Taiwan is building a backup satellite internet system so it can communicate with the world, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has done, if the worst-case scenario unfolds.
Should China try to annex the self-governing island, as it has repeatedly threatened, Taiwan says it needs to be able to talk to global leaders, and its own people, in real time.
“As we’ve seen from the Ukrainian experience, real-time video conference is really important,” Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s new Minister of Digital Affairs, said in an interview Monday.
“That’s what enables President Zelensky to speak to the world and for the entire world to know what’s going on, so that rumours and disinformation would not spread.”
Among other measures, the Taiwanese government has set up a pilot project that would create the capability to communicate in high-quality video in case China cuts its undersea internet cables and knocks out its mobile networks. This “proof of concept” program will test satellite internet connections and 700 locations in Taiwan will be outfitted with equipment to communicate.
Taiwan has about 15 undersea cables connecting it to the world and which transmit digital communications such as phone calls and e-mail.
A study published Aug. 29 by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center said these cables come ashore at just three places in Taiwan: the city of New Taipei, the town of Toucheng in the north, and the town of Fangshan in the south. The centre said analysis of open-source data showed submarine cable landing stations are among China’s strategic points of interest when it comes to invasion planning.
China’s authoritarian rulers consider Taiwan a breakaway province and as recently as August reaffirmed they would “not renounce the use of force” to annex the island. A senior American military commander told a U.S Senate committee last year he expects China to have developed the military capacity to seize Taiwan by 2027.
Mr. Zelensky has used communications infrastructure to appeal to the world for help. Information, he told Canadian university students last June during a video link discussion, can land a “bigger blow than some types of weapons.” The internet, he said, “is a kind of weapon because we can show what’s going on.”
Ms. Tang, recently appointed as Taiwan’s first Digital Affairs Minister, is tasked with boosting the island’s “digital resilience,” a phrase that means not only safeguarding it from cyberattacks but using technology to recover from disasters or adversity and anticipate future threats – for example, learning from the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis of 2003 and applying those lessons to fighting COVID-19.
It also puts her on the front line of the disinformation campaigns that she says China wages in Taiwan on a regular basis. “Even without a declaration of war, already we face cyberattacks, we face disinformation and information manipulation on a daily basis,” the minister said.
The basic message the Chinese government pushes, she said, is designed to sap confidence in Taiwan’s young democracy. The island transitioned from martial law to democracy over the 1990s.
“It’s simple: Democracy doesn’t work. Democracy always leads to chaos. Democracy cannot counter the pandemic. Democracy cannot even run an election properly,” she said of the Chinese propaganda.
The messages, spread through Line, Taiwan’s predominant social-media application, and onto YouTube and Tiktok. “It’s about sabotaging people’s belief in the democratic process itself – because that’s the only way that annexation leads to a better life,” she said, alluding to China’s goal of taking over Taiwan.
In 2019, Reporters Without Borders released a report saying Taiwan is China’s top target for disinformation.
Taiwan’s solution to battling disinformation involves independent, citizen-initiated fact-checking efforts such as Cofacts. Taiwanese can send suspicious information to the crowdsourced initiative for review.
The government has a rapid-response team where each ministry has staff designated to answer queries that arise about suspected disinformation. Social-media applications are notified through a shared database of disinformation and in some cases will affix warning labels to suspicious articles or posts.
“We don’t do takedowns. We don’t do censorship,” Ms. Tang said. Instead, this fact-checking process enables Taiwanese to generate what she calls a “vaccine of the mind.”
Like Ukraine, Taiwan has found it helpful to use humour to counter disinformation.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, an especially virulent piece of disinformation alleged that Taiwanese authorities were going to confiscate toilet paper to make disposable face masks – demonstrably false because the two products are made from different material.
This was aimed at getting people to panic buy and generate photos of this chaos that would reinforce the lie, Ms. Tang said.
In response, the government posted a photo of Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang wiggling his rear end and an information graphic demonstrating how toilet paper and face masks are made from different products. It was silly, but effective.
“When people encountered this picture, they laughed and it took their sense of outrage away,” Ms. Tang said. The panic buying “was solved within a couple of days” because the government response “went viral and ended up outpacing the rumour in terms of circulation.”