Foreign Policy

How a social media app beats disinformation

For many Americans who work in technology, Taiwan has become a model for fighting disinformation. Like the United States, Taiwan is deeply divided on important issues such as national identity, China politics, and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Urban-rural divisions have continued to divide Taiwanese society, and two large parties, whose ties have become increasingly fierce, dominate Taiwanese politics. Unlike the US, Taiwan has disinformation under control.

Part of this success is due to government crackdown on groups that spread disinformation, Taipei's media literacy initiatives, and President Tsai Ing-wen's decision to prioritize the issue. This is evident, for example, in her appointment of Audrey Tang, a software engineer, as digital minister in 2016. The core of Taipei's approach, however, lies elsewhere: namely, its ability to empower its civil society and the tech industry through a robust public-private partnership initiative use.

Looking at Taiwan, the United States and other western countries should focus on how the country has harnessed the power of partnerships – particularly between the government, third-party fact checkers, and social media platforms – to stem the tide of disinformation. There is no better example of this kind of coordinated action than Line, a private messaging app that provides a blueprint for how the government can use NGOs and the tech industry to combat disinformation.

Arguably Taiwan's most popular messaging app, Line is the main disinformation battlefield in Taiwan. Line quickly took over the Taiwanese market after it was launched in Japan in 2011 by a subsidiary of Korean tech giant Naver Corporation. In 2019, approximately 90 percent of Taiwanese used the app and sent more than 9 billion messages a day. Like WhatsApp, Line's design facilitates the rapid dissemination of harmful and false content: It offers a high degree of anonymity, since user profiles often only have one name and one picture and combine functions such as their own integrated messaging platform as well as private and encrypted group chats. It encourages users to share articles within the app. Users have to take an extra step to share with other apps, and this point of friction keeps users online.

This design has only added to the disinformation Taiwan has long struggled with, which is mostly produced or funded by China by content farms. The 2018 Taiwanese election showed for the first time how widely these manufactured stories were shared in closed groups outside of Line's content moderation area, which is limited to public contributions, including those on timelines, blogs, or manga boards. For example, a 2018 fake story alleged that Tsai spat on the floor at a ceremony honoring fallen veterans. Another tortuous campaign alleged unfounded that Tsai's government failed to protect fruit growers from falling prices by distancing the country from China.

At this point, some users were well aware that they were encountering disinformation. According to a survey conducted by Line in July 2019, 46 percent of users said they had seen or received suspicious content in the past six months. However, only 33 percent said they checked these messages, and even fewer – 25 percent – then gave accurate information to others. These discouraging numbers have sparked a number of efforts by citizens and government to fill this void, especially as private groups have increased the effects of filter bubbles and confirmatory bias. They knew they needed to find a way to balance privacy with voluntary fact-checking – without users having to leave the platform.

What they came up with was a public-private partnership, which the PPP Knowledge Lab defines as a long-term contract between a private party and the government “to provide a public good or service where the private party bears significant risk and management responsibility. "Traditionally, these partnerships have been used in sectors where there is a lack of effective regulation and private incentives for self-regulation. This approach seeks to address this issue by leveraging the vast resources and connections available to government agencies the technical expertise and infrastructure of private companies are combined.

In July 2019, at the same event where Line published the results of its disinformation survey, the company unveiled its first public-private partnership to curb disinformation: the Digital Accountability Project (DAP), which it is in partnership with Taiwan's Executive Yuan and fact-checking organizations of Third party providers. The purpose of the DAP partnership was straightforward: to integrate fact checking directly into the Line app and thus give the public the tools to become more critical about their media consumption.

Perhaps the most important part of that effort was Line Fact Checker, a chatbot that allows users to submit links or statements that can be analyzed and verified against content previously reviewed by one of five third-party organizations: the Executive Yuan Real-Time News Explanation page, the Taiwan FactCheck Center, Rumor & Truth, MyGoPen and Cofacts.

Individually, these fact-checking operations were useful, but nowhere near enough. Take Cofacts for example: it's an open source, collaborative fact-checking project that developed its first line chatbot in 2018 that is still in use. If a user sends the chatbot a message that doesn't match the existing data from Cofacts, users can forward their message for manual fact-checking. The Cofacts database also supports a chatbot with the affectionate name Aunt Meiyu, which can be added to group chats and automatically reacts when users share untruths with one another. Of course, this assumes that users take the initiative to add the bot to their chat. The hope is that by humanizing the idea and marketing the idea as a fun addition, users will be more willing to use it.

These are all helpful tools, but Cofacts has limited financial resources and depends on volunteer members. Although the database is open source and any volunteer can help review content, only about 250 messages are added to the database each week.

By using different fact-checking features at the same time, the Line Fact Checker initiative can assess the accuracy of a user submission in a split second. Now, in addition to providing a simple one-line review, the line bot can provide links to articles from reputable news sources on the same topic. Users can also submit their content to any of the third-party fact-checking processes in the program for further verification.

This collaborative bot model, while in its early stages, has significant advantages. First, Line doesn't have to directly intervene in conversations and potentially violate freedom of speech. While this approach can limit its reach, it also prevents the company from becoming the “arbiter of truth” that social media platforms have shied away from. Second, users don't leave the app to review any information. This is beneficial to both users' real-time ability to spot disinformation and the bottom line for Line, a rare win-win situation. Third, the fact-checking service gets stronger with every use as the bot can aggregate submissions and reviews from millions of users and across multiple platforms. In this sense, Line can also collect valuable data that was not previously available to it, e.g. B. Popular topics used by disinformation campaigns and language similarities between posts.

So far, the effects of the DAP have had an external impact. For example, Facebook, which had already worked with the Taiwan FactCheck Center, also signed a contract with MyGoPen in March. While Facebook has decided to stick with its now-familiar disinformation strategy – by asking fact-checking services to rate content behind the scenes, and use their algorithm to downgrade content accordingly – this is a promising move in the industry. It shows that the Tsai government is making a positive impact on tech companies beyond Line, and that Line's public-private model is clearly a viable option to combat disinformation without suppressing language.

The fight against disinformation on a mass scale is still an uphill battle. However, historical metrics for using Line Fact Checker look promising: the bot has received more than 230,000 user submissions since its inception, and users have reported around 41,000 messages, suggesting that multiple users are reporting the same false narrative as it is being spread, encouraging Media literacy sign. Taiwan's success in tackling disinformation about COVID-19 also suggests the DAP is working. It is clear that by creating the DAP and offering official news clearing services, the Taiwanese government has expanded accurate content on social media.

In Taiwan's case, partnering with Line and third-party fact-checkers could build long-term firewalls to protect Taiwanese from China's disinformation campaigns – campaigns similar to those targeted at Americans, be it from Beijing, Moscow, or other domestic threats. and abroad. And the DAP is successful not only because of its fact-checking tools, but also because its participating organizations promote them to the public. For example, the Taiwan FactCheck Center hosts events where everyone from college students to elementary school teachers can learn how to use fact-checking services effectively.

Like Taiwan, the U.S. government should dramatically expand its public-private partnerships with popular social media apps. Of course, since Americans trust their government less than Taiwanese – and since disinformation sometimes comes from the government itself, including their heads – Taipei's model would not translate perfectly. The United States would have to be careful not to play a fact-checking role and just step up the work of private tech companies. That would be difficult, but the 2020 US elections have shown that Washington can certainly be of help in fending off foreign cyberthreats. And, despite bias concerns, disinformation is just too difficult for Washington's cybersecurity experts or the industry to tackle on their own. Taipei has capitalized on two inherent strengths of democracies: the power of independent media and civil society. It is time for the oldest surviving democracy in the world to follow suit.

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