What can the US learn from Taiwan’s fight against disinformation? 

July 10, 2023
In this photo taken on June 23, 2019, protesters hold placards with messages that read "reject red media" and "safeguard the nation's democracy" during a rally against pro-China media in front of the Presidential Office building in Taipei. (HSU TSUN-HSU/AFP via Getty Images)

Taiwan will elect a new leader early next year, and the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is worried that China will try to manipulate the process. “Taiwan has exceeded every other country in the world on the amount of false information other governments disseminate within its borders,” Tsai noted in a recent speech. China’s information operations, which seek to polarize Taiwanese society, undermine trust, and erode faith in the government, are linked to its broader strategy of global military intimidation.

Indeed, the threat of misinformation as an instrument of a disruptive state power was on everyone’s mind as journalists from around the globe came to Taipei for the World News Media Congress, where Tsai spoke. “How do we counter disinformation while safeguarding the right to free speech?” Tsai asked. No one had easy answers. Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, who opened the conference, noted that the “the corruption of our information system leads to the corruption of our democracy.” Panelists (including me) discussed strategies to expose disinformation, expand fact-checking, counter government propaganda, and reach skeptical audiences.

The issue is very real in a Taiwanese context; as a recent report from the Council of Foreign Relations noted, Taiwan’s democracy is a strategic asset, deepening and strengthening its alliance with the US and increasing the likelihood that the US will stand firm if Taiwan comes under attack. Chinese disinformation, the report noted, “seeks to erode confidence in US support, undermine Taiwan’s elected government, and convince Taiwanese people that unification with—and submission to—China is inevitable and therefore resistance is dangerous and ultimately futile.” 

For decades, Chinese propaganda also sought to build a more positive narrative, making the argument that unification will restore cultural ties and bring enormous economic benefits to Taiwan. But as support for the “one country, two systems” model has faded in Taiwan amid the escalating crackdown in Hong Kong, China’s propaganda tactics have shifted to sowing chaos. 

Ethan Tu, a former Microsoft executive and founder of the Taipei-based AI Labs, a privately funded research organization that tracks disinformation, believes that Beijing is mounting a multifaceted effort that relies on troll farms to flood social media. The evidence, according to Tu, is a concentration of disinformation during the Chinese workday, with posts dropping precipitously once the paid trolls log out. No issue is too insignificant. A recent campaign highlighted an egg shortage that hit Taiwan earlier this year, blaming it on government mismanagement. 

But journalists I spoke to in Taipei said that, outside of such blatant attempts at manipulation, discerning the hand of China in the information space can be exceedingly difficult given the nature of Taiwanese politics and the structure of its media. In the color-coded continuum running from support for independence (green) to support for unification (blue), Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party is firmly on the green end of the spectrum. A swath of the private media clearly aligns with her agenda and echoes her perspective. 

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The opposition KMT, heir to the hardline nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek, but now espousing a center-right ideology, is backed by its own blue media, which supports greater integration with China. There is also what is termed “red media,” outlets backed by business owners who—because of direct relationships, hidden investments from the mainland, or their own business interests—support deepening economic ties and often echo Beijing’s talking points. 

Journalists say it’s impossible to know where Chinese manipulation ends and Taiwanese democratic politics begin, since some KMT positions clearly align with Beijing. Journalists also acknowledge that by framing political positions taken by the KMT as “disinformation,” the DPP and President Tsai have secured a political advantage. 

Jennifer Huang, the editor of the leading English-language daily the Taipei Times, notes a related challenge for the Taiwanese media: how to cover Chinese military exercises when it’s impossible to fully know Beijing’s intentions. Is the Chinese fighter jet buzzing the island a genuine security threat or an information operation intended to influence Taiwanese politics by manufacturing fear? Aggressive military action can’t be ignored—it’s news—but coverage inevitably serves Beijing’s propaganda goals. It’s the same dilemma the US media confront in covering Donald Trump. 

One unique feature of the Taiwanese media is the Central News Agency, a state-funded wire service that, in a polarized media environment, distinguishes itself with its just-the-facts style of coverage. Executive editor Chris Wang says that even though his board is appointed by the party in power, he has not experienced interference in his newsroom. He believes CNA’s approach to the news produces a consensus around basic facts within the political class, something that’s been hard to achieve in the US.

Last year, the DPP put forward a new law called the Digital Services Intermediary Act, modeled on the European Digital Services Act. The law was intended to combat disinformation by creating accountability for social media companies about information circulating on their platforms. But the bill stalled amid political opposition and civil society concerns about its possible impact on free expression. 

In her speech to the World News Media Congress, President Tsai did not mention the new law and instead emphasized simple, common-sense approaches to combating disinformation, such as improving government communication, expanding media literacy education, increasing research, and supporting civil society and tech community. Such efforts, while uncontroversial, are unlikely to move the needle. 

But it’s the right approach, said Cheryl Lai, the chair of Taiwan Radio International, which seeks to counter Chinese propaganda by telling Taiwan’s story abroad in twenty different languages. Over a sushi lunch, Lai made the case that there are no shortcuts or easy solutions to the fight against misinformation and that the best response to China’s propaganda is simply to strengthen Taiwan’s democracy. 

“It’s the only way,” Lai said. 

Deep concern about the role of disinformation in US politics is also understandable, particularly around attempts by foreign governments to influence US elections. But the Taiwanese example shows that even when the stakes are existential, the best response may be to recognize that there are no short-term solutions and instead follow the guiding principle that has allowed Taiwan to survive and thrive in China’s shadow: strategic patience. 

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.