Thu, Jan 02, 2020 - Page 14 News List

Uprooting fake news in Taiwan

Disinformation thrives on Taiwan’s poor media environment, experts say

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

From left, Stephane Corcruff, associate professor at Sciences Po Lyon; J. Michael Cole, policy analyst and journalist; Cedric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders East Asia bureau head; Chen Shun-hsiao, associate professor at Fu Jen Catholic University; Lee Chih-te, Association of Taiwan Journalists executive committee member; and Eve Chiu, Foundation for Excellent Journalism Award chief executive, speak at the first Taiwan International Journalism Conference last Friday.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Campbell

Taiwan’s land is fertile ground for fruits and vegetables — as well as rumors about them.

In recent years, plants have been the subject of fake news ranging from the relatively innocuous — bogus health claims that saw entire villages drying daisies for a tonic to cure diabetes — to the politically inflammatory — false reports that local farmers had been forced to throw away tonnes of produce left unsold because of slowing exports to China under a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration.

The spread of disinformation has reached greater peaks with the advent of new technologies for information and communication (NTICs). But the practice of using lies and deceit to gain power is as old as politics itself, attendees at the first Taiwan International Journalism Conference organized by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said last Friday.

Themed “Disinformation: Time for Solutions,” the one-day conference attracted media professionals and concerned citizens alike. Skirting clear of an expose of the individuals and organizations mongering fake news in Taiwan, it instead focused on China’s strategic aims and discussed ideas to tackle this age-old problem, against the context of the country’s particular media and political environment.

Two years ago, Taiwan became home to the first Asia bureau of RSF, a Paris-based non-profit, non-government organization that advocates for freedom of information and freedom of the press. At the conference, it became clear that these democratic underpinnings contained the seeds of both resilience and susceptibility to disinformation.

CHINESE WHISPERS

Anyone currently in Taiwan has the privilege of being a first-hand witness to a “bloody war” of disinformation in the lead up to the presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 11, Executive Yuan spokesperson Kolas Yotaka told the audience last Friday.

While China has learned from disinformation tactics used by Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union), its ambitions to annex Taiwan, shared language and cultural features and ability to dangle economic incentives have contributed to a “more refined” strategy that uses a “vast array of vectors,” said J. Michael Cole, a policy analyst, journalist and former deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.

Chinese disinformation in Taiwan has come a long way since the radio propaganda of Voice of the Strait, originally launched by the People’s Liberation Army in 1958. Today, leveraging state mouthpieces but also social media, cyber armies, content farms and artificial intelligence, China’s tactics have grown in sophistication.

Stephane Corcuff, associate professor of politics at Sciences Po Lyon, identified disinformation as a foundational element of China’s “sharp power.” Distinct from hard power and soft power, this described “an approach to international affairs that typically involves efforts at censorship and the use of manipulation to degrade the integrity of independent institutions” and “has the effect of limiting free expression and distorting the political environment,” according to the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, which coined the term.

Disinformation served to “Balkanize” or divide the country, Cole said, by exploiting existing polarizations and co-opting stakeholders more amenable to China’s positions. Hence, it worked most effectively when used not to brainwash the public, but to entrench existing views and sow confusion.

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