Taiwan’s main parties warn of disinformation and ‘fake news’ ahead of elections

Sarah Zheng

Taiwan’s main political parties have warned against the impact of disinformation in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections, days ahead of the vote on Saturday.

The campaign office for President Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, urged vigilance against misinformation believed to originate from mainland China. Meanwhile, campaign representatives for her rival, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, from the mainland-friendly Kuomintang party, or KMT, said he had been the victim of “fake news”.

Lien Yi-ting, spokeswoman for Tsai’s campaign office, told reporters on Tuesday that disinformation had been a “very major challenge” in the election, much of it believed to have come from Beijing.

In response, she said the DPP had made a “conscious effort” to fight against disinformation by improving efforts to counter rumours – including those about voters not being able to receive notifications or the government trying to abolish county-level farmer associations – as well as increasing policy transparency and improving media literacy.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s campaign office urged vigilance against misinformation believed to originate from mainland China. Photo: Reuters

Beijing claims that self-ruled Taiwan is part of its territory and has ramped up efforts to pressure the democratic island under Tsai’s administration since 2016, during which cross-strait ties have frozen.

Hong-Wei Jyan, director general of Taiwan’s cybersecurity department, has previously said there were around 30 million cyberattacks against the island per month, around half believed to have originated from the mainland.

Analysts say disinformation has proven to be a substantial problem in Taiwanese politics, with a 2019 report by the University of Gothenburg finding that Taiwan was one of Beijing’s main targets in “actively spreading false and misleading information abroad”.

Chen Chih-wei, deputy director of the DPP’s international affairs department, said he had personally dealt with more than 1,000 pieces of fake news in his position, which he believed was highly likely to have come from Beijing because the content was written in Chinese.

“This situation is a quite serious situation because they are trying to attack our democratic system,” he said. “We as the government, as a ruling party, have the responsibility to let people know what is true.”

Lien added that Taiwan’s first fact-checking centre was launched in August 2018 to help flag false information, and that social media giants such as Facebook were also active in tagging fake information as such.

‘Sense of crisis’: young voters may prove crucial in Taiwan’s elections

Facebook last month said it had removed 118 Taiwan-based fan pages, 99 public groups and 51 accounts for violating its regulations, without elaborating. While the platform did not specify how many were promoting Han, some of his fan pages said content had been removed.

On Tuesday, KMT campaign representatives rebuffed the idea that Han – a populist figure who won the mayoral race in late 2018 in a traditional DPP stronghold – was boosted by internet users from mainland China. The office instead raised the case of DPP-linked figure Slow Yang, who was indicted in early December for her alleged role in contributing to the suicide of a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan in 2018.

Ho Szu-yin, a member of Han’s national policy advisory team, on Tuesday said the DPP had “consistently accused” the KMT candidate of winning his mayorship with the help of mainland Chinese internet users. Ho took aim at Yang for helping to stir up “fake news to bully” Su Chii-cherng, a Taiwanese diplomat who took his own life last year amid criticism over the handling of requests for help from Taiwanese people stranded by a typhoon in Osaka.

Charles Chen, a KMT at-large legislative candidate, added that the misinformation spread by people with close relationships to the DPP could not be discounted.

“I think that the number one victim of the misinformation or fake news in Taiwan could be Han Kuo-yu, I think he’s the number one victim,” he said.

Supporters of KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu wave national flags during a rally in Yilan on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

The KMT and DPP also made a last-ditch campaign push ahead of an election that has been dominated by issues of national security and sovereignty, particularly amid the ongoing pro-democracy protests in neighbouring Hong Kong. Both parties said they supported Hong Kong, but neither were firm on whether Tsai or Han would reform the refugee law to admit anti-government demonstrators from Hong Kong as refugees in Taiwan.

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