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How China, and the Law, Jumped in as Taiwan’s Presidential Campaign Shifted to Social Media

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) vice president candidate William Lai attend a campaign event in Taipei, Taiwan January 10, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) vice president candidate William Lai attend a campaign event in Taipei, Taiwan January 10, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Voters younger than 40 tend to follow the election campaign on the likes of Facebook, but they’re increasingly exposed to fake news, which is illegal to spread.

About 97% of internet users in Taiwan use Facebook. The island also has Asia’s second highest smartphone penetration after South Korea. Given these statistics, the first announced by Facebook in 2018 and the other by a market research firm, it made sense that a lot of campaigning for Saturday’s presidential election would jump from the streets to the internet.

But the rise of internet campaigning has challenged voters to know what’s true or false, and to follow a growing suite of anti-fake news laws, as politicians allege that mountains of online campaign information are untrue, illegally posted and often planted by Taiwan’s political rival China.

“Beginning from last year we saw that China is using modern technology, in short it’s the social media platforms, to try to interrupt in our discussions on the internet, either through Facebook or through Twitter or even a popular online chat mechanism called Line,” Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told a news conference Thursday. “The fake news situation seems to be quite serious.”

Last year officials passed laws that ban the spread of that information and local media say police are investigating several cases.

Rise of social media

Social media such as Facebook, Line and Twitter appeal to people younger than 40 because those voters tend to trust information received through social media as posted by their friends, said George Hou, a mass communications lecturer at Taiwan-based I-Shou University. They find print and television news too formal as well as subject to manipulation by politicians, he said.

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and her chief rival Han Kuo-yu aggressively use Facebook to promote campaign events throughout the day and live broadcast some of them. Tsai’s official Facebook page led Han in followers at 2.6 million as of Jan. 3.

Tsai also worked with a YouTube celebrity who asked her mock pickup lines, effectively freshening up her image before the vote.

“The internet stars are an important point, and they can let people get to know a different side of (the politicians),” Hou said. “Even more so, they let people feel that an authority is close to them, not so high and mighty.”

Glut of ‘fake news’

So-called fake news comes from more than 1,000 venues in China every day, Chen Chih-wei, international affairs deputy director with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, told a news conference Tuesday. A study by the V-Dem Institute at University of Gothenburg in Sweden lists Taiwan as one of the most vulnerable places of more than 200 surveyed worldwide.

China sees Taiwan as part of its territory with no rights to elect its own leaders. The two sides have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.

Taiwanese officials believe China tries to steer voters toward candidates whom they like. The incumbent has needled China since taking office in 2016 by rejecting its condition that both sides belong to the same country. Her chief opponent advocates dialogue on China’s condition. Taiwanese will also elect a new parliament.

Older voters who are new to social media particularly struggle to know truth from lies, said Wu Yih-hsuan, a 28-year-old Taiwanese doctoral student. His parents, both 64, are dabbling in social media.

“The young generation joined the social media starting around a decade ago, while the seniors, taking my parents for instance, started to use Line four years ago only,” he said.

Corrections and crackdowns

Officials try to rebut as much fake news as possible, the foreign minister said. They, too, work with Line and Facebook to block fake accounts and remove false news, he said, and sometimes consult a local nonprofit fact-checking service.

The Cabinet tightened two criminal codes in April to ban the spread of fake news, including resending false content. On Dec. 31, parliament passed an anti-infiltration law criminalizing influence from offshore in Taiwan’s elections.

Police detained a National Taiwan University political science professor last month over a 2018 Facebook post criticizing the government-run National Palace Museum, according to local media reports. Someone also posted to Line the false information that Tsai’s party spent the equivalent of NT$30 million to organize an LGBT pride parade in Taipei, according to the website

“This problem has become quite obvious close to the election,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Police probes now risk violating people’s rights to express opinions, he added. “The power to suppress free speech has grown bigger,” Huang said.

But fake news probably has little impact on people’s voting decisions, said Shelley Rigger, a visiting researcher with National Taiwan University’s College of Social Sciences. Most youth are skeptical of what they read and Taiwanese overall have long known that “the PRC is trying to undermine their democracy.”