A Taiwanese diplomat’s death in Japan has become a symbol of the consequences and dangers of disinformation.
The grey-haired, bespectacled 61-year-old was not a master of the dark art. He has been identified as a victim of disinformation. And he is dead.
Su was the director-general of the Osaka branch of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (in effect, Taiwan’s consulate in the Japanese city) when nearby Kansai Airport was inundated during Typhoon Jebi in September last year.
Thousands of travellers needed to be evacuated from the airport and social media reported that Beijing had sent buses to evacuate its citizens and had assisted Taiwanese if they identified themselves as Chinese – effectively renouncing the independence of their island nation. Taiwanese social media ran hot with outrage, accusing the Osaka office of being indifferent to the plight of its stranded citizens.
The story of the Chinese rescue was false. All of the evacuees from Kansai Airport travelled on buses organised by the Japanese authorities, irrespective of nationality. The original social-media posts were traced back to mainland China.
Amid the storm of criticism, however, Su committed suicide.
There is widespread belief in the community that public pressure fuelled by the falsehood drove him to do this, although his wife said in December that he had not mentioned disinformation in his suicide note. A student charged with spreading the false information was acquitted by a Taiwan court. Whether disinformation was a direct or indirect cause of Su’s death may be debatable, but the targeting of Taiwan by the Chinese government is irrefutable in spite of blank denials from Beijing.
Moscow and the Russian troll factories may preoccupy the governments of Europe and North America, but Taiwanese officials leave no doubt that attacks emanate from the Chinese mainland. Su has become a symbol of the consequences of disinformation.
The republic’s Foreign Minister, Jauhsieh Wu, told an Asia-Pacific workshop on disinformation in Taipei that his country was on the frontline when it came to co-ordinated disinformation attacks and his ministry dealt with such attacks daily.
Taiwan may be an ideal target. It has the highest ranking in Asia on the World Media Freedom Index, a multiplicity of media outlets – some with poor editorial standards that turn them into “repeater stations” for disinformation – and one of the highest internet and social-media penetrations in the world. Both Facebook and the local encrypted social-media platform, Line, claim 19 million users out of a total population of 23.5 million.
Perhaps that is why researchers estimate that Facebook is hit by 2400 fake posts a day from mainland China.
Beijing regards Taiwan as part of China and is intent on reclaiming it. Taipei accuses it of a concerted campaign to destabilise the island’s government. However, there also may be a broader strategic reason behind its disinformation onslaught.
In an article in Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review in late December, Yisuo Tzeng, acting director of the cyber warfare and information security division at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defence and Security Research, claimed Beijing was using Taiwan as a propaganda laboratory to test systems – including disinformation – that could be used against other countries.
“As they accumulate knowledge and test their algorithms, I think within two years we will probably see China having the capability to use cybertools to intervene in the US election,” Tzeng said.
Government agencies and civil initiatives – like the collaborative fact-checking platforms Cofacts, Rumor & Truth and Mygopen – attempt to identify disinformation. Government agencies are quick to issue debunking messages when they detect false items on open systems. Cofacts, which has more than 800,000 users, has become expert at infiltrating closed groups such as those on the Line system, where close to 60,000 users have added Cofacts to their closed groups so it can monitor messages. More than a third of the messages it checks contain falsehoods.
There is general acceptance that the avalanche of falsehoods posted each day, together with the difficulties associated with detecting disinformation on encrypted systems, mean it is an uphill battle. And Taiwan is as susceptible to the same quirk of human nature as other populations. Cofacts found that although factual messages may stay in circulation for days or weeks, disinformation on Line has longevity consistent with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s study of rumour cascades that confirmed the lasting attraction of attention-getting falsehoods. A quarter of the false messages stayed in circulation for 90 days to a year, and one message tracked by Cofacts was still being accessed 415 days after it was posted.
The Taiwanese government is attempting to counter emotion-driven disinformation with a novel proactive policy. It has introduced media literacy to its 12-year compulsory school curriculum with the aim of nurturing students’ ability to think critically and navigate various kinds of online information.
Digital Minister Audrey Tang is under no illusions about the size of the challenge. She told the disinformation workshop that “we are facing a crack in our democracy through disinformation, misinformation and different kinds of ways to undermine trust in our democratic institutions”. And there are signs the crack is widening. In municipal elections in November, the op-position Kuomintang party, which favours rapprochement with Beijing, gained considerable ground over the ruling DPP. President Tsai accused mainland China of interference in the election.
“There are those people who mistakenly think that if you simply shout falsehoods loudly, they’ll become real,” she wrote on Facebook. “We must not let them succeed.”
A spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Ofﬁce described her Facebook comments as “fake news” and “not even worth refuting”.
Subsequently, Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau (which last October established a special task force to combat disinformation) prosecuted 174 Taiwanese citizens for distributing disinformation. A further 28 cases were still being investigated.
In an end-of-year message, Tsai urged China to peacefully settle its dispute with the island. On New Year’s Day, China’s President Xi Jinping said unification of the two countries was unstoppable, and that efforts to assert full independence could be met by force. His government sees Tsai’s DPP as an impediment to the One China policy. Expect an onslaught of disinformation in the Taiwanese presidential election next year.
Contagious & deadly
From Myanmar to Brazil, falsehoods spread insidiously and take a tragic toll.
WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging service, was held accountable by the Indian Government for 33 deaths in mob violence associated with false stories of child abduction.
It was also blamed for the spread of a similar falsehood in Mexico that led to two men being burnt to death by a mob. The following day, a mob pulled a man and a woman from their truck in a rural area and beat and burnt them, despite the pair’s pleas of innocence. The man died at the scene, and the woman in hospital.
A mass yellow fever immunisation campaign in Brazil has been compromised by disinformation, including one post – shared 300,00 times – that side effects of the vaccine (used for decades with no serious issues) had killed a teenage girl. A total of 1257 confirmed cases and 394 deaths from yellow fever were reported in Brazil between July 2017 and June last year.
Facebook accounts run by Myanmar military personnel targeted the Rohingya Muslim minority. Human-rights groups blame the anti-Rohingya disinformation campaign for inciting murders, rapes and the largest forced human migration in recent history. More than 700,000 people have fled Rakhine state and a UN mission estimated 10,000 Rohingya have died.
This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.