Written by Chiaoning Su and Wei-Ping Li.
Image credit: Fact-checking Demagog.cz by Demagog.cz/ Wikimedia, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.
From sophisticated disinformation campaigns to patriotic trolling and clickbait, the flood of mis/disinformation has become a global phenomenon. Studies have shown that Taiwan’s young democracy ranks as one of the countries most exposed to misleading viewpoints or false information from foreign forces, especially China. These campaigns often seek to demonise high-profile Taiwanese politicians and divide Taiwanese society. They also aim to steer Taiwan away from anti-China policies or international alliances, notably with the United States.
To combat mis/disinformation, numerous fact-checking organisations have emerged around the world in the past five years. In Taiwan, citizens have initiated several projects to battle false information. Among them, MyGoPen (麥擱騙), Cofacts (真的假的), and Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC/台灣事實查核中心) are the most active and continuously operated. Through in-depth interviews with eight informants from these three organisations, this article, as well as Su and Li’s chapter in Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms: Performing Identities in Taiwan and Hong Kong, demonstrates that it is crucial to examine fact-checking organisations through a local lens to fully capture their historical roots, evolution, and future opportunities and challenges.
Three fact-checking musketeers
Established in 2015, MyGoPen (麥擱騙), which means “Don’t fool me again” in Taiwanese, was one of the earliest local fact-checking projects. Operated first in a blog format to help the founder’s mother-in-law identify and debunk scams, MyGoPen has gradually gained popularity among senior citizens and evolved into a full-fledged website providing a one-on-one fact-checking service through LINE, the most popular messaging app in Taiwan. In 2020, MyGoPen had more than 300,000 LINE subscribers and received about two thousand enquiries per day. Currently, MyGoPen is a for-profit company funded by collaborative partnerships (e.g., Facebook), content authorisation (Yahoo!) and reader donations. The three full-time employees are responsible for fact-checking, system maintenance and operation, and LINE queries.
MyGoPen did not categorise itself as a news organisation immediately. As the founder, Charles Yeh, said, “I was originally an engineer . . . just an ordinary person who didn’t know much about journalism. I didn’t even know the phrase ‘media literacy’ until I got to know Professor Hu, the co-founder of TFC . . . So, I haven’t thought about how to label us.” Yet, in 2020, MyGoPen earned certification with IFCN and became the second fact-checking organisation (after TFC) in Taiwan to collaborate with Facebook. These developments have forced MyGoPen to become increasingly aware of its social responsibilities to the Taiwanese people, especially those most vulnerable to dis/misinformation. For example, MyGoPen has collaborated with Google to hold public events to promote media literacy. In 2020, it also recruited an editor with a journalism background to solidify and reinforce its fact-checking process.
Started in 2017, Cofacts was sponsored by a Civic Tech Prototype Grant and built by a group of computer programmers from g0v, a “decentralised civic tech community” that advocates for information transparency and digital activism. Inspired by MyGoPen’s rumour-debunking service, these programmers further integrated a LINE chatbot with a hoax database. Once it receives a dubious message submitted by LINE users, the Cofacts bot will check against its database and provide an automated response indicating the veracity of the information. For queries not included in the database, a Cofacts volunteer will fact-check each submission manually and add it to the database. In other words, Cofacts is a collaborative fact-checking project enabled by big data, crowdsourcing, and technology diffusion.
Three to five core members keep Cofacts operating. Every two months, these key personnel gather to develop offline connections with volunteers. These in-person meetings provide an opportunity to connect online information—verifying behaviours with real-life identities and prevent the platform from being “hijacked by rogue editors.” Meanwhile, guided by open data concepts, Cofacts publishes its source code, LINE bot analytics, and the data set of verified messages for public use. In fact, Aunt Meiyu, another popular LINE chatbot created in 2018, provides fact-checking information built upon Cofacts’s open-source coding and a combined database of Cofacts, TFC, and MyGoPen.
Among the three fact-checking initiatives, TFC was the only one established and run by fact-checkers with journalistic training. In 2018, two non-profit organisations, Taiwan Media Watch, and the Association for Quality Journalism Taiwan, initiated the centre using donations from philanthropic foundations. TFC aims “to conduct fact checks on information relevant to public affairs as well as to improve the information ecology and news quality of Taiwan.” TFC views fact-checking as an act of resistance working towards a larger cultural shift in society’s relationship to information. It is interested in reshaping citizens’ mindsets about the role of information in democratic societies and raising awareness of what is at stake when information quality is undermined.
TFC devotes itself primarily to two lines of activity: producing fact-checking reports and participating in media literacy events. TFC has eight full-time employees, including the editor-in-chief, six fact-checkers, and one graphic designer. Together, they produce around thirty to forty monthly articles, including original content, translation, and event coverage. “Our goal is not to pursue quantity but quality . . . especially being such a young organisation, the most important thing for us is to establish credibility through the quality of our work,” said Summer Chen, the editor-in-chief of TFC. Because of its persistence in rigour and accountability, TFC first earned IFCN certification in 2018 and then won a highly competitive Coronavirus Fact-Checking Grant (USD$50,000) in 2020 to “combat COVID-19 misinformation through multimedia.” Meanwhile, IFCN selected TFC’s 2019 publication entitled “a Chinese spy named Wang Liqiang” as one of the best fact-checking reports of the decade. TFC also became a leader in media literacy education in Taiwan and is heavily involved in seminars to exchange ideas with experts and in workshops to promote fact-checking practices to the public.
Synergies and challenges facing Taiwan’s information ecosystem.
The three studied organisations—MyGoPen, Cofacts, and TFC—are innovative citizen-led initiatives intended to improve Taiwan’s deteriorating information ecosystem. Interviews with key members of these organisations reveal that fact-checking in Taiwan is an evolving concept shaped by each platform’s objectives, target audience, verification methods, and technology usage. MyGoPen approaches fact-checking through user-centred practices that aim to protect citizens from all forms of deception, including online rumours and digital scams. Cofacts, understanding facts to be the product of public deliberation, advocates for a user-involved fact-checking process whereby online users decide what is true. Finally, TFC, which prioritises facts with social impact, views facts as information that needs to be uncovered and practices fact-checking guided by journalistic principles and rigorous research. Together, with their diverse fact-checking practices and the range of disinformation they cover, these organisations form a collaborative safety net to shield Taiwan’s unique information space and vulnerable democracy.
The differences between technology-driven Cofacts and human-centred TFC reflect the current scholarly debate about best fact-checking practices. Computer scientists believe that “machine learning, natural language processing, and database query techniques” can eventually build an end-to-end automated verification solution, such as ClaimBuster, to optimise fact-checking efficiency. Journalism scholars, on the other hand, emphasise the importance of human fact-checkers excavating truth from complex and intricate rhetoric. Nevertheless, both agree that the best current course is to build automated fact-checking tools to assist human practitioners in identifying and verifying claims and reporting accordingly. Support from the scholarly community, traditional media, and platform companies will be necessary to realise such an approach.
Meanwhile, the late development of the fact-checking movement in Taiwan and its focus on non-political issues also reflect Taiwan’s unique situation. In recent decades, Taiwanese citizens often called for newspaper boycotts or participated in “turn-off your TV” campaigns to express their distrust of news media. In other words, civil society sought to improve news quality by rejecting the fake rather than deliberating over the truth. Furthermore, Taiwan differs from Western countries in lacking a mainstream political fact-checking culture. As shown in one study, out of 487 fact-checks produced by TFC in twenty-two months, only one directly verified political claims made by politicians. Two factors might explain this deficiency. First, in-depth political fact-checking requires years of experience and institutional knowledge and exceeds the capabilities of Taiwan’s current group of young and inexperienced fact-checkers. Recruiting senior reporters to staff fact-checking organisations could improve the future quality of fact-checks.
Furthermore, this deficiency can be read as a legacy of Taiwan’s authoritarian past. Having long existed in a controlled media environment, the Taiwanese are still learning how to challenge political authority through deliberative voices and reasoned arguments. Improving political fact-checking can help Taiwan cultivate a healthy and resilient democracy.
Taiwan’s fact-checking practices offer a timely and fitting lesson as China becomes increasingly bold in its cyber intrusions. While Taiwan may be the training ground for Beijing to exercise its sharp power, the ultimate target is the United States to destabilise the post-war international order. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic became an avenue for an onslaught of pro-China disinformation campaigns directed at widening social divisions in the United States. Moreover, Taiwan’s fact-checking practices offer an illustrative case for other vulnerable democracies that must bolster their media literacy. Therefore, we must learn from Taiwan before it is too late.
Chiaoning Su is an associate professor in Communication, Journalism, and Public Relations at Oakland University. She also serves as the Barry M. Klein Center for Culture and Globalization director. Her research focuses on two distinct yet interconnected research lines: journalism of crisis and journalism in crisis. While the first line examines the representation and production of crisis news, the second focuses on journalism in public life during an era of waning democracy. Her work has been published in Media, Culture and Society, International Journal of Communication, Asian Journal of Communication, Taiwan Journal of Democracy, and Communication Review.
Wei-Ping Li is a PhD candidate at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Before attending the PhD program, she was a journalist covering financial and legal news in Taiwan. She is also a lawyer licensed to practice in New York State and has worked as a consultant and researcher examining digital rights policy. Her research has focused on disinformation, propaganda, and media laws and policy.
This article is part of Chapter 3 in the book: Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms: (Per)Forming Identities in Taiwan and Hong Kong (2023, Michigan State University Press), and was published as part of a special issue titled “Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms.”