After months without cases, initial response was a ‘disaster’, island’s former health minister tells Al Jazeera.
Digital Minister Audrey Tang is arguably one of Taiwan’s most high-profile politicians internationally, renowned for her leadership in Taiwan’s fight against disinformation and her work in civic-minded open-source software.
Tang was already an established programmer when she began 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 deal 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 that works on civil society and government projects.
Al Jazeera spoke to Tang about her work fighting COVID-19 rumours and how social media like Taiwan’s PTT Bulletin Board – similar in structure to Reddit – can help. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about how you were involved in Taiwan’s contact tracing system? I imagine you had to help develop it quickly.
Audrey Tang: Sure, but it wasn’t my idea. It was part of the g0v, or the “Gov zero” community, which is tens of thousands of people looking at digital services and “forking” government services to make better versions and better alternatives in a way that’s free of copyright restrictions for public use. After the g0v community proposed a standard 1922-SMS (toll-free) based contact tracing system, we adopted and implemented it, so it was like a reverse procurement. The specifications came from the community, from the social sector, and we just implemented them. I think the entire implementation took less than three days, and it was free of apps – so nobody needed to download any app.
Why was it important to avoid using an app? What are your concerns?
Tang: Well, it’s out of digital inclusion reasons. Although everyone in Taiwan enjoys broadband as a human right, and most people – even the elderly – have phones or smartphones, around 20 percent do not have the capacity to download, install and maintain applications. Because of that, our most popular counter-COVID app, the National Health Insurance Administration’s NHI Express app has only (been downloaded) by about one-third of the entire population. So, to take care of the other two-thirds of people who do not habitually use the app or the 20 percent of people who do not have any experience downloading an app, an app-free design based on everyone’s favourite QR code and SMS-like trusted formats was very important.
What kind of digital system will Taiwan adopt for its vaccine cards?
Tang: We are implementing the European Union’s (Digital Curation Centre) standard, which is an electronically signed QR code-based system to track 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 we can facilitate international travel. The rollout schedule is probably by the end of this year.
We’re not planning to roll out any special app because of digital inclusion. We’re working with the idea that there’s this simple website where you can download a yellow (vaccine) card and print it out yourself or just show it on your phone.
Has Covid-19 been your greatest challenge since taking office?
Tang: The virus of the body, of course, is very challenging but most of the strategies are from the (Taiwan Centers for Disease Control) decentralised command centre. The digital (side) is just assisting the contact tracers. My greatest challenge, as digital minister is actually the virus of the mind, that is to say, the infodemic – those polarised, outrage-based messages on the more antisocial corner of social media and how to prevent its natural progression into hatred, vengefulness and discrimination. That has been the biggest challenge.
What kind of examples have you seen in Taiwan?
Tang: In the pre-Covid days, around November 2019, leading up to our 2020 January presidential election, there was trending viral disinformation that talked about – and I quote – “young people in Hong Kong are being paid $20 million to kill the police” end of quote. This is obviously not true, but it’s not trending anywhere else, not in Hong Kong, just in Taiwan, so we saw this kind of message as trying to provoke and change the public discourse in an attempt to influence our presidential election campaigns.
Where did this rumour come from?
Tang: The picture that accompanied this piece of disinformation came 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. Somebody else supplied the misleading caption and within just a day or so, the Taiwan fact check centre, an independently operated fact-checking service, traced that message back to the Central Political and Law 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 spike in disinformation with the escalation in Chinese military flights near Taiwan?
Tang: Not particularly. When people become aware of the factual situation, like the actual flight path, and so on, which our minister of defence publishes on social media literally every day, then people are more willing to have a conversation around the matter itself instead of buying in to any piece of misinformation.
A few months ago, Taiwan was having a major problem with COVID-related misinformation. Has the situation improved?
Tang: I think it’s going down, because (while) we’re certainly not entirely post-pandemic, we have had weeks of essentially no local cases. And I think we’ve postponed the pandemic again, so people are much more relaxed with vaccinations. I think by tomorrow, there will be 70 percent of people vaccinated and around 30 percent of people who are fully vaccinated, and we’re progressing at more than one percent each day.
Since taking your position, how have you seen issues like misinformation change?
Tang: When I first started to tackle the misinformation issue back in early 2017, at that time there were no clear norms on what kind of disinformation (requires) public notice and countermeasures, and which are just a normal part of the conversation from people in a liberal democracy and therefore need no intervention from either the state or multinational companies.
This progression seemed only natural because we allowed public issues and public matters to be discussed primarily in private sector places, so it’s like holding a town hall discussion, but in the local nightclub with smoke-filled 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’ve doubled down on investing the digital equivalent of public infrastructure and working with existing forums like PTT (Bulletin Board), which has been around for more than 25 years, free of advertisers and shareholders.
It sounds like they have less of a problem with misinformation due to their governance structure?
Tang: Truth be told, ever since PTT started to implement to counter disinformation, self-regulation norms it’s as a “norm package”, not as a law or something that other media companies, including Facebook have also adopted — at least in our jurisdiction. For example, in 2019, as I mentioned, leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Taiwan was among the first jurisdictions where Facebook also published (information from) our national auditing office, campaign donations and finance spent on sponsored social and political advertisements in real-time as an open data set for investigative journalists.
They also found foreign-sponsored political and social advertisements 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 domestic private sector companies, or international ones like Facebook, to conform to the norm that’s already set by the social sector.