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Taiwan helicopter crash shows disinformation danger ahead of election

Civil society combats online rumors as China looks to influence voters

| Taiwan
Emergency teams work at the crash site of a military helicopter on Jan. 2: some politicians seized on the tragedy in hopes for gain. (image made from video)   © Yilan Fire Bureau/AP

On their first day back at work after the new year, Taiwanese citizens were confronted by the country's worst tragedy in its military history. A UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter was forced to attempt an emergency landing en route to a military base. Taiwan's Chief of the General Staff, Shen Yi-ming, and seven other high-ranking officials were among the dead.

Immediately after the accident, while rescue efforts were continuing and President Tsai Ing-wen was attempting to calm the country, disinformation began to circulate on social media and cable television and some politicians seized on the tragedy in hopes for gain. This rush of politically motivated disinformation is in line with what we have seen in campaigning for Taiwan's general election, due to be held this Saturday.

Soon after the Black Hawk helicopter's forced landing, a user of a popular chat platform said that, despite the current tragedy, candidates from Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party were continuing their campaign. The truth was that Tsai's campaign office had announced the party would suspend its political activities for three days.

Later that evening, a well-known former journalist claimed on an evening talk show that although General Shen "fell at the corner of the mountain, President Tsai is still standing at the street corner campaigning."

More recently, an opposition-party candidate posted on her Facebook page a doctored photo of Tsai sitting with a banner that said "F--k the Ministry of National Defense" while claiming that the photo was real. The candidate eventually deleted the photo after tremendous backlash, saying she received it from a group on the Line messaging app.

All of this disinformation highlights the battle between conservative and progressive values, between authoritarianism and democracy, and the role of China in this election, where citizens of Asia's freest democracy will pick their president and members of the Legislative Yuan.

In the final preelection polls, incumbent Tsai was leading strongly, but the legislative election is less predictable. The two largest political parties, the Kuomintang and the DPP, are fighting for a majority, and several small parties are campaigning to exceed the 5% threshold to capture seats.

As political competition shifts into a high gear, the threat of information warfare looms large. Just as in the local election of 2018, China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, is utilizing all channels possible to influence the outcome of this election. The Chinese regime realizes that the majority of Taiwanese people, especially the youth, consider Taiwan to be their country and wish to have nothing to do with China's authoritarian regime. China wants to undermine Tsai's government, which also rejects its stance, too.

Taiwan's civil society and nongovernmental organizations have played a significant role in combating disinformation during this election.

Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019. In response, prejudice and discriminatory rhetoric became part of some candidates' campaigns. Especially in southern Taiwan, where society is notably conservative, banners emerged targeting senior citizens. They had photos of gay couples exchanging kisses and hugs alongside the text "Do you want to have grandchildren?" and the request not to vote for legislative candidates who support LGBT+ groups and same-sex marriage.

Nongovernmental organizations such as the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy, or TYAD, Watchout and the Taiwan FactCheck Center are working to inform citizens of disinformation and ways to stop discrimination.

TYAD compiled step-by-step information for those looking to file complaints about discriminatory banners. On its website and Facebook page, The Taiwan FactCheck Center dispelled the rumor that the current administration has made it harder for the spouse of a fallen military officer to obtain compensation. Watchout provided fact checks and clarification on disinformation and online rumors.

While some politicians and ideologues see the tragedy as an opportunity for gain, the majority of Taiwanese people are transcending political differences and standing united in support of the military and national security -- an attitude promoted by Taiwan's current administration.

The Taipei Guest House, pictured in January 2013.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

The government has converted the Taipei Guest House, traditionally used by the president and officials to host foreign delegations or national events, into a shrine for citizens to pay their respects to the fallen military officials. The outpouring of support was so great that the administration extended the number of days that the Taipei Guest House was supposed to be open.

A survey conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in 2019 showed that 72% of Taiwanese people agreed that even though democracy is not perfect, it is still the best system to live under.

As Taiwan votes for its next leaders this weekend, it is very likely that information warfare will continue even after the election. However, the Taiwanese belief in democracy and its values will be the principle that ultimately keep their country democratic and free.

Ketty W. Chen is vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

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