TAIPEI – With a presidential election just a week away, Taiwan’s government, together with local media, researchers and hackers, are stepping up efforts to quash a deluge of fake news – much of which is believed to be coming from China.
On Tuesday (Dec 31), Taiwan’s legislature passed a number of amendments to the Criminal Code to regulate the spreading of misinformation, raising the penalty from under two years behind bars and a fine of NT$1,000 (S$45) to up to NT$200,000 in fines and the same prison time – heavier if the misinformation is spread online or via television, radio or other media.
The problem is considered especially acute in Taiwan.
Along with Latvia, Taiwan has been ranked as the place most affected by foreign online disinformation campaigns in the world in 2019 by the V-Dem Institute, a data analysis centre hosted at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden’s Department of Political Science.
These two places have “the absolute worst scores” when it comes to false information spread by foreign governments, reads V-Dem’s 2019 Annual Democracy Report.
A study published by local non-profit media Voicettank last September observed that during 2018’s local elections, held on the same day as a controversial multi-question referendum, fake political news sent on popular messaging platform Line grew steadily in the two months before election day, and peaked on polling day on Nov 24, 2018.
The data was collected from the number of fake news cases reported by Line users to the fact-checking Line account Cofacts.
According to the study, the numbers dropped right when the elections ended.
Run by g0v, a non-profit online platform created by hackers to promote transparent government information, Cofacts is a Line bot that one can “message” – you send the bot some information you believe might be fake, and the bot will help verify its credibility.
In addition to Taiwan FactCheck Center and Cofacts, a group of Taichung locals created Fakenews Cleaner, a non-profit organisation that holds talks teaching people how to differentiate between real and fake news.
It also reaches out to older smartphone users who might not have access to fact-checking resources.
Ms Valerie Wang, 29, expressed exasperation at Line messages from her father that she says often contain fake political news, usually forwarded by his friends.
“When I try to get him to fact-check these messages, he just replied, ‘only takes a second to forward but 10 minutes to verify’ – I can’t believe he said that.”
Mr Lee, a 30 year-old Taiwanese man who asked to be identified by his surname only, said: “My family group chat is like that, too.”
Like Ms Wang’s father, Mr Lee’s elders usually send negative messages about President Tsai Ing-wen or her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to the chat group.
“But relatives my age mostly choose not to respond (to such messages). Our elders will think information that contradicts their political beliefs is the actual fake news and will stop the conversation.”
The focus is not just on fake news believed to be from China – local politicians are also being scrutinised.
In a recent presidential debate, online news site READr, The News Lens, Taiwan Environmental Information Association and others collaborated on a joint fact-checking project that verified every statement made by the candidates, grading them as “entirely correct”, “partially correct”, or “false”, and followed up with supporting evidence. Several local news outlets also conducted their own fact-checking in real time.
Still a work in progress, READr’s current results show Ms Tsai in the lead with 92 per cent of her claims factually correct, with Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu at 40 per cent, and People First Party chairman James Soong at 25 per cent.
Mr Lee thinks spreading fake news is something that exists among the supporters of both camps.