jerk legislation that may harm the very democratic values those laws are supposed to protect, including free speech. The list of democracies that have compromised free speech in the fight against harmful content online includes Germany with its NetzDG Act, France, which has adopted laws against both online hatred and fake news, and the UK, which is likely to adopt an online harms bill in 2020. These measures are built on “intermediary liability,” where governments force tech platforms to police the content shared by users or risk fines. However, the ongoing European crackdown on online speech is not only difficult to reconcile with international human rights norms but has also been watched—and copied—by authoritarian governments eager to curb political dissent under the guise of legitimacy. Since the adoption of the German NetzDG at least 13 countries have adopted or proposed similar laws, often with direct reference to the German precedent. These countries include Russia, Belarus, Venezuela, and Singapore, all of which severely limit free expression.
While Taiwan has so far rejected a similar approach, the country has not been entirely immune to these impulses. The enactment of an anti-infiltration bill and the “digital updating” of existing laws against specific forms of intentionally harmful disinformation have raised concern and heightened division. But given the scope of disinformation campaigns and the existential threat that mainland China poses to Taiwan’s small and open democracy, these measures are surprisingly mild, even if they could represent a future encroachment on freedom of expression. Taiwan’s lighter-touch approach stands in contrast to more heavy-handed regulation against fake news in Asian countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, where take-downs and censorship ares the first lines of defense—the latter among the countries explicitly inspired by Germany’s NetzDG legislation.
Arguably the most critical Taiwanese response to disinformation has been civic tech initiatives that harness the digital power of the people. We met with Digital Minister Audrey Tang, who is the poster wizard for this approach of “Radical Transparency,” as she calls it. Tang was part of the Sunflower movement, which occupied Parliament in 2014 and left notes in legislators’ desks about how they could renew their democratic thinking. Tang—a serial entrepreneur—also has roots in the fertile ground of Taipei’s civic tech community where ingenious and creative initiatives against disinformation are cultivated. According to Tang, immunizing democracies against disinformation from below requires trusting citizens and civil society rather than viewing them as a fickle mob ready to believe whatever outrageous rumors are being spread by the enemies of democracy. In short, when it comes to countering disinformation, citizens of democracies should be treated as a resource, not a liability.
Inside government, Tang’s approach has helped cut response time on disinformation down to two hours or less. Moreover, cooperation with civil society organizations such as g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”) has allowed Tang’s Anti-Troll Army to collect and analyze reams of data and carefully target its response in order to optimize efficiency and reach. One innovative tool is the collaborative Cofacts initiative, which allows users of Line, the most popular messaging app in Taiwan, to install a chat-bot. Whenever users have doubts about information they can submit a link to the chatbot which forwards it to a group of fact-checkers who can verify or debunk the story. This can help stop the spread of disinformation in the otherwise fertile ground of end-to-end encrypted messaging services, but without resorting to surveillance, censorship, or draconian measures such as Internet shut downs. But Tang has also emphasized the need to understand and reverse engineer the preferred methods of troll-armies and rumor mongers by fighting memes with memes and YouTube with YouTube instead of a classical government press release that never reaches its targeted audience.
This, Tang argues, is a way to counter China’s authoritarian propaganda with radical openness and democracy. As an example, all her meetings were on the record and open, including ours (all yours to retrieve, dear reader).
These initiatives are also a conscious effort to avoid more heavy-handed legal responses, such as the NetzDG model, which Tang fears will result in a “chilling effect, because the large platforms will tend to over-censor.” Having said that, Tang—a self-styled “Conservative Anarchist”—does not entirely rule out the possibility of more drastic measures if her open-source fire wall is breached. She is adamant that the continued success of the radical transparency model depends on cooperation between the government, civic tech, and not least social media platforms and messaging apps like Facebook and Line. And cooperation has been forthcoming. On election eve, we visited Facebook’s War Room in Taipei where a team monitored developments in real-time and coordinated with third party fact-checkers, governments institutions, and Facebook teams outside Taiwan.
The abject failure of Chinese disinformation to seriously affect Taiwan’s presidential election is a promising sign that even small democracies can challenge a huge and tech-savvy dictatorship when it comes to information warfare. But this requires empowering governments, civil society, and media platforms through smart and creative tech strategies built on trust, transparency, participation, and inclusiveness. Moreover, the recent election was only the first battle of what will surely be a much longer war. Mainland China is unlikely to take its defeat on the chin and will undoubtedly seek to upgrade its offensive digital capabilities in order to hack and breach Taiwan’s faith in tech-optimism and civic trust. Should it succeed, the Taiwanese public and political establishment may not be willing to continue gambling on radical transparency to ensure election integrity. This mood is already prevalent among influential parts of Taiwanese society. The executive director of a prominent think-tank and expert on security policy told us of the need to update the understanding of “privacy” and “freedom of expression” for the digital age, by which he meant providing the government with more intrusive powers than those already on the books.
But if the current beta-version proves sufficiently resilient, the Taiwanese government’s efforts to inoculate society against harmful disinformation seems more promising than attempts to widen vague and contested laws against disinformation and infiltration. Not only is an emphasis on censorship and restrictions likely to undermine the very freedoms that form such a startling contrast between the public sphere in Taiwan and mainland China; heavy-handed top-down legislation is also perfectly suited to play into the hands of trolls who can pose as martyrs and victims of repression (however disingenuously) and portray the Taiwanese government as insincere and hypocritical about the Island’s hard-won democratic freedoms.
Sustained success for radical transparency may also help persuade other democracies, including the member states of the European Union grappling with the threat of Russian disinformation, that there are real alternatives to increasing government and corporate control of news and information. After all, democracy is much more likely to inspire and appeal when tackling its problems with means that reflect rather than reject democratic ideals.
Crucially, civic mobilization is also much less prone to abuse by authoritarian states. While countries like Russia, Singapore, and Venezuela have copied and expanded Germany’s NetzDG, few dictators or one-party states are likely to find Tang’s recipe of radical transparency appealing. Accordingly the stakes are high, and for Audrey Tang’s model to last and spread, Taiwan will have to continue to punch above its own weight when taking on China in cyber-space.