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Taiwan’s amateur fact-checkers wage war on fake news from China | Internet

Taipei, Taiwan – As China flexed its muscles with large-scale military exercises off Taiwan last month, Billion Lee was busy countering an onslaught taking place against her home online.

False stories claiming that the United States was preparing for war with China, that China was evacuating its citizens from Taiwan, or that Taiwan had paid millions lobbying for US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the island spread across popular social media platforms Facebook and LINE.

A fabricated photo of a People’s Liberation Army soldier monitoring a Taiwanese navy vessel through binoculars was disseminated by Chinese state-run media Xinhua before being picked up and circulated by international outlets such as the Financial Times and Deutsche Welle.

While government agencies rushed to issue clarifications, urging civilians to take care to avoid falling victim to information warfare by “hostile foreign forces,” much of the work combating the false narratives fell to amateur debunkers of fake news such as Lee, who co-founded fact-checking chatbot Cofacts in 2016 with the open-source g0v community.

“We have a saying: Don’t ask, why is nobody doing this? Because you are nobody. If nobody did this before, you are the one to establish something,” Lee told Al Jazeera.

Cofacts automatically responds to fake or misleading messages circulated on the LINE messaging app with a sourced report. Fact checks are written and reviewed by a group of more than 2,000 volunteers, including teachers, doctors, students, engineers and retirees – anyone who wants to be a fact-checker can become one.

The idea is to make reliable information accessible to everyone, according to Lee, in part by giving the power of fact-checking to Taiwan’s civil society rather than leaving the job to the government. Cofacts is just one of a host of Taiwanese civil society organisations that believe the primary responsibility for combatting disinformation rests with its citizens.

“All of our civil society groups, we kind of have a division of labour,” Puma Shen, the director of DoubleThink Lab, a research group that focuses on Chinese influence campaigns in Taiwan and around the world, told Al Jazeera.

“Some of them focus on fact checks, some of them focus on workshops, and we focus on the accounts’ activities.”

For Shen, Taiwan’s democratic values, including freedom of speech, are a crucial part of the solution to state-backed disinformation.

“If you really want to persuade the public, I think the best way is that the government has to tell the public: ‘Hey, we’ve got a huge issue about fake news and disinformation.’ But then let the non-profit organisations take over,” he said.

Disinformation campaigns, usually in the form of conspiracy theories, propaganda, and fake news stories distributed by content farms, bots, and fake accounts are considered “cognitive warfare tactics” by the Taiwanese government.

Many campaigns specifically aim to foster distrust of the US – which is one of the island’s strongest diplomatic and military backers despite not officially recognising Taipei – a tactic that may be working given declining faith among Taiwanese that the US would come to their aid in the event of a war, Shen said.

In March, the Digital Society Project identified Taiwan as the No 1 target for foreign governments for the spread of false information during the past nine years. According to a report produced by the National Bureau of Asian Research last year, Taiwan acts as a testing ground for Chinese information campaigns before they are implemented elsewhere, and is an important node in information dissemination to regions such as Southeast Asia.

Information warfare is as old as the cross-strait tensions between Beijing and Taipei, but the real-life consequences of the unchecked spread of disinformation in 2018 incident served as a wake-up call to the government and civil society alike.

That year, Su Chii-Cherng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan, died by suicide after Chinese media outlets distributed a fake story claiming that he failed to help Taiwanese citizens escape during a typhoon there. Many also believe Chinese propaganda and disinformation heavily influenced Taiwan’s midterm election results that year.

Concern about the spread of disinformation was also heightened that year due to a series of referendums on controversial topics, including nuclear power and LGBTQ rights, that stoked deep divisions within society.

Fakenews Cleaner leads media literacy workshops aimed at alerting Taiwanese to the dangers of misinformation [Courtesy of Fakenews Cleaner]

“There were parents kicking children out, couples breaking up because they have different points of view. And then we started to think about, what did we miss? We thought about the filter bubble and how the algorithm puts us in an echo chamber,” Melody Hsieh, the co-founder of Fakenews Cleaner, an NGO that leads media literacy workshops with Taiwanese civilians, told Al Jazeera.

The events of 2018 spurred the launch of Fakenews Cleaner, among other anti-disinformation organisations. Since its founding, the group has accumulated 160 volunteers and hosted nearly 500 activities across Taiwan, from lectures in classrooms and nursing homes to public outreach in parks and at festivals.

Its main audience are Taiwanese aged 60 and older, a demographic seen as particularly susceptible to health-related misinformation and phishing scams.

“Sometimes we host some classes with elders and some will become very angry and stand up and say: ‘Why didn’t the government do anything? They should have an organisation to stop the content farm’. The older generation has been through the White Terror,” Hsieh said, referring to the repression of civilians on the island during the military-dictatorship era prior to democratisation in the 1990s.

“I tell them if we create a law or [government] organisation, if different parties get in power, maybe they can press you just like the White Terror … We say the most important thing is to learn how to protect themselves.”

Attempts by the government to crack down on the spread of fake news have been deeply unpopular because of Taiwan’s democratic values, but also because of its authoritarian past. One of the most common – and controversial – laws used today to punish individuals or groups for disseminating false information, the Social Order Maintenance Act, is a remnant of Taiwan’s martial law period.

Taiwan’s government continues to introduce bills aimed at increasing its control over information, a majority of which fail to become law. In June, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission introduced the Digital Intermediary Services Act, which would establish obligations and provisions for certain platforms with large audiences and streamline the process of removing illegal content.

The proposed law has been hotly debated; one poll circulated on Facebook by Taiwan’s opposition party, the Kuomintang, found that a majority of people opposed the bill, which has since been suspended.

fakes news taiwan
Fakenews Cleaner organises lectures to help Taiwanese identify misinformation, with its main audience being elderly citizens [Courtesy of Fakenews Cleaner]

Still, many Taiwanese believe the government does have an important role to play in the information war as long as it refrains from policing content — especially given the workforce and funding constraints faced by all-volunteer non-profit organisations.

Some experts argue the government should focus on improving media literacy education in schools, cracking down on phishing scams, and improving data privacy.

As cross-strait relations intensify, China’s information warfare tactics could outgrow traditional debunking or fact-checking methods used by the government and NGOs, said TH Schee, who has worked in Taiwan’s internet sector for 20 years.

Footage of Taiwanese soldiers throwing rocks at a Chinese civilian drone last month was real but was disseminated “not only to test our response, but also to create false information by editing video clips [and] disseminating them in the online community” in an attempt to create divides and discredit Taiwan’s army, the Ministry of National Defense wrote in a statement.

“Information warfare was all about disinformation in the past four years. But now you’re seeing real information with different interpretations that could cause harm or distrust in your government,” Schee told Al Jazeera.

“That will keep growing and growing, and I don’t think the government has yet figured out a way to deal with real information that is causing harm.”

Schee said getting ahead of the information war should be a whole-society effort that takes a preventative, rather than reactionary, approach. For non-governmental groups, that could mean collaborating directly with journalists to create a better media environment, he said, while the government might have to take civilians’ privacy more seriously.

“By introducing stronger privacy and protecting the user from having their online behaviour or data being manipulated or monetised, that would be a very good start,” he said. “This might not sound that direct, but it’s about protecting your citizens from the harm of disinformation without censoring the content.”

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Officials: North Korea fires suspected ballistic missiles

TOKYO — North Korea has fired suspected ballistic missiles, the Japanese Defense Ministry said Saturday.

Further details are still being analyzed, ministry officials said.

Japanese media reported that the missiles are believed to have landed in the Sea of Japan.

Saturday’s firing is the latest of North Korea’s escalating missile launches and a third this week following those fired Friday in the wake of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit in South Korea.

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Army officers appear on Burkina Faso TV, declare new coup

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — More than a dozen soldiers seized control of Burkina Faso’s state television late Friday, declaring that the country’s coup leader-turned-president, Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, had been overthrown after only nine months in power.

A statement read by a junta spokesman said Capt. Ibrahim Traore is the new military leader of Burkina Faso, a volatile West African country that is battling a mounting Islamic insurgency.

Burkina Faso’s new military leaders said the country’s borders had been closed and a curfew would be in effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The transitional government and national assembly were ordered dissolved.

Damiba and his allies overthrew the democratically elected president, coming to power with promises of make the country more secure. However, violence has continued unabated and frustration with his leadership has grown in recent months.

“Faced by the continually worsening security situation, we the officers and junior officers of the national armed forces were motivated to take action with the desire to protect the security and integrity of our country,” said the statement read by the junta spokesman, Capt. Kiswendsida Farouk Azaria Sorgho.

The soldiers promised the international community they would respect their commitments and urged Burkinabes “to go about their business in peace.”

“A meeting will be convened to adopt a new transitional constitution charter and to select a new Burkina Faso president be it civilian or military,” Sorgho added.

Damiba had just returned from addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York as Burkina Faso’s head of state. Tensions, though, had been mounting for months. In his speech, Damiba defended his January coup as “an issue of survival for our nation,” even if it was ”perhaps reprehensible” to the international community.

Constantin Gouvy, Burkina Faso researcher at Clingendael, said Friday night’s events “follow escalating tensions within the ruling MPSR junta and the wider army about strategic and operational decisions to tackle spiraling insecurity.”

“Members of the MPSR increasingly felt Damiba was isolating himself and casting aside those who helped him seize power,” Gouvy told The Associated Press.

Gunfire had erupted in the capital, Ouagadougou, early Friday and hours passed without any public appearance by Damiba. Late in the afternoon, his spokesman posted a statement on the presidency’s Facebook page saying that “negotiations are underway to bring back calm and serenity.”

Friday’s developments felt all too familiar in West Africa, where a coup in Mali in August 2020 set off a series of military power grabs in the region. Mali also saw a second coup nine months after the August 2020 overthrow of its president, when the junta’s leader sidelined his civilian transition counterparts and put himself alone in charge.

On the streets of Ouagadougou, some people already were showing support Friday for the change in leadership even before the putschists took to the state airwaves.

Francois Beogo, a political activist from the Movement for the Refounding of Burkina Faso, said Damiba “has showed his limits.”

“People were expecting a real change,” he said of the January coup d’etat.

Some demonstrators voiced support for Russian involvement in order to stem the violence, and shouted slogans against France, Burkina Faso’s former colonizer. In neighboring Mali, the junta invited Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to help secure the country, though their deployment has drawn international criticism.

Many in Burkina Faso initially supported the military takeover last January, frustrated with the previous government’s inability to stem Islamic extremist violence that has killed thousands and displaced at least 2 million.

Yet the violence has failed to wane in the months since Damiba took over. Earlier this month, he also took on the position of defense minister after dismissing a brigadier general from the post.

“It’s hard for the Burkinabe junta to claim that it has delivered on its promise of improving the security situation, which was its pretext for the January coup,” said Eric Humphery-Smith, senior Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.

Earlier this week, at least 11 soldiers were killed and 50 civilians went missing after a supply convoy was attacked by gunmen in Gaskinde commune in Soum province in the Sahel. That attack was “a low point” for Damiba’s government and “likely played a role in inspiring what we’ve seen so far today,” added Humphery-Smith.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday that nearly one-fifth of Burkina Faso’s population “urgently needs humanitarian aid.”

“Burkina Faso needs peace, it needs stability, and it needs unity in order to fight terrorist groups and criminal networks operating in parts of the country,” Dujarric said.

Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkina Faso Movement for Human Rights, called Friday’s developments “very regrettable,” saying the instability would not help in the fight against the Islamic extremist violence.

“How can we hope to unite people and the army if the latter is characterized by such serious divisions?” Zougmore said. “It is time for these reactionary and political military factions to stop leading Burkina Faso adrift.”

———

Mednick reported from Barcelona. Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

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Japanese defense ministry says North Korea fired suspected ballistic missiles

Japanese defense ministry says North Korea fired suspected ballistic missiles

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