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Did political disinformation change the outcome of the 2018 elections in Taiwan? The self-ruled island is struggling with false information - much of it, officials suspect, coming from state actors in mainland China. NPR's Emily Feng went to Taiwan ahead of their January presidential election to see how they're bracing themselves against a new wave of disinformation.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This summer, a bridge collapsed in Taiwan.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The terrifying scene was caught on video.
FENG: Six people died. And soon, a Facebook post depicting an alleged victim went viral, blaming Taiwan's ruling political party for the collapse. The problem was, the victim didn't exist.
Summer Chen is editor-in-chief at the NGO Taiwan Fact Checking Center. She's showing me how she debunked the story by comparing an image with the false victim to a TV story of the real one.
SUMMER CHEN: You can see the injured again.
FENG: Every time Chen debunks an article shared on Facebook, Facebook includes a link to Chen's correct article under the original false post. Facebook then alerts any user who shared the article that it was wrong. This is a small part of Taiwan's battle against disinformation ahead of January's presidential elections. It's determined to avoid what happened with its local elections last year. President Tsai Ing-wen, who Beijing does not like, saw many of her supporters lose legislative seats in 2018 and blames disinformation that favored pro-Beijing candidates. So now, Taiwan faces a delicate balance - how to cut off disinformation without cutting off free speech.
AUDREY TANG: I think when people still remember the martial law like I do, we just don't want to go back there.
FENG: Audrey Tang is Taiwan's digital minister. Her own parents were journalists before Taiwan lifted martial law in 1987. She's careful that policies don't give government too much power.
TANG: And so because of that, all the innovations that we do are all based on the simple idea that a minister's words should not be worth more than a journalist's.
FENG: Controversially, Taiwan is aggressively punishing those who spread disinformation. This April, its broadcast regulator fined a TV station around $32,000 for not verifying a news item before airing it. Taiwan has also fined dozens of individuals who share harmful, false items on social media. But the real challenge for regulators is most of the disinformation coming into Taiwan is through individual social media accounts.
SANDRA HO: (Through interpreter) We got a private message from her saying she wanted to buy our Facebook page.
FENG: Sandra Ho is a writer behind a Taiwanese political satire show. The show's fan page on Facebook has more than 400,000 followers. And this April, a woman named Tina Hsu told Sandra she wanted control over her Facebook page and thus, access to her followers. Sandra refused.
HO: (Through interpreter) We jokingly asked for 1.4 billion Taiwan dollars, about 46 million U.S. dollars.
FENG: But dozens of other fan pages did sell out to mysterious buyers. Then the pages began writing in the simplified Chinese text used in mainland China or began sharing Chinese communist propaganda. They also shared disinformation, helping posts go viral. Puma Shen, an associate professor at National Taipei University, isn't surprised by this. He runs a lab tracking how disinformation is manufactured in real time by Chinese state-backed sites, re-shared on Taiwanese social media, and then sometimes even broadcast by professional media.
PUMA SHEN: They want to create certain kind of bias by only provide one perspective of the story. And it's just narratives. It's not fake news. So you cannot debunk it. You cannot fact-checking this kind of stuff.
FENG: Another common tactic is something Shen calls the subliminal attack.
SHEN: So you can try to watch the SEO. So when people search certain terms or, like, certain candidates on Google, they'll only see negative or positive news.
FENG: Basically, Chinese trolls can manipulate search engine algorithms by having lots of people search for one thing over and over again, skewing the Google search results to show, say, only positive stories about a pro-Beijing candidate.
Ketty Chen studies how disinformation spreads through Facebook fan pages at a government think tank. She thinks it's next to impossible to regulate social media, where information is often spread in private chats, not public posts. And Taiwan has to live with that.
KETTY CHEN: As democracies always often face is that how can you legislate individual's right to expression, the freedom of media, freedom of journalists to report, to investigate?
FENG: And even if Taiwan fails in stopping disinformation, Chen hopes other democracies learn something from Taiwan's example.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan.
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