A fabricated incident during the Kaohsiung mayoral candidates’ debate at the weekend demonstrates how disinformation can be used to undermine substance and benefit populists.
Of all the municipalities involved in the Nov. 24 “nine-in-one” local elections, Kaohsiung has turned into the major battleground, where what is at stake isn’t only whether the Kuomintang (KMT) will grab the southern port city from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) but also the future of electoral democracy itself.
Given the high symbolism and psychological impact of a DPP loss in Kaohsiung, which the DPP has ruled for the past 20 years (not to mention the strategic considerations, given the presence of the Zuoying naval base), both the KMT — the “deep-blue” Huang Fu-hsing faction, to be more precise — and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) across the Taiwan Strait have ramped up their efforts to turn the election in their favor (former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, a party elder from the “Taiwanese” faction of the KMT, was booed at a rally for the KMT candidate last week).
There is reason to believe that Kaohsiung is one of the four key municipalities that, according to the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB), has become the target of Chinese interference. Besides possible money transfers from China, illegal bidding on the elections has also been identified as a means by which electoral results could be compromised. Hundreds of millions on NT dollars are believed to be at play, in Kaohsiung, Tainan, Changhua and elsewhere, and law-enforcement authorities have been launching raids against the illegal dens involved.
Disinformation, more commonly known as “fake news,” has also become a serious concern and factor in the elections. Taiwan has been awash in false information passing off as news in recent months, and Taiwanese authorities are confident that much of it originates from “troll factories” and “content farms” in China backed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force. (Online harassment has also become frequent. Some artists who took part in a DPP rally at the weekend saw their Facebook pages bombarded with hateful messages, many of them written in simplified Chinese.)
Domestically produced disinformation has also become a factor, and the mayoral candidates’ debate this weekend provided a concrete example of how “fake news” comes about, and the detrimental impact it can have on democracy.
Despite the participation of other candidates, the Kaohsiung election is really between two contenders: the DPP’s Chen Chi-mai and the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu. In what should have been a shoo-in for Chen, the election has, according to a number of polls, become a close race, with Han, a former general manager of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation, narrowing the gap. Saturday’s televised debate pitted the calm and somewhat bookish Chen against the combative, and at times bombastic, Han.
No sooner had the debate aired than Taiwanese media, led by the Apple Daily, began reporting that Chen had broken the rules by wearing an earpiece, which ostensibly had been used to provide the candidate with real-time statistics to help him answer questions. The rumor quickly spread, with low-resolution pictures providing the “evidence.” Soon, the alleged earpiece was all that was being discussed in the news and on TV talk shows. What the candidates actually said — Chen’s rather detailed policy proposals, Han’s vague comments about rejuvenating the economy of a “moribund city” — had been shoved aside by the controversy.
As it turns out, there was no earpiece. Chen, who is blessed with a good memory, doesn’t need one. The Apple Daily reporter had picked up, and in so doing “corroborated,” the information from PTT Board, a popular bulletin board in Taiwan (which there is good reason to believe has been penetrated by pro-CCP elements). After being identified, the PTT user claimed he had “picked up the idea” of an earpiece from a Hong Kong movie. (This was not the first time PTT had served as a source of disinformation: earlier this year, the same platform was the origin of disinformation about the performance of Taiwanese diplomats based in Japan as Taiwan’s northern neighbor dealt with flooding caused by a major typhoon.) What’s worse, the Apple Daily reporter apparently didn’t even bother to check his information with reporters at the site in Kaohsiung. (As I have long argued, poor editorial and double-checking practices in traditional media, exacerbated by pressure to break news and generate large quantities of content, provide an environment which can be exploited by agents of disinformation like Chinese “troll factories” and “content farms.” Editors need to clamp down on journalists who use social media as sources of information and on “real time” news that are published on web sites with little, if any, checks by the editors.)
It no longer matters whether a candidate is proposing well thought-out policies based on solid analysis: if everything is possibly fake, if every politician is potentially untrustworthy, elections become mere popularity contests, in which populists, the charismatic, the loudest and the better-financed have the advantage.
This was disinformation as the great equalizer: saturate the environment with enough “fake news,” and eventually the public short circuits and tunes out; reality itself becomes questionable, the truth merely subjective. When everything becomes the object of doubt, pith, substance and arguments die a slow death. In an electoral context, it no longer matters whether a candidate is proposing well thought-out policies based on solid analysis: if everything is possibly fake, if every politician is potentially untrustworthy, elections become mere popularity contests, in which populists, the charismatic, the loudest and the better-financed have the advantage.
If, as is suspected, Beijing is indeed interfering in the Kaohsiung elections, it is not difficult to imagine which candidate has the advantage in all this, or why Han’s platform, with so little substance to offer, has constantly played up the themes of prosperity and stability, themes that are oddly reminiscent of what the CCP has proposed for its people.
Top photo courtesy of the Chen Chi-mai official Facebook page.
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