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Insights Gained from Taiwan – The Diplomat

On January 13, the citizens of Taiwan took to the polls in a presidential election bombarded by the full coordinated force of information manipulation and influence operations directed by the People’s Republic of China. Disinformation spikes by some 40 percent ahead of elections in Taiwan, according to Billion Lee, the founder of Taiwan fact-checking organization Cofacts. Ahead of Saturday’s vote, this included coordinated inauthentic behavior spanning hundreds of Facebook profiles and cross-platform amplification of Beijing-backed disinformation from TikTok and YouTube, along with deepfakes and other AI-generated content. Despite this, Taiwan elected Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in a rebuke to the Kuomintang (KMT), the party seen as more friendly toward Beijing’s interests. This was certainly not the result China had been trying to game.

Now, especially ahead of a year of global elections, Taiwan may offer lessons in confronting digital authoritarianism’s influence through its practice of digital democracy.

Taiwan has a history of foreign information manipulation and influence operations targeting Taiwan, from economic to political and diplomatic pressure, to cyber and cognitive warfare, and increasingly sophisticated disinformation operations. In fact, the most recent dataset from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) and Digital Society Project tracking foreign government manipulation of social media and disinformation among 202 countries from 2000-2021 showed Taiwan as the country most targeted globally by foreign disinformation operations, although it is not always possible to attribute the information threats directly to China.

Rather than succumb to malicious foreign manipulation and influence, Taiwan has sought to “promote co-creation from tensions and conflicts,” in the words of Digital Minister Audrey Tang, through a whole of society approach to digital democracy.

Taiwan’s Open Government National Action Plan (2021-2024) lists the promotion of “open data and freedom of information” first among five categories of commitment, and lays out a path to radical transparency and open-source, acknowledging the importance of multistakeholderism and harnessing technology. Taiwan seeks to transform the diversity of public opinion into creative policies to deepen democratic literacy.

Examples include the Presidential Hackathon, a government initiative emphasizing open-source data, data utilization, and social innovation. It is modeled on similar activities of the civic tech community. It also includes an international element, part of Taiwan’s digital diplomacy efforts, which has solicited participation from 34 countries since 2019. Also under Taiwan’s open government initiative, in 2020 it introduced an Open Parliament Action Plan (2021-2024), led by heavy metal musician turned legislator Freddy Lim, whose objectives are transparency, openness, participation, digitization, and literacy.

The Open Government National Action Plan and the Open Parliament Action Plan in Taiwan notably stand out for their high level of civil society engagement. This collaborative approach was evident in both the drafting and implementation phases of these plans. By embracing transparency and encouraging public participation, Taiwan strengthens its defenses against propaganda and disinformation, which thrive when information is opaque and people lack confidence in one another and their public institutions.

Despite such best practices, Taiwan cannot be a formal member of the global Open Government Partnership because, emblematic of China’s pressure campaigns, Taiwan is not recognized internationally as a sovereign country. China’s efforts to alienate Taiwan internationally create barriers to equal participation in showcasing Taiwan’s successes and negotiating digital governance norms, such as through the U.N. Internet Governance Forum or as a full member of the Freedom Online Coalition.

Beijing’s international blockade of Taiwan from such fora creates a missed opportunity for greater global engagement and the sharing of lessons learned in confronting digital authoritarianism, and should be opposed.

In highlighting Taiwan’s embrace of digital democracy to hold back foreign digital authoritarian influence, the civic tech community is just as valuable as government initiatives –if not more so. For example, the Taiwan FactCheck Center, founded in 2018, seeks to counter disinformation and promote digital literacy through its LINE chatbot, among other platforms for receiving information. LINE is the most popular messaging app in Taiwan, and widely popular in the region. Users can share questionable content with the chatbot for verification. In the spirit of open-source transparency, each result includes a complete list of source material, information, and verification data.

Similarly, since 2016 Cofacts has managed their own LINE chatbot as a crowdsourced fact-checking project. Users can add the bot as a friend with the LINE ID @cofacts or paste text suspected of being disinformation onto the website to receive real-time debunking. It is open-source, providing the data of all source code, unverified messages, and fact-checking reports. It even inspired the civic tech community in Thailand to replicate the model there.

The Cofacts community of volunteers have also conducted media literacy and fact-checking training workshops to protect free speech and promote collective countermeasures to disinformation. The project was born from the collaborative efforts of the broader civic tech community. Launched in 2012, g0v (pronounced gov-zero) is a coalition of open-source activists. Their name comes from replacing the “o” in gov with a “0,” representing the binary language of the digital age. Among its activities, which inspired later government practices, g0v has organized over 60 hackathons giving birth to some of the people-public-private partnerships confronting foreign disinformation, such as Cofacts. The g0v movement is itself a community project under the umbrella of the Open Culture Foundation (OCF), which likewise advocates for open-source, open data, and open government.

The OCF has supported numerous projects to strengthen digital resilience. Active in Taiwan and around the region, the OCF’s network, along with many of their peers, is emblematic of the growing global recognition of Taiwan’s people-public-private partnerships.

The threats facing Taiwan have not abated with the election. China is likely to react with redoubled hostility, both targeting the information ecosystem in Taiwan and seeking to poison international narratives against Taiwan. In recognizing this, the international community should expand cooperation to develop and apply transferable best practices in confronting China’s global information manipulation and influence, learning from the groundbreaking work led by Doublethink Lab, among others. Ultimately, the methods of digital democracy developed by Taiwan’s civic tech community and embraced by its government may point to structures by which other states might seek to roll back the rise of digital authoritarianism. That said, the international community cannot merely learn from Taiwan without giving back. It must stand firm in concrete commitments, seek opportunities for deeper government engagement and recognition, and expand support for Taiwan’s civil society through funding and international partnerships.

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