From beef noodles to bots: Taiwan’s factcheckers on fighting Chinese disinformation and ‘unstoppable’ AI

Charles Yeh’s battle with disinformation in Taiwan began with a bowl of beef noodles. Nine years ago, the Taiwanese engineer was at a restaurant with his family when his mother-in-law started picking the green onions out of her food. Asked what she was doing, she explained that onions can harm your liver. She knew this, she said, because she had received text messages telling her so.

Yeh was puzzled by this. His family had always happily eaten green onions. So he decided to set the record straight.

He put the truth in a blog post and circulated it among family and friends through the messaging app Line. They shared it more broadly, and soon he received requests from strangers asking to be connected to his personal Line account.

“There wasn’t much of a factchecking concept in Taiwan then, but I realised there was a demand. I could also help resolve people’s problems,” Yeh said. So he continued, and in 2015 launched the website MyGoPen, which means, “don’t be fooled again” in Taiwanese.

Within two years, MyGoPen had 50,000 subscribers. Today, it has more than 400,000. In 2023, it received 1.3m fact check requests and has debunked disinformation on everything from carcinogens in bananas to the false claim that Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, had a child out of marriage.

Other factchecking organisations have emerged, including Taiwan FactCheck Center, Cofacts and DoubleThink Lab.

But as factchecking organisations have grown, so has the threat of disinformation.

A man at an election campaign rally for the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist party), in Keelung, Taiwan, in January. The University of Gothenburg’s Varieties of Democracy project lists Taiwan as the target of more disinformation from abroad than any other democracy. Photograph: I-Hwa Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

The growing, changing threat from China

The University of Gothenburg’s Varieties of Democracy project lists Taiwan as the target of more disinformation from abroad than any other democracy, ahead of Latvia and the US. The biggest threat comes from across the Taiwan Strait and it is most intense around election periods.

Taiwanese civic organisation Doublethink Lab tracks China’s influence in 82 countries on sectors like academia, the media, and domestic politics. It ranks Taiwan first in terms of the degree of China’s influence on its society and its media, and 11th overall.

In February this year, after two Chinese fishers died in a speedboat crash while being chased by Taiwan’s coastguard, after which Beijing condemned Taiwan, a video circulating online claimed to show 100 Chinese fishing vessels surrounding Taiwan’s Kinmen islands in retaliation.

But MyGoPen pointed out that the video was taken in 2023 in the waters near the eastern Chinese provinces of Shandong and Zhejiang, when the boats were returning to port at the end of a fishing season.

Jaw-Nian Huang, associate professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, says Beijing has evolved its strategy from a more direct approach – like disseminating the false allegation in 2020 that then president Tsai Ing-Wen, who was running for re-election, had fabricated her doctorate degree – to an indirect approach. For example, Beijing has used the Israel-Gaza war to cast doubt on the US’s approach to global politics – and therefore to Taiwan.

These “misleading narratives”, he says, can be harder to counter because they are based on opinion or perspective. “There is no right or wrong to a perspective,” he said. “It’s no longer a question of true or false.”

One important way to beat such narratives is to ensure a diverse media environment and that the public builds a habit of getting information from multiple sources, he says.

As for China’s view, when a 2023 report from the US state department claimed that Beijing was expanding its disinformation efforts, China’s foreign affairs ministry responded by calling the claims themselves disinformation. “The US Department of State report is in itself disinformation as it misrepresents facts and truth. In fact, it is the US that invented the weaponising of the global information space,” a spokesperson said when asked about the report.

AI: ‘Systematic operation at work’

Artificial intelligence is a rapidly growing challenge for factcheckers. A recent report by the Thomson Foundation on AI disinformation attacks during the 2024 presidential election concluded that the onslaught has “continued unabated” and is evolving.

Eve Chiu, head of the non-profit Taiwan FactCheck Center, describes AI’s development as “unstoppable”. There was a widespread use of deep fakes overlaid with AI-generated celebrity voices during the January elections, she says.

“The large amount of false information about election manipulation which spread before and after polling day via TikTok, in an attempt to subvert the results of Taiwan’s democratic elections, indicated a systematic operation at work,” she says.

MyGoPen’s Yeh is daunted by the challenge of disinformation generated and spread by AI, but says that it can also have benefits. It can be used to generate verbatim transcripts, for example, which improves the efficiency of checking video and audio materials.

And MyGoPen already uses bots to help respond to many of the requests the platform receives. Its bots receive and, using the MyGoPen database, respond to about 3,000 inquiries daily, he said. But it also has a Line account that provides a one-on-one factchecking service with a live factchecker. Also, AI “speeds up the checking process – helps with comparison, identification and translation – and we use it for some situations”, though verification still happens manually.

Yeh stresses that it is also really important to educate people on China’s changing disinformation tactics. He likens people who spread disinformation to fraudsters coming up with new ways to deceive people out of their money.

“Just like fraud, the tactics are always changing, but the goal – to cheat you of your money – doesn’t.”

The Guardian