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Misinformation is becoming more sophisticated in Taiwan

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is election season in Taiwan. And that also means, like here in the U.S., a rise in disinformation. Some of the propaganda and conspiracy theories can be directly tracked - traced back to China, which wants more control over Taiwan. And one of their favorite platforms is a Taiwanese online discussion forum called PTT. To figure out why, NPR's Emily Feng went to visit the tech guru who founded it.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Like many things on the internet, Taiwan's PTT was born out of idealism.

ETHAN TU: We should have a system that embrace open source and embrace freedom of speech.

FENG: This is Ethan Tu, PTT's founder. He started the platform in 1995 as a college student, and to its 1.5 million registered users, he's often called PTT's creation god. And as such, he sets the rules for PTT, a forum where people can post news and comments in long discussion threads.

TU: For any individual, you are equal. You cannot buy ads to promote fundraising, and you cannot rerank your content.

FENG: Like many early adopters of the World Wide Web, he believes in radical free expression, creating a marketplace of ideas moderated only by the users themselves. This is, in part, what's made PTT a go-to site for journalists in Taiwan to get tips. It also makes it a great place to amplify false narratives, says Summer Chen, the editor of nonprofit Taiwan FactCheck Center.

SUMMER CHEN: (Through interpreter) Those aiming to spread disinformation want to attract journalists and help them disseminate the information further.

FENG: And since 2022, Chen says exploiting Taiwanese media to spread false information is on the rise. For example, this year a hacked PTT account posted faked documents showing Taiwan's vice president giving away millions of dollars in aid to Paraguay, false claims news websites picked up. Other dominant false narratives often play up food safety and vaccine concerns.

CHIHHAO YU: Another topic is definitely war, the possibility of a conflict in our region across the Taiwan Strait.

FENG: That's Chihhao Yu, co-director at the research group Taiwan Information Environment Research Center. He says it's becoming harder to pinpoint when Chinese state actors are planting disinformation because sometimes Taiwanese outlets are spreading the information on their own.

YU: And our data analysis shows that about half of these narratives are actually domestic, while the other half comes from the PRC.

FENG: The PRC as in China. The information is part of an effort to shape voter perceptions in Taiwan.

YU: So all these sort of narratives are amplifying chaos and amplifying fear, which is not very productive if you want a constructive public debate on policies, on national direction.

FENG: And this is the question at the heart of combating disinformation. Do you keep platforms completely open and let people decide for themselves what is true and worth reading, or do you increase moderation and ask for real-name registration? PTT's founder, Ethan Tu, is adamantly against this approach. He worries doing so gives individual platforms too much power over speech.

TU: Because the content moderation now will become too powerful, which means the system operator can control the opinion of the society. That should not be allowed at PTT.

FENG: He acknowledges disinformation is a growing problem and becoming more sophisticated. But Taiwan is a democracy, he says. The people should decide. Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.