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Humour Over Rumour: Fighting Disinformation

Posted on Mar 28, 2023 by FEED Staff

At a gathering in London, Taiwan’s top digital minds shared their experiences combatting cyberattacks and disinformation

Words by Neal Romanek

A country under martial law as recently as the nineties, Taiwan now ranks highly among the world’s top functioning democracies. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index noted a global collapse of democracy in 2021, but Taiwan ranked eighth overall in a tally across a variety of democratic indicators – beaten out only by the six Nordic countries, Ireland and New Zealand. The next Asian countries on the list were South Korea and Japan, ranking 16th and 17th respectively, with the US at 26th, Hong Kong at 85th and China at 148th. 

As the invasion of Ukraine has reminded us, there are people who will go to any lengths to destroy a burgeoning democracy, especially if it is one that could give their own citizens funny ideas about freedom and the future. Taiwan’s history has been intimately bound with imperialism; first by China, then Spain, the Netherlands, then China again, then Japan. When the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland in 1949, the nationalist government fled to Taiwan, declaring itself the legitimate Chinese government. The two states continued to diverge, with Taiwan becoming the flourishing democracy it is today. The split remains unresolved, with the CCP still claiming Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China. 

This makes for some complex international relations. Only 14 states have officially recognised Taiwan – thus forswearing relations with China – including Guatemala, Vatican City and Tuvalu. All other countries comprise a spectrum of association, some maintaining a relationship with China only (Uruguay, Norway, Egypt, Pakistan), and others keeping ties with Taiwan in an unofficial capacity (USA, Brazil, UK, India) – which often involves tiptoeing around China.

There is online combat going on all around us all the time, sometimes state-sponsored, sometimes purely criminal, and sometimes through organisations operating on behalf of states, but kept at arm’s length for plausible deniability. The People’s Republic of China operates one of the world’s most aggressive cyberwarfare programmes – and odds are that you have been personally impacted, be it through election meddling, hacks of governments and businesses or disinformation on social media. 

Taiwan has been a particularly prominent target. A major attack in August of last year, apparently showing disapproval of then US speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the country, included disabling Taiwanese government websites and disrupting train and air travel, as well as hijacking screens and monitors in public places.

“We understand better than most how autocratic actors seek to sow social and political discord in democracy.” 

Real Solution: Audrey Tang is a proponent for improving media literacy to fight disinformation
Real Solution: Audrey Tang is a proponent for improving media literacy to fight disinformation

Open Forum

In November of last year, the Association for International Broadcasting and Radio Taiwan International held the Taiwan Forum in London. This brought to light issues around Taiwanese cybersecurity and shared how it has been using cyberspace to defend its democracy and project soft power in the world.

Speakers included Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who gave a prerecorded speech to the event. This was followed by addresses and Q&As by Taiwan’s minister of digital affairs, Audrey Tang, joining live over video; and founder of Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association, Chia-you Kuo, who spoke on ways of promoting Taiwan globally using digital tools.

“Taiwan has come a long way in our pursuit of press freedom,” says President Tsai. “In just a few decades, Taiwan broke down long-standing restrictions on civic participation and the media. Today, Taiwan is home to a vibrant media landscape, recognised as one of the most free in Asia by Reporters Without Borders.

“With our decades of experience in countering authoritarian influence, we understand better than most how autocratic actors seek to sow social and political discord in democracy. We also know that our responses to the spread of disinformation must be rooted in democratic governance that values transparency and openness.”

Front line of cyber defence

Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs was officially launched last August and is headed by literal super genius Audrey Tang, who became involved in Taiwanese politics during the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement. Tang is the first non-binary official in Taiwan’s top cabinet and has been a powerful architect of open-source solutions to boost democracy and civic participation.

“Totalitarian regimes are taking the opportunity to shape the internet into a pervasive tool of control. This power asymmetry, brought about by centralised AI, enables dictators to impose state surveillance and top-down takedowns, turning AI into ‘authoritarian intelligence’, a draconian weapon against journalism, the free press and civil society.”

Tang believes that Taiwan is a front-line state fighting against the global resurgence of authoritarianism, and notes that if a certain type of cyberattack is effective in Taiwan, it’s much more likely to be deployed in other countries around the world.

Taiwan incorporates not just media literacy but media competence into its basic education curriculum. This extends to government personnel, too. The result is a population positioned in a state of active mobilisation against cyberattack.

“Instead of static media education that teaches literacy in consuming media, citizens see themselves as competent contributors and investors in civic journalism,” explains Tang.

Digital Diplomacy: Chia-you Kuo spoke on ways of raising Taiwan’s profile using digital tools
Digital Diplomacy: Chia-you Kuo spoke on ways of raising Taiwan’s profile using digital tools

Release the spokesdogs

At the height of the pandemic, Taiwan established its own command centre, with dedicated teams focusing on media clarification and debunking conspiracy theories in what Tang called the ‘infodemic’. The flood of disinformation was countered with a strategy deliberately employing fun.

“‘Humour over rumour’ was our approach, in which a vaccine of the mind is voluntarily developed and shared by the people.”

Creating humorous content to combat online disinformation begins to crowd out falsehoods with higher viewing numbers and greater engagement. Memes featuring adorable shiba inu as ‘spokesdogs’ – headed by top ministry spokesdog Zongchai – helped relay information during the pandemic and counter both rumours and conspiracy theories. One illustration reminded people to stay two shiba inu away from people in public spaces and three shiba inu away indoors. Taiwan – as it happens – got the pandemic under control far earlier than most other countries.

The shiba inu memes inspired the NAFO (North Atlantic Fellas Organization) movement, which counters Russian propaganda in the Ukraine war with humorous quips from edited shiba inu images. NAFO memes directly engaged Russian politicians with their impervious silliness, and have subsequently been adopted by heads of state and military officials as their Twitter avatars.

“Any response that begins with top-down takedown, lockdown and censorship faces extensive resistance in our pluralistic democracy. Anything that resembles censorship is a non-starter, so we have to innovate ways to outrun the architects of conspiracy theories and information manipulation campaigns,” says Tang.

In an era of automated content, where the dream of many content owners is a fire-and-forget model requiring as little monitoring as possible, countering disinformation properly may seem old-fashioned. It requires human creativity and real-time understanding of public needs, as well as the most effective response to the attack. It’s like improv comedy on the battlefield.

There’s a practicality to all this fun. Outrage is the most viral emotion in social media and the fuel for most disinformation, which often takes a conspiratorial tone. The Taiwanese line has been to provide a logical response to any trending rumours, using humour as a deliberate way to defuse the anger.

“When people laugh, anger is vented as humour,” says Tang. “Then we’re quick to organically clarify and participate in fact-checking and civic journalism. This inoculates against outrage, as humour and anger are mutually exclusive. Fast, fair and fun underpin our digital social innovation approach where the government doesn’t innovate for the people, but with the people.”

Creating digital resilience

Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs focuses not just on cyber defence, but on resilience. It’s impossible to counter every single cyberattack or disinformation campaign, but inside Taiwan’s responses is a mindset where every danger becomes a chance to learn and develop stronger countermeasures and strategies.

The technology backbone has developed in response to threats in cyberspace, keeping in mind the principle that preservation of openness and democracy are core ingredients of any defence. Government websites all operate on the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), which is a global peer-to-peer file sharing and storage network created in 2014. This allows the government to keep its sites and communications in the face of DDoS attacks. The country is also investing in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites to ensure communications and broadband access even in the event of its submarine cables being cut.

The Ministry of Digital Affairs is advancing a ‘data altruism’ model, in which the data of individual donors can be processed for the public good without violating the individual’s personal data privacy. This promotes the beneficial use of data for journalism, scientific research and improving public services, while also acting as an invitation for international organisations to collaborate in using data for the public good.

Lest you think Taiwan has something your country could never possibly possess, its digital governance protocols and operational procedures have all been released into the public domain through a Creative Commons licence.

“This will insure the foundation of our resilience,” explains Tang, “as well as creating a leading model of digital governance in collaboration with other members of the free world.”

The article first featured in the spring 2023 issue of FEED magazine.

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