U.S. think tank released report highlighting how Washington can benefit from Taiwan’s experience combating disinformation from China
The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. released a report about how Taiwan handles disinformation campaigns from China, suggesting that the U.S. may be able to learn a few lessons from Taipei’s experience.
In the report released on Wednesday, CSIS highlights how Taiwan combats disinformation campaigns from China by improving government information service through digital tools, enhancing citizens’ media literacy through training and rooting the initiatives in the defense of free speech, democratic norms, governance institutions and society.
The team of experts, Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project; Scott Kennedy, director of CSIS’ Chinese Business and Economics; Freeman Chair in China Studies Jude Blanchette; and former Freeman Chair in China Studies Scott Livingston, suggest that Taiwan’s multifaceted response to disinformation can offer valuable lessons to the United States, as it confronts the threat of disinformation attacks from China.
China’s decades-long political warfare against Taiwan
The report points out that over the last few decades, China has been launching information warfare attacks against Taiwan, as it hopes to “reunify” with the island. After Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in 2016, China brought its disruption of Taiwan’s political system to a new height. It hopes to degrade popular support for Tsai’s administration through disinformation campaigns.
Traditionally, China has been relying on the “United Front” to launch political warfare against Taiwan, and they are made up by an ecosystem of individuals and organizations working through hybrid to achieve Beijing’s goals.
In Taiwan, Beijing typically builds up their influence network through domestic political parties, overseas Taiwanese business people and their extended families, and proliferating ownership of domestic media outlets. After the 1990s, China witnessed a boom of publications and media outlets, and the rise of Internet helped to enlarge the trend.
The report points out that with China’s growing confidence and assertiveness in the international community, Beijing has also increased their disinformation campaigns against Taiwan. Taiwanese entrepreneurs with business interests in China and domestic media companies financed by China are highlighted as possible sources of domestic disinformation campaigns in Taiwan.
The team of experts argue that since disinformation campaigns launched by China are often obscured by its secrecy, it increases challenges for Taiwan to accurately identify the problem of disinformation, which also makes it hard for Taipei to find effective solutions.
“Equally challenging is the constantly evolving nature of CCP disinformation activities,” said the report. “Emerging technologies, new approaches to media and communication, and the opportunity to learn from the successful strategies of other malign actors such as Russia mean that the CCP’s ongoing disinformation offenses are iterating new best practices and becoming increasingly adept at exploiting media and social media platforms in target countries.”
And while Beijing’s disinformation campaigns pose a serious threat to the U.S. and Taiwan, the experts at CSIS think they are merely part of a larger disinformation problem facing democracies in the era of instant and omnipresent communication technologies.
Taiwan’s multifaceted response
The report also detailed how Taiwan relies on a multifaceted response to deal with the growing amount of disinformation campaigns initiated by Beijing. It gave a few examples of how Taiwan implements these strategies in real-life situations. At the end of 2019, each government department installed a “meme engineering” teams to respond to disinformation efforts rapidly.
Typically, each department will create a clarifying meme with no more than 20 words in its title, using less than 200 characters in the text and ensuring that the meme only contains two images. These memes will be published in the “clarifying section” on LINE TODAY.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center held daily press conference between January and June 2020, to keep the public informed about the pandemic while responding to relevant disinformation campaigns.
Experts at CSIS think the daily press conference allowed the Taiwanese government to strengthen its public messaging around one official source, which could potentially avoid confusion among the public amid a public health crisis.
On the other hand, Taiwan also established a Fact Check Center that will select several items to fact-check during a daily meeting. After the three staff fact-checked and reviewed each item, they will publish it. When the results are posted, they will include the whole review process and offer references for each factual assertion.
Experts at CSIS suggest the U.S. to adopt Taiwan’s fact-checking mechanisms and develop rapid response teams within government agencies to instantly correct the record and fight disinformation with information.
Additionally, they think the U.S. can also learn to coordinate among government, private sector, and civil society organizations to create stronger efforts to deal with disinformation campaigns.
Citizens should also be educated to differentiate between fact and opinion and government agencies should appoint young civil servants familiar with technology to design and implement new tools to respond to disinformation challenges.
Bonnie Glaser, the the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, said the U.S. may have begun to take some lessons from Taiwan. “Twitter is now identifying when a particular tweet isn’t necessarily aligned with the fact,” she said.
“The practice was already used in Cofacts, a chatbot designed to identify disinformation. Rather than taking something down when it’s wrong, Cofacts puts up factual information next to the disinformation. I think it is an effective way of dealing with disinformation campaigns.”
Glaser mentioned that Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang once told her that it’s not good to take down something because it’s false. Tang believes the better practice is to show people what the real facts are.
Additionally, the CSIS report also mentioned that the high level of public trust in Taiwan helps the multifaceted approach implemented to be effective. However, experts acknowledged that since the U.S. is highly polarized and low-trust environment, they think the strategies implemented in Taiwan will be less effective if they were adopted by the U.S.
However, Bonnie Glaser points that as Taiwan is also a divided society, she thinks the fact that Taiwanese people can have sufficient confidence in the government amid the coronavirus pandemic may suggest that there could be some lessons in Taiwan’s experience for the U.S. to learn.
“Taiwan is also quite partisan and divided, Yet there has been an ability for people to come together to deal with the threat to their health even as they continue to disagree on other issues,” Glaser explained. “That’s where I think maybe there are some lessons for the United States.”
The report also emphasized the importance for the international community to form a global coordination that will see democratic countries exchange intelligence about Chinese efforts and share best practices on how to reduce and counter disinformation campaigns.
Glaser thinks Taiwan should also consider leveraging its experiences to help other countries. “The increased attention to disinformation campaigns around the world has opened the door for Taiwan to use its own experience and some of the creative ways that it has applied to deal with disinformation from China to help other countries,” she said. “I think it’s more important for Taiwan’s relationship with other countries than it is for its relationship with the U.S.”
This article was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese Website.