Taiwan Is Beating Political Disinformation. The West Can Too.
With money and effort, a shared sense of truth can be reclaimed.
If you read news stories or social media posts in Taiwan last December, you may have learned some startling “facts.” HIV has spread rapidly in Taiwan since the government legalized same-sex marriage, one story claimed. President Tsai Ing-wen forged her doctoral degree, another rumor went. Despite outrageous lies like these in the run-up to January’s presidential election, Tsai won in a landslide. Fake news failed.
Hard as it may be to imagine against the backdrop of conspiracy theories about child trafficking or supposed vaccination dangers dominating Facebook and YouTube for months, Taiwan should give everyone hope that we can live in a normal news environment again. The West’s response to disinformation so far has largely been reactive. It could do far better by following the Taiwanese model and taking an active stance against it. As a Washington Post headline reads, “[D]isinformation is ascendant. Taiwan shows how we can defeat it.”
Taiwan takes a whole-of-society approach to fighting disinformation. Its civic technology community works with social media companies, like the island’s popular messaging service Line, to identify, debunk, and downrank viral conspiracy theories on social media platforms. When someone comes across a news story that sounds fishy, they can send it to the popular chatbot Cofacts, where teams of volunteers then rapidly research the claim to determine its validity. The independent Taiwan FactCheck Center maintains an online repository of disproven conspiracy theories.
Taiwan also shows that the best defense comes from a solid offense. Rather than simply play whack-a-mole by disproving every new fake fact, the government creates new conversations by organizing public debates about issues via the citizen-run vTaiwan platform. Instead of promoting hysteria to sell more ads, vTaiwan’s algorithms highlight where there is consensus in a debate and minimize the voices at the most extreme ends. Media literacy trucks go to rural areas to educate people how to spot fake news. And with China keen to cause divides in Taiwan, local groups that knowingly receive foreign money to spread disinformation about elections can face fines, and their leaders can go to jail.
Building on a global trend of hiring technologists to drive government innovation, Tsai appointed a software engineer, Audrey Tang, to increase citizen engagement in government decision-making in 2016. While Tang has led initiatives to roll out new technologies that increase transparency and combat disinformation, she has also helped Taiwan distinguish itself by marrying those investments with community-level engagement efforts, such as enlisting thousands of pharmacists to help dispel rumors about COVID-19.
Since the early 2000s, and especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its well-documented interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the West has become hyperaware of the dangers of disinformation. Eighty-three percent of respondents in a 2018 Eurobarometer poll said they thought that fake news was a threat to democracy itself.
But unlike Taiwan, the West has mounted a response that does not call on whole-of-society efforts to fight back. The European Union’s flagship program to fight disinformation, EUvsDisInfo, serves largely as a clearing house for journalists and others to fact-check dubious claims and conspiracy theories disseminated within EU member states. The Global Engagement Center, established during U.S. President Barack Obama’s final year in office, identifies sources of foreign disinformation in fragile democracies, shares that information with U.S. allies, and generates content to counter false claims.
Simply responding to disinformation is not enough. Nor will profit-driven corporations like Facebook magically solve the disinformation problem—although they bear considerable responsibility for creating it in the first place. Building resilient societies that can fight back against disinformation comes from the hard work of increasing the public’s media literacy and creating and sustaining relationships among people over time, not better algorithms alone. Learning from innovators like Taiwan should be an overarching priority for liberal democracies in the 2020s.
To get there, democracies need to work together. Increased investments in foreign assistance programs and public diplomacy budgets to fight disinformation and to strengthen open societies to replicate Taiwan’s success should be made in a multilateral, coordinated way and in consultation with international and local civil society organizations. This should not be a U.S.-led war against disinformation, or a French-led one, but one shared by all democracies that want to stay that way.
While Western democracies should prioritize professional exchanges, funding for civic tech communities, and capacity-building within vital institutions, progress won’t come unless we put empathy before exceptionalism. The United States has much to learn from other countries, and all liberal democracies should see global networks akin to the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders program or to the U.S. State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative as more than modern megaphones. With some humility, we can source the best ideas, wherever they may come from; support an empowered and independent media; and connect human rights and democracy defenders from around the world.
Fighting disinformation is not just the responsibility of beleaguered reporters or frustrated public servants. Educators, religious leaders, social justice activists, senior citizen advocacy groups, environmentalists, labor leaders, public health practitioners, and business leaders, among many others, all have a stake in the fight. Reaching out to these constituencies, helping them to understand how disinformation affects their core interests, recruiting their leaders to speak out, and incentivizing them all to work together is how we win.
Taiwan has not completely solved the disinformation challenge. Conspiracy theories still take root, even today, and this contributes to an increasingly polarized electorate. But the island is far ahead of most other liberal democracies in fighting the disinformation war, an achievement that is made even more remarkable by the fact that Taiwan is also the No. 1 target for foreign disinformation in the world.
To win this asymmetric war against democracy will require a new and offensive strategy, with robust resources and multilateral coordination to match, that focuses on building whole-of-society efforts in every liberal democracy under attack. And we can begin by looking to Taiwan for answers.
Walter Kerr is a former career US diplomat. He leads global partnership development at the Silicon Valley big data startup Zenysis and writes the biweekly Chinese Journal Review newsletter.
Macon Phillips is the former coordinator for the Bureau of International Information Programs at the U.S. State Department and the former director of new media at the White House under President Barack Obama. He is also the former chief digital officer at CARE. Today, he leads the strategic advisory firm Starling Strategy.