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Countering China’s disinformation: Learning from Taiwan

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Countering China’s disinformation: Learning from Taiwan
Countering disinformation is a battle for Taiwan’s survival as China’s authoritarian hand continues to undermine the nation’s vibrant democracy, especially in the lead up to the January 2024 presidential election

In the past months, the Philippines has been crying foul over China’s false reports on its aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea as well as its baseless assertions over its claims in the South China Sea.

Clearly, the dispute over our waters has spilled into the information space. No longer confined to the distant seas, the controversy surrounds us in social and mainstream media.

A day after the two incidents happened last month – the China Coast Guard hit a Navy-run wooden resupply boat and a maritime militia bumped a Philippine Coast Guard vessel bound for Ayungin Shoal – the Philippines held two separate press conferences to denounce not only the collision, but also China’s distortion of facts.

Soon after, the spokespersons of four government agencies – the National Security Council, Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippine Coast Guard, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines – briefed the media and Malacañang held another press conference, showing that the collision was “being taken seriously by the highest level of government.” 

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro was unequivocal: “Disinformation and influence operations are in the playbook of China…so we are countering the narratives such as this…explaining to our countrymen why they should not believe in China’s narrative.”

China claimed that the Philippine supply ship had “deliberately crossed into the path of the Chinese coast guard vessel, resulting in contact with its bow.” Moreover, China’s foreign ministry told the Philippines to stop “stirring up trouble and making provocations at sea.” 

Target of disinformation

Apart from publicly debunking China’s false news, what else can the Philippines do to counter these insidious moves? Taiwan provides some of the answers.

Why Taiwan? It is the one country in the world that has been most flooded by disinformation from a foreign actor. Since 2013, China has relentlessly pounded this nation of 23 million with false narratives to influence public opinion in its favor. 

Civil society groups there continue to do fact-checking with unstoppable vigor, exposing not only the messages but also the cyber armies. 

But Taiwan has gone beyond fact-checking to include new tools in its arsenal.

A recent conference in Taipei organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy was an eye-opener. I met civil society personalities who were at the forefront of fighting disinformation, including academics, activists, researchers, software developers and engineers. I learned how they have collaborated to successfully expose fake news, mainly from China, that aimed to undermine trust in Taiwan’s thriving democracy, sow discord, and inculcate doubts about the US, a strong ally.

The Taiwanese are at the cutting edge of this endeavor, making their country the most advanced, at least in Asia, in countering disinformation from a foreign actor, adding to their other laurels: the world’s largest manufacturer of chips that power mobile phones to fighter jets; the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage; and the home of the highly-popular Din Tai Fung.

Prebunking

Prebunking is what they actively do these days, apart from continuing the usual reactive ways to combat fake news.  This includes an early detection system to nip the false narratives in the bud – and making these public. In this way, citizens are alerted so that when they encounter the bogus news, they would be able to recognize it and stop its spread.

Puma Shen, an associate professor at the National Taipei University, heads DoublethinkLab, which developed digital tools to track China’s disinformation. He is currently involved in a regional project to develop an early-warning system to detect fake news, build a network to counter these malign narratives, and develop policy recommendations which various countries can use.

The Taiwan Information Environment Research Center, through its data-based research, delves deeply into fake narratives aiming to polarize public opinion. The Center, co-headed by a software engineer, then flags these to the public. Most common are reports that question the US-Taiwan partnership – promoting skepticism towards the global power – and hailing China as an economic and military power.

Another organization, the Institute for Information Industry, is bridging academic technology and industrial applications to combat disinformation. It was founded to popularize IT in Taiwan and has since evolved into a “digital transformation enabler,” lending its hand to the frontliners in countering Chinese manipulation of information.

Countering disinformation is a battle for Taiwan’s survival as China’s authoritarian hand continues to undermine the nation’s vibrant democracy, especially in the lead up to the January 2024 presidential election.

Let me know what you think. You can email me at marites.vitug@rappler.com. – Rappler.com

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.