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Taiwan deals with lots of misinformation, and it's harder to track down

Supporters attend a campaign rally for Taiwan's main opposition party, Kuomintang, ahead of this month's presidential election, in Taipei on Dec. 23.
I-Hwa Cheng
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AFP via Getty Images
Supporters attend a campaign rally for Taiwan's main opposition party, Kuomintang, ahead of this month's presidential election, in Taipei on Dec. 23.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Like many things on the internet, Taiwan's PTT — shorthand for Professional Technology Temple — was born out of idealism and a little bit of mischief.

It was started in 1995 by engineering students at Taipei's National Taiwan University as a less-controlled version of student bulletin board systems or discussion forums popular on campuses then.

"The bulletin board system of the school needed to follow a lot of regulations. For example, there was a student who asked for a sexual one-night stand. Therefore, the school decided to close the feature," says Ethan Tu, PTT's founder. He has since stepped back from running PTT and now heads an artificial intelligence research lab full time in Taipei called Taiwan AI Labs.

Ethan Tu, PTT's founder stepped back from running PTT and now heads an artificial intelligence research lab full time in Taipei.
/ Taiwan AI Labs
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Taiwan AI Labs
Ethan Tu, PTT's founder stepped back from running PTT and now heads an artificial intelligence research lab full time in Taipei.

"And that was also the reason I founded PTT, because I think we should have a system that embraces open source and that embraces the freedom of speech."

But Tu's ideals of unfettered free speech and a borderless internet are now running into a problem: how to tackle untruthful statements in a polarized political environment without jeopardizing users' right to free expression.

PTT is at the center of a debate across Taiwanese society about disinformation and what to do about it. Much of the latest misleading content has originated on domestic platforms like PTT, which makes it harder to identify the true source, analysts say.

These issues are taking on greater importance as Taiwan heads to a presidential election Saturday.

Campaign posters for various legislative member candidates in Taipei, Taiwan, on, Dec. 27. This month Taiwan holds presidential and legislature elections.
An Rong Xu / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Campaign posters for various legislative member candidates in Taipei, Taiwan, on, Dec. 27. This month Taiwan holds presidential and legislature elections.

Fake stories abound

Misleading information is a particularly pressing issue to Tu and social media sites such as PTT, which now has grown to an estimated 1.5 million accounts. In 2018, PTT briefly stopped letting new users register after a post wrongly claimed Taiwan's government failed to help citizens in the aftermath of a typhoon. A Taiwanese official killed himself after being criticized due to news coverage based on the post.

And in November, another untrue story went viral on an online news outlets: claiming that 100,000 workers from India were residing in Taiwan and allegedly turning it into a "sexual-assault island."

A resident uses a magnifying glass showing the Chinese characters of Taiwan "independent" in a newspaper article reporting on a debate speech by Taiwan's vice president, William Lai, at a stand in Beijing.
Andy Wong / AP
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AP
A resident uses a magnifying glass showing the Chinese characters of Taiwan "independent" in a newspaper article reporting on a debate speech by Taiwan's vice president, William Lai, at a stand in Beijing.

Anti-disinformation groups debunked the story, which first began from posts on PTT and Dcard, another local social media platform favored by younger Taiwanese internet users.

The incident also drew attention from Taiwan's political establishment, who accused China of being behind these untruthful claims.

"Those kinds of remarks were actually created, generated from the other side of the Taiwan Strait to create division or distrust between Taiwan and India," Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said of the fake story about Indian workers during a December news conference.

Wu's accusation came at a sensitive time for Taiwan, as the island democracy of nearly 24 million people gears up for what analysts call a "crucial" election this weekend. Nearly 20 million eligible voters are due to cast their ballot to elect a new president and their local representatives.

How do falsehoods spread in Taiwan?

Beijing has long denied accusations of interfering in Taiwan's democratic process. But in the 2020 Taiwanese presidential election, researcherssaid they foundcredible evidence suggesting Chinese state actors were linked to much of the misleading information and pro-China propaganda that spread across Taiwanese social media and outlets dependent on Chinese funding.

Social media accounts with IP addresses located in China or using Mandarin script, common in China and not used in Taiwan, also circulated incorrect information within Taiwan about vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic, researchers found.

Concerns about similar efforts are nowadays shared beyond Taiwan. In November, Meta accused China of stepping up efforts to manipulate people in other countries on social media, becoming the third most common source of foreign influence operations, behind Russia and Iran.

But the problem of disinformation for Taiwan does not stop there.

Analysts say even though China was behind some of the disinformation, there are other actors propelling the falsehoods into prominence in Taiwan: domestic media outlets and Taiwanese social media platforms.

After analyzing how the false story on Indian workers was covered by Taiwanese news organizations despite its complete lack of evidence, the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center, a civil society organization, wrote in a post in November that "this assessment shows limited evidence of state media in Hong Kong and China amplifying the spread of narratives."

It is unclear how many of the false or misleading narratives are coordinated by the Chinese state — and it is becoming much harder to track down, even if they are, researchers say.

"Compared with previous cases, the quality and quantity of its content, topics, style, scale and dissemination methods have significantly improved. Foreign hostile forces are suspected of creating accounts of people whose true identities cannot be identified," the investigations bureau of Taiwan's justice ministry warned in 2022.

Some of the accounts posting misleading information or faked images on Taiwanese platforms like PTT or Dcard do appear to have been hacked beforehand, researchers say.

The misleading or outright fabricated stories then piggyback off of often under-resourced news outlets and spread rapidly to the public in Taiwan.

News media in Taiwan cover the arrival of presidential and vice-presidential candidates at the Central Elections Commission to register for the 2024 elections in Taipei.
Wiktor Dabkowski / dpa picture alliance / Alamy
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dpa picture alliance / Alamy
News media in Taiwan cover the arrival of presidential and vice-presidential candidates at the Central Elections Commission to register for the 2024 elections in Taipei.

"Misleading information and falsified documents are put on Taiwanese discussion forums and social media sites for the express purpose of attracting journalists from mainstream news outlets," says Summer Chen, editor-in-chief of Taiwan FactCheck Center, a nonprofit that works to verify or debunk media reports and other information.

Such techniques could also allow a spreader of false information to camouflage themselves and hide any ties to the Chinese state, she adds.

For example, last summer, a PTT post containing official-lookingfake documents claimed that Taiwan's vice president, William Lai, had agreed to give millions of dollars in aid to Paraguay. As the misinformation spread online and was quickly picked up by TV networks, critics accused Lai — who is running for president — of allegedly abusing cash diplomacy to shore up one ofTaiwan's few remainingdiplomatic allies, at a time when Taiwanese needed economic support.

The incidents show how easily an inaccurate or false story can be seeded within Taiwan and spread by domestic outlets and social media platforms, possibly without much effort to disseminate it from China.

What to do about it?

Taiwan is working with Facebook, chat app Line and Google to screen for false claims and conspiracy theories.

In October, Taiwan set up a government task force to deal with misleading information related to the election and a raft of civil society groups routinely run workshops on information literacy and fact-check news reports.

Legislation implemented in recent years punishes those spreading false information tied to Chinese state entities with heavy fines and up to five years in prison.

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 in June 2019. Misinformation has reemerged surrounding the 2024 election.
Hsu Tsun-hsu / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
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 in June 2019. Misinformation has reemerged surrounding the 2024 election.

But Taiwan has been hesitant to take a more aggressive legal approach against its own citizens.

Last year, its legislature abandoned a proposal that could have given the central government control over media outlets and internet providers during vaguely defined times of national emergency.

This is the issue at the heart of combating disinformation. Do you keep platforms completely open and let people decide for themselves what is true and worth reading, or do you increase moderation and ask for real-name registration?

PTT's founder, Ethan Tu, is adamantly against this approach. He worries doing so gives individual platforms too much power over speech.

"Because the content moderation now will become too powerful, which means the system operator can control the opinion of the society. That should not be allowed at PTT."

He acknowledges disinformation is a growing problem and becoming more sophisticated. But Taiwan is a democracy, he says. The people should decide.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.