On a Sunday morning in Taipei, a few dozen Taiwanese civilians carrying travel coffee mugs and notebooks settled into their seats in a classroom for a day-long crash course on surviving a Chinese military invasion.
The classes, run by a Taiwanese non-profit called Kuma Academy, provide lessons in first aid techniques and evacuation planning. And there’s a new addition to the survival course curriculum: debunking disinformation.
“Before the troops arrive, first comes the disinformation to justify the invasion,” explained Puma Shen, co-founder of Kuma Academy.
Shen pointed to the war in Ukraine, where the Kremlin falsely claims it’s rescuing Russian-speaking regions from Nazis. Like President Vladimir Putin’s baseless claim to Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping similarly believes Taiwan, a thriving democracy, belongs to the Chinese Communist Party.
Kuma Academy’s students are taught to expect similar propaganda from Beijing ahead of an invasion, along with disinformation designed to exaggerate China’s military power to coerce the Taiwanese into submission.
“I think the best scenario for China is that we surrender or we sign a peace agreement,” Shen said. “If people are willing to sign this agreement, they don’t need all the troops, they don’t need the People’s Liberation Army. For those reasons, I think they will use disinformation a lot.”
“Imagine, for the cost of one missile, they could pay for numerous online influencers to spread disinformation.”
While Canadians grapple with recent allegations of election interference by the Chinese government, the Taiwanese say they’ve been targeted for years by disinformation and interference campaigns. And over time, they’ve developed novel ways to fight back.
“Here in Taiwan, we have been facing this issue, this situation for decades,” said Freddy Lim, an independent politician in Taiwan’s government.
Long before he became a champion for Asian democracy, Lim was best known for wearing black “corpse” face paint and screaming into a microphone as the frontmen for the Taiwanese heavy metal band Chthonic, sometimes referred to as “Asia’s Black Sabbath.”
In 2015, after two decades of chart-topping albums and world tours, including multiple Canadian performances, Lim pivoted to politics.
“I found inspiration from Taiwan’s stories. But I found a lot of unfair things. So I felt like I wanted to not just use these stories as inspiration for music, but also try to fix things, to make things right,” Lim told Global News about his decision to pursue a political career.
Lim now uses his powerful voice to condemn the Chinese government’s alleged intimidation and interference, which he said runs deep in Taiwanese society. Lim accused Beijing of covertly supporting politicians, academics and community groups that want Taiwan to join the People’s Republic of China.
After speaking out, Lim said his own campaign was targeted. “They tried to operate a lot of fake accounts to attack me,” he said.
A couple of years ago, his team found thousands of anonymous online accounts attacking Lim, all of which were posting the same messages simultaneously. Lim sent screenshots of the suspicious posts for further investigation to a local organization called DoubleThink Lab.
The non-profit group is one of several launched in recent years that is dedicated to debunking disinformation and investigating interference.
“Taiwan faces probably the most pressure and influence and exposure to Chinese disinformation,” said Ai-Men Lau, a Canadian researcher with DoubleThink Lab based in Taipei.
“It’s quite striking being here in Taiwan, seeing how Taiwanese civil society has really risen up to address the issue. It’s very much a whole-of-society approach,” she said.
“In recent years there has been a real surge of awareness and interest and also of more innovative ways to combat disinformation here in Taiwan.”
Another innovative example is an NGO called MyGoPen, which created a disinformation chatbot where users can send stories or posts they suspect are fake to a team of fact-checkers. MyGoPen was launched in 2015 by IT engineer Charles Yeh after he received online articles containing misinformation from his mother-in-law.
MyGoPen, which means “Don’t fool me again” in Taiwanese, has grown to 400,000 subscribers.
During Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, MyGoPen debunked a viral TikTok video that falsely claimed the former U.S. House Speaker arrived with a fleet of fighter jets and warships in the South China Sea, threatening war with China.
“We receive a lot of content that appears to originate from mainland China,” Yeh said. “We have observed an increasing trend of video content in particular.”
According to Ryan Ho Kilpatrick, Chinese state propaganda and disinformation tend to reinforce a similar narrative. The Canadian-Hong Konger is the managing editor of the China Media Project, a research group in Taipei that studies the Chinese media landscape.
“Obviously, it’s trying to portray China in a very positive light, as a stable, strong country, particularly in global affairs,” he said. “And a part of that also involves preying upon the divisions and supposed chaos in other countries.”
Together, Taiwanese non-profit and nongovernmental organizations such as Kuma Academy, Doublethink Lab and MyGoPen are pushing back against foreign interference and providing a playbook for other countries.
“All those operations that (the Chinese government) has been doing in Taiwan, now they operate the same thing in Canada,” Freddy Lim said.
“Now is the time Taiwan can share our experiences and all we have learned from the last three decades, to make our democracies resilient together.”