As we approach the U.S. elections in November, Beijing, like Moscow, has shown that it will not shy from disrupting America’s democracy using its cyber capabilities. Just two months ago, Google found that Chinese hackers were seeking to access the personal email accounts of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign staffers.
So how should America respond to Chinese offenses and ensure its electoral integrity? Taiwan, one of the countries ranked most inundated with foreign disinformation, offers a few lessons.
In January, Taiwan successfully fought off information attacks on its national elections from China — an adversary larger by a factor of 23 in gross domestic product, 60 in population size, and 267 in landmass. According to interviews I conducted for my master’s thesis with more than 30 Taiwanese officials, politicians, journalists, academics, civil society leaders and social media representatives, Taiwan countered these attacks through three main approaches.
First, the Taiwanese government monitored media platforms around-the-clock and effectively debunked false news with the potential to gain traction. The government often used memes to disseminate the correct information publicly, recognizing that online viral content tends to be short, funny, and easy to understand and share.
The government also timed its debunking with the news cycles, releasing correct the information well in advance of nightly news, so that traditional media would help spread it. The idea behind this is to ensure that clarifications spread faster and further than false news — so that facts dominate the information space before falsehoods do. Thus, during the election season, Taiwanese journalists told me that they generally did not hear about a fake news story until they saw the government’s response. Facebook also told me that the government’s clarifications traveled more broadly than false news did on its platform.
Second, in addition to reactively countering fake news, the central government raised public awareness of both general and Chinese propaganda and disinformation through a public health lens. It sought to build the public mind-set that fake news is like a virus. Because anyone can catch and spread the virus, everyone should work together to detect and prevent its spread. This framing removed the good-bad binary from false news and thereby curbed its ability to polarize the body politic.
The government then focused on education. For example, it drove media-literacy trucks to rural areas to conduct fake news identification workshops for citizens with less media experience (for example, older people). To specifically address Chinese disinformation, the ruling political party passed an anti-infiltration act before its elections in January primarily to warn the public about malicious foreign activities.
Third, the Taiwanese government used legal means to rein in Chinese propaganda. The anti-infiltration law was also adopted to deter Chinese interference in the elections and frame them as a referendum on Chinese penetration into Taiwan. The law states that any person or entity receiving support from “overseas hostile forces” in donations, in an election or referendum, in lobbying, and in disrupting assembly will face imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $335,000 (10 million NTD).
So far, it appears to be having an effect. Master Chain, the only Taiwanese media outlet that had an office in China, immediately criticized the law, closed its Taiwan operations and relocated to Beijing. Separately, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission more strictly enforced the island’s factual and balanced reporting regulation for television and radio. For example, CTi TV, a prominent television channel suspected to be under Chinese influence, was fined more than $186,000 (5.63 million NTD) in 2019 mostly for broadcasting and disseminating falsehoods. Combined with public criticism of their biases, this seems to have pushed outlets with suspected Chinese ties to become relatively more factual and balanced in their reporting, according to Taiwanese journalists I interviewed.
The United States has less than three months until one of its most consequential elections in our lifetime. It must secure its political and informational systems so that Americans alone — not the Chinese, Russian or Iranian governments, or any other foreign entity — can decide the nation’s fate. To do so, it can learn from Taiwan.