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Disinformation Prevention and Defending Democracy in Taiwan

Tsai Ing-wen triumphed over challenger Han Kuo-yu in January and sealed her second term as President of Taiwan. Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), opposes Chinese influence on the island while Han of the Kuomintang (KMT) supports friendly relations with Beijing. During the recent election, China used rampant online disinformation to actively intervene in support of Han. The implications of Tsai’s victory, however, are far greater than Taiwan’s independence from China. 

The Taiwanese government successfully mitigated the effects of Chinese interference and disinformation, demonstrating that governing bodies can take practical measures to prevent lies from spreading on social media. The success of Taiwan’s proactive approach emphasizes the need for universal standards on how democracies like the United States, having struggled with similar threats, should limit disinformation and foreign election meddling. 

 In the lead up to the election, both China and KMT supporters disseminated fake news stories over Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Facebook and Twitter removed numerous Chinese government-run accounts looking to disrupt Hong Kong protests, and Twitter announced it would ban advertising from state-controlled media outlets. Posts on all three sites included homophobic rumors about Tsai’s sexuality and questions over the legitimacy of her PhD from the London School of Economics. China also paid  major Taiwanese media outlets to run news stories that framed Chinese government programs for Taiwanese businessmen in a positive light. 

In addition to both Facebook’s and Twitter’s initiatives to take down false information and fake accounts, the Taiwanese government employed a range of measures to limit the dissemination of false narratives. Taiwan’s National Communications Commission fined CtiTV, a major cable network, for failing to meet fact-checking regulations. The government founded a Department of Cyber Security to safeguard against hackers like Chinese government operatives. Every ministry in the Taiwanese government is now armed with a taskforce to detect disinformation and publicize counternarratives. Perhaps most importantly, Taiwan’s parliament passed the Anti-Infiltration Act just two weeks before the election. This law allows for prison sentences and fines of $330,600 for spreading disinformation, interfering in the election, and influencing politics from outside the country.

Although Taiwanese anti-misinformation tactics are not perfect, the United Nations (UN) should adopt requirements for anti-disinformation and foreign influence legislation similar to that of Taiwan’s. This way, accusations within countries – that anti-disinformation legislation targets one party or another – might hold less weight and governing bodies could be required to take preventative action, even if they benefit from disinformation. The UN could also put in place common definitions of election interference, allowing countries to better identify instances of foreign meddling and take actions similar to Taiwan. Of course, Russia and China, both of which would stand to see their election intervention efforts curtailed, would likely exercise their veto power on the UN Security Council. Nonetheless, to propose this legislation or even construct guidelines would mark a stand against democratic degradation.

The United States offers a lens to examine issues that may arise in the effort to implement universal standards. Like China in Taiwan’s recent election, Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election in support of Donald J. Trump’s campaign. They hacked both Democratic and Republican National Committee databases, collaborated with senior Trump campaign officials, and engaged in an aggressive, targeted social media disinformation campaign to suppress Democratic voters and turn out Republican voters. The Trump campaign itself also weaponized disinformation. Since the election, after numerous congressional hearings about disinformation, a $5 billion fine against Facebook, and a Justice Department probe into Russian meddling, the United States government has struggled to ensure that these issues will not reappear in the 2020 election. 

"The Taiwanese government successfully mitigated the effects of Chinese interference and disinformation, demonstrating that governing bodies can take practical measures to prevent lies from spreading on social media."

There are a number of obstacles to regulating misinformation in the US. First, social media companies and Republican lawmakers argue that regulating disinformation violates the First Amendment. In Taiwan, KMT supporters similarly accused DPP lawmakers, Facebook, and Twitter of violating freedom of speech laws. Nonetheless, Taipei was able to take decisive action against disinformation even with the country’s strong free speech protections, which received a perfect score from Freedom House. Arguments against disinformation regulation in the US take an extreme stance on the First Amendment and have largely halted attempts to treat organizations like Facebook as anything less than its own democracy

These arguments neglect the fact that as companies rather than democratic institutions, Facebook and Twitter have every right to police content on their platforms. They are also not the bastions of free speech that they claim to be. Social media companies protect whatever speech or ads make them the most money, regardless of whether they distort true political discourse. Trending posts generate viewership and greater ad revenue irrespective of whether they are manipulated by campaigns looking to spread falsehoods or not. This means social media companies are likely to allow the spread of disinformation, even when the posts are coming from campaigns trying to manipulate voters rather than users engaging in open political debate. The examples of Taiwan and the US highlight that free speech can only be defended until it blatantly undermines democracy and tricks voters.

Second, because of the free speech arguments, social media companies are reluctant to regulate domestic disinformation. Although removing accounts originating in Russian troll farms might be an obvious choice, the difference between aggressive domestic political commentary and intentionally misleading information is often unclear. Even the distinction between domestic and foreign disinformation blur. As a result, social media companies hesitate to remove posts if they think they will receive accusations for limiting domestic free speech. 

Finally, American social media companies are incentivized to resist regulation of their content at all costs. Although Facebook purports to be a haven of open discourse, like Twitter, YouTube, and Google, their goal is to maximize profits. Any attempts to regulate advertisements or protect user privacy on their platforms, whether they are political disinformation or not, cuts into their revenue. Social media companies are therefore encouraged to fight tooth-and-nail against legislation which might make their jobs harder. Consequently, they roll out arguments such as the First Amendment debate in the US to shield themselves from having to deal with the financial inconvenience of complying with regulations.

Although American democracy has unique political characteristics, its struggle with disinformation and Russian election interference shed light on some of the issues that may arise in other countries with instituting Taiwan-like measures. 

In response, countries can employ a number of strategies to counteract these potential issues. In the lead up to the Taiwanese election, Facebook highlighted one potential solution when it partnered with the independent nonprofit Taiwan FactCheck Center, allowing them to evaluate viral posts and flag false media to users. If impartial nonprofits assume the responsibility to fact-check, social media companies can potentially shift some of the blame for policing domestic discourse. This also means that the government is not mandating what is the truth or not, but rather allowing potentially non-political organizations to determine what qualifies as disinformation. These elements could allay some free speech concerns and make it easier for social media companies to comply with disinformation standards. In Taiwan, this strategy made Twitter and Facebook seemingly more willing to regulate content, but did not quell all free speech concerns. Nonetheless, impartial independent fact checkers may offer a key answer to questions about free expression and social media compliance.

Ultimately, Taiwan’s approach shows that countries can effectively fight against foreign meddling and false narratives, but without a nudge in the right direction from an international governing body like the UN, countries may not find a solution to these issues. It is therefore imperative that these nations attempt to develop effective preventative measures and deal with issues like freedom of speech, partisanship, and resistance from social media companies as they arise. Global democracy may well depend on it.

Photo: Image via Flickr (david3108)