Ms Ho, you work for the Taiwan FactCheck Center. What exactly do you do?
We check the veracity of digital content, we highlight biased reporting, and we also keep tabs on images that go viral. In Taiwan, we have seen a massive increase in fake news in recent years. When this content spreads unchallenged, it can cause enormous damage.
“Our social media has been flooded with misinformation”
Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang recently said in an interview with the BBC that Taiwan is exposed to millions of cyberattacks every day. Why do digital attacks play a particularly big role in Taiwan?
We are in the middle of an information war. Besides hacking and cyberattacks, our social media is also flooded with manipulated news and images. Disinformation is a threat all over the world, but in Taiwan the situation is unusual because of its difficult relationship with China. We have been able to track how much of the disinformation is spread by Chinese actors. The intention behind this is usually to divide society and to fuel distrust of the Taiwanese government with false information.
Which types of misinformation are particularly widespread?
After elections, alleged evidence of electoral fraud emerges. And during the Covid 19 pandemic, news circulated that the government was covering up the real causes of the pandemic. Fake news often targets minorities, for example the LGBTIQ community. But above all, we observe a real wave of misinformation every time events of global significance make headlines.
Last year, there was the first big wave of disinformation after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, masses of pictures appeared that supposedly showed current war scenes, but which actually came from completely different contexts. The second wave occurred in early August when Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Through numerous false reports, the rumour was spread that the Taiwanese government had paid millions of US dollars for Pelosi to come to Taiwan.
In response to Pelosi's visit, China organised massive military exercises. There was also a lot of fake news and fake footage of missiles flying over the skies of Taipei. And the third wave took place during the last local elections. In particular, the video of a White House press conference was very widely circulated. But the subtitle had nothing at all to do with the original content - it said that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen would “flee to the US if China reclaims Taiwan”.
How is such fake news spread?
Mostly via social media like Facebook, Weibo or the messenger service Line. We used to be able to spot Chinese senders of many fake news relatively easily because the messages were written in the simple Chinese alphabet, while we use the more complex transcription in Taiwan. Sometimes we can trace certain information back to Chinese social networks.
However, it is now more difficult to find out which actors are responsible for misinformation in each case. Sometimes it is not actual disinformation at all, but misinformation, meaning that a message is unnaturally amplified by bot accounts, for example. Then it looks like an unbelievable number of people are getting upset about a certain topic that is in fact completely irrelevant.
“International media now pay very close attention to images published by the Russian media and check them before they are published”
What fake news story is most memorable to you?
During the Chinese maneuver, a picture from the Xinhua news agency was distributed worldwide shows a Chinese soldier with binoculars, in the background the Taiwanese frigate Lan Yang and the Taiwanese power plant in Hualien can be seen. In the picture, it looks as if the soldier is directly off the Taiwanese coast. The picture was used by various international media such as the “New York Times” and the “Deutsche Welle”. But it is a fake. I think this example is very important because it shows that the American and European media are still not careful enough about China. International media now pay very close attention to images published by the Russian media and check them before they are published. But this is not always the case with China.
How do you expose fake pictures and other fake news?
For photos, we check the resolution of different parts of the image and the edges of the objects. In the case of the picture just described, we were able to prove that it is not a real picture. It is often relatively easy to read out the geodata of photos to determine whether a picture was actually taken at the supposed location. A simple reverse search on Google can also clarify when a picture was first uploaded and thus prove that it cannot, for example, show a specific current event. In more complicated cases, we consult experts or scientists. If we have been able to debunk a false news story, we publish the entire fact check and try to reach as many people as possible with it. All factchecks are collected in a database that is accessed by our chatbots.
We and other factchecking organisations in Taiwan have developed various factchecking bots. One very popular chatbot is called “Auntie Meiyu“. For example, if you have a family chat group in a messenger service, you can add the chatbot to that group. And as soon as someone writes misinformation, such as "vinegar protects against Corona", Auntie Meiyu responds to it and proves why it is wrong. But despite chatbots, we fact-checking organisations just can't keep up with the speed at which misinformation spreads. That's why we offer media literacy training. It doesn't matter if you're a teenager or a senior citizen: it's important that everyone critically questions what they read and doesn't simply spread false information.
The interview was conducted by Gundula Haage