Towards a Healthier Information Environment in Taiwan – Advice Eating

Amnesty Talk focuses on Taiwan’s information environment, the process of dehumanization, and the need to center victims’ voices

  • By James Baron / Contributing Reporter

What lessons can Taiwan learn from the disinformation campaigns that have surrounded the war in Ukraine? At an Amnesty International Taiwan event in Taipei on Wednesday night, four speakers offered compelling insights into these and related issues.

One of the most important insights was the observation that disinformation does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it’s part of an information ecosystem that we need to fully understand before we can engage with the invasive species problem, so to speak.

“It’s not just an information problem, it’s an information environment that makes Taiwan a pretty good place for all kinds of information manipulation,” says TH Schee (徐子涵), a representative of Open Knowledge Taiwan, a community of think tankers. Practitioners and digital enthusiasts working to incubate open initiatives.

Photo: Reuters

Schee stresses that in Taiwan “the conditions are ripe” for the spread of propaganda and untruths, in part because an older generation relies on “closed circles of trust” for their information.

“To create a healthy environment for them, you have to understand how they trust each other and how they communicate with their peers,” says Schee. “If they trust messages on the internet, it’s probably because they were sent by their husbands or wives.”

The types of narratives that might resonate with such groups fall into several categories, says Jeff Hsu (徐曉強) of IORG, a civilian research organization working to strengthen information literacy and counteract authoritarianism. After analyzing over 267,000 texts from social media, statements by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities and CCP-affiliated media between November last year and February, IORG has identified four main themes: US bad; Ukraine bad; Russia justified and the US untrustworthy.

Photo: James Baron

As an example of the type of emotionalizing tactics that could be used for target audiences, Hsu cites a third-category narrative in which Russia is portrayed as a rejected husband and Ukraine as an unfaithful wife.

“We found that this was the most reported message [the messaging app] line,” says Hsu.

The fourth category – namely the inherent unreliability of the US as an ally – also lends itself to appeals aimed at evoking emotions.

Photo: Reuters

“Perhaps the most common narrative is ‘today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan (今日烏克蘭,明日台灣)’,” says Hsu. “There was a similar slogan last August when the US was conducting its military withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he says.

LIMITATIONS OF DATA SCRAPING

The point here, Hsu says, is to let the Taiwanese know that the Americans won’t come to the rescue if “they can’t even fight the Taliban.”

Hsu believes this idea has now been applied to the situation in Ukraine.

“It’s almost the same,” he says. “They say the US isn’t sending troops on the ground, they’re just using Ukraine as a pawn and Taiwan is on the same path.”

While Schee has identified similar trends, he believes there are limits to what data alone can tell us.

“One of the hurdles to understanding the problem is the closed ecosystem of Line and Facebook Messenger,” he says. “You just can’t scrape data from these two big services. When Line was listed on the New York Stock Exchange four years ago, the number of messages reached about 9.3 billion per day. Think about the scale of the problem.”

Instead, a broader understanding of who is sharing what, how and why must be created if there is hope to bring about fundamental change.

This fits Liya Yu’s (喻俐雅) perspective. The German-Chinese political scientist demands that “the self” should be given more focus when it comes to sources of information.

“People in our own group, we consider them part of our identity group, whether political or social—these people are very complex to us, and when they give us information, they can seem more valuable,” says Yu.

DEHUMANIZATION PROCESS

Conversely, those outside the group are more easily dismissed or, worse, ultimately dehumanized.

“We attribute only secondary complex emotions to people in our ingroup,” says Yu.

By denying people from outgroups such feelings, particularly through the language we use, we can eliminate their agency. This, Yu says, is evident in the way Taiwan and Ukraine are reported, even in “well-meaning” Western media.

“[If] People don’t have freedom of choice, it doesn’t matter what they think,” says Yu. “Stories that say that Taiwan has no self-identity also serve to dehumanize Taiwanese people and not see themselves as equal human beings who can bring about dignified political change.”

Citing the latest research by neuroscientists, which she says can sometimes be “controversial,” Yu says the process of dehumanizing the person involved “disables the prefrontal medial cortex, which is essential for us to… to mentalize and to empathize with others. ”

This essentially reduces others to objects.

“If you take me through an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, the way I see you corresponds to this chair,” says Yu. “This has consequences from the brain, through opinions to political behavior.”

On this basis, one understands that “justifying atrocities” is a natural next step in this process.

FRONT AND MIDDLE

Addressing such atrocities, Aurora Chang (張瓊方) highlights the proliferation of terms such as “so-called” (所謂的) in pro-CCP media sources.

“People who are familiar with pro-Beijing media will know that,” says Chang, who has worked as a researcher on disinformation in Taiwan and spoke with the Taiwan Stands with Ukraine group in her capacity as an organizer and activist.

“They used it to talk about the Bucha massacre and portray these atrocities as false flags of America or media smear campaigns against Russia,” Chang said.

Chang emphasizes that disinformation can also take more insidious forms that are more difficult to combat. Referring to a recent forum where a Russian participant “warned us about the dangers of blindly trusting Western media,” and at another with a slide presentation titled “Russians are Victims Too,” she urges people to focus on the “voices and needs” of the suffering people.

The natural propensity for balance and nuance makes this difficult, says Chang, but not all narratives deserve airtime.

“As Taiwanese activists trying to support Ukraine from a country so different and so far away, it’s really important to join Ukrainian voices,” Chang says. “And due diligence when sharing something — you might not even do it on purpose, but it’s good to take note of the language used.”

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