Digital Minister Audrey Tang is arguably one of Taiwan’s most high-profile politicians internationally, known for her leadership in Taiwan’s fight against disinformation and her work in civilian open source software.
Tang was already an established programmer when she started working for the government in the wake of 2014’s Taiwan’s Sunflowers Movement, a mass protest that saw students occupy the legislature to protest against a trade agreement with China.
Since 2016, Tang has been a member of President Tsai Ing-wen’s cabinet as a minister without portfolio and is also a key member of g0v (“gov zero”), an activist open source movement working on civil society and government projects.
Al Jazeera spoke to Tang about her work to combat COVID-19 rumors and how social media like Taiwan’s PTT Bulletin Board – similar in structure to Reddit – can help. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us how you got involved in Taiwan’s contact tracing system? I imagine you had to help develop it quickly.
Audrey Tang: Of course, but that was not my idea. It was part of the g0v, or “Gov zero” community, which is tens of thousands of people who look at digital services and “fork” public services to create better versions and better alternatives in a way that is free of copyright restrictions for public use . After the g0v community proposed a standard 1922 SMS (toll free) based contact tracking system, we adopted and implemented it, so it was like a reverse acquisition. The specifications came from the community, from the social sector, and we have just implemented them. I think the whole implementation took less than three days, and it was free of applications – so no one needs to download any application.
Why was it important to avoid using an application? What are your concerns?
Pliers: Well, that’s for digital inclusion reasons. Although everyone in Taiwan enjoys broadband as a human right, and most people – even the elderly – have cell phones or smartphones, about 20 percent do not have the capacity to download, install, and maintain applications. Therefore, our most popular anti-COVID application, the National Health Insurance Administration’s NHI Express application is only (has been downloaded) by about one third of the entire population. So, to take care of the other two thirds of people who do not normally use the application or the 20 percent of people who do not have any experience to download an application, an application-free design based on everyone’s favorite QR code and SMS- like trusted formats were very important.
What kind of digital system will Taiwan adopt for its vaccine cards?
Pliers: We implement the European Union (Digital Curation Center) standard, which is an electronically signed QR code-based system for detecting COVID tests as well as vaccination records. The current situation is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is negotiating bilaterally with other jurisdictions that have implemented the same standard so that we can facilitate international travel. The deployment schedule is likely by the end of this year.
We do not plan to run any special application due to digital inclusion. We work with the idea that there is this simple website where you can download a yellow (vaccine) card and print it yourself or just show it on your phone.
Has Covid-19 been your biggest challenge since you were appointed?
Pliers: The virus of the body is of course very challenging, but most of the strategies are from the (Taiwan Centers for Disease Control) decentralized command center. The digital (side) only helps the contact trackers. My biggest challenge, as a digital minister, is actually the virus of the mind, that is, the infodemic – those polarized, outrage-based messages on the more antisocial angle of social media and how to prevent their natural progression into hatred, revenge and discrimination. That was the biggest challenge.
What kind of examples have you seen in Taiwan?
Pliers: In the pre-Covid days, around November 2019, which led to our 2020 January presidential election, there was trending viral disinformation that spoke of – and I quote – “young people in Hong Kong are being paid $ 20 million to to kill the police ”end of quote. This is of course not true, but it’s not a trend anywhere else, not in Hong Kong, just in Taiwan, so we’ve seen this kind of message as an attempt to provoke and change public discourse in an effort to influence our presidential election campaigns.
Where did this rumor come from?
Pliers: The picture that accompanied this piece of disinformation comes from Reuters, but the Reuters journalist did not actually say anything about (protesters) being paid. The original caption simply says that there were teenage protesters, and that’s it. Someone else provided the misleading caption and within just a day or so, the Taiwan Fact Control Center, an independent fact-checking service, traced that message back to the Central Political and Legal Units, Zhongyang Zhengfawei 中共中央 政法 委員會, of the PRC. (People’s Republic of China) regime and on their Weibo account, no less.
Have you noticed any recent rise in disinformation with the escalation in Chinese military flights near Taiwan?
Pliers: Not particularly. When people become aware of the factual situation, such as the actual flight path, etc., that our Minister of Defense literally publishes every day on social media, then people are more willing to have a conversation about the matter themselves instead of introducing buy at any piece of misinformation.
A few months ago, Taiwan had a major problem with Covid-related misinformation. Has the situation improved?
Pliers: I think it’s going down, because (while) we are certainly not completely post-pandemic, we have had virtually no local cases for weeks. And I think we have postponed the pandemic again, so people are much more relaxed with vaccinations. I think by tomorrow there will be 70 percent of the people who have been vaccinated and about 30 percent of the people who have been fully vaccinated, and we are progressing more than one percent every day.
How have you seen issues such as misinformation change since you took your stand?
Pliers: When I first started tackling the issue of misinformation in early 2017, there were no clear norms at the time about what kind of disinformation (requires) public notice and countermeasures, and what was just a normal part of the conversation of people in a liberal democracy and therefore need no intervention from the state or multinational corporations.
This progress only seemed natural, because we allowed public issues and public affairs to be discussed mainly in private sector venues, so it’s like having a town hall reservation, but in the local nightclub with smoky rooms and loud music, addictive drinks and private bouncers.
I have nothing against the entertainment sector, but these are not the places to hold town hall discussions. Since 2017, we have doubled in investing in the digital equivalent of public infrastructure and together with existing forums such as PTT (Bulletin Board), which has been in existence for over 25 years, free of advertisers and shareholders.
Does it sound like they have less of a problem with misinformation due to their management structure?
Pliers: In fact, since PTT started implementing disinformation, self-regulatory norms have been a norm, not a law or something that other media companies, including Facebook, have adopted – at least in our jurisdiction. For example, in 2019, as I mentioned, before the 2020 presidential election, Taiwan was one of the first jurisdictions where Facebook also published (information from) our national audit office, campaign donations and finances actually spent on sponsored social and political advertising. is. time as an open dataset for investigative journalists.
[The above is unclear. What did the PTT start to implement? Does she mean perhaps – Ever since we started using PTT to counter disinformation and establish self-regulation norms, it’s as a “norms package”…?]
They also found foreign-sponsored political and social ads during the election period, again according to the norm package, so I believe a strong enough social sector and strong enough alternatives can motivate both local private sector companies, or international companies like Facebook, to meet the norm that already set by the social sector.