Conflicts - TensionsNortheast Asia

How Taiwan beat back disinformation and preserved election integrity

The Associated Press

The rumors about vote fraud started swirling as the ballots in Taiwan’s presidential election were being tallied in mid-January 2024. There were baseless claims that people had fabricated votes and that officials had miscounted and skewed the results.

In a widely shared video, a woman recording votes mistakenly enters one in the column for the wrong candidate. The message was clear: The election could not be trusted. The results were faked.

But that message wasn’t accurate.

Worries that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would use disinformation to undermine the integrity of the vote dogged the election, so Taiwan’s response was swift.

Fact-checking groups debunked the rumors, while the self-governed island’s Central Election Commission held a news conference to push back on claims of electoral discrepancies. Social media influencers posted content explaining how votes are tallied.

The video showing the election worker miscounting votes had been selectively edited, fact-checkers found. Voters had spotted the error and election workers quickly corrected the count, according to MyGoPen, an independent fact-checking chatbot.

It was just one of dozens of videos that fact-checkers had to debunk during the election won by Lai Ching-te of the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“I believe some people genuinely believed this. And when the election results came out, they thought something was up,” said Eve Chiu, editor-in-chief of Taiwan’s FactCheck Center, a nonprofit journalism organization.

The center debunked multiple videos of alleged voter fraud. The source of the videos is unclear.

The PRC, which claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to annex it by force, targeted the island with a stream of disinformation ahead of the election, according to research from Doublethink Lab. Much of the disinformation sought to undermine faith in the DPP. Other narratives targeted U.S. support for Taiwan.

Taiwan is able to respond effectively to such disinformation, in part, because of how seriously the threat is perceived, according to Kenton Thibaut, a senior resident fellow and expert on Chinese disinformation at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Thibaut called Taipei’s approach a “whole of society response” that relied on government, independent fact-checking groups and individuals to call out disinformation and propaganda.

Alexander Tah-Ray Yui, Taipei’s economic and cultural representative to the U.S., said the government has learned it must identify and debunk false information as quickly as possible to counter false narratives. Entities such as MyGoPen and the FactCheck Center, which received $1 million from Google, have focused on raising public awareness through debunking individual rumors reported by the public.

“It’s like in the past when everyone dumped bottles and cans in the garbage, and now they sort them. That was done through a period of societal education,” Chiu said. “Everyone needs to slowly develop this awareness, and this needs time.”

Though the Taiwan election passed without a major crisis, the challenge is evolving. Residents and government officials must continue to be alert and counter false narratives. Beijing’s disinformation attempts are increasingly localized and sophisticated, according to Doublethink Lab’s post-election analysis.

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