How Civic Activists Counter Fake News in Taiwan

More than 17,000 people have installed an extension created by civic activists in Taiwan to counter fake news on social media.


With reporting by Liz Barry

In 2014, the Daily Mail published a story about a dystopian Beijing in which the smog is so bad that residents flock to outdoor screens to watch digital sunrises. Time, CBS, and the Huffington Post picked up the story. Only, as a Tech in Asia reporter wrote several days later, the story wasn’t true.

Stories like these run rampant on Taiwanese social media, and in 2013 several members of the online-offline civic movement g0v.tw built a browser extension called News Helper for crowdsourcing the identification of fake news. As of December, more than 17,000 people currently have installed the extension on either Chrome or Firefox.

News Helper flags stories that have already been fact checked by others with a message that translates to: “Attention! You may be a victim of counterfeit news.” It also shares a link to the real story or to contradictory evidence. But even after the fact, the extension might retroactively warn you about a story you read previously, with a message like “the news story you read 10 minutes ago contains errors” or something similar.

“For me, because the plugin shows a warning on my Facebook feed, when I see the fake news posted by my friend, I can reply to my friend by copying the answer provided by Newshelper,” Pofeng Lee, a member of g0v.tw, told Civicist. “It saves me a little time.”

As might be expected, fact checking stories about complex issues is more controversial than fact checking a story about the discovery of an ancient civilization on the moon (another example of a fake story that prompted this project). Any discussion over the accuracy of fact checks happens with the assistance of Facebook comments, which Lee compares to how Wikipedia pages are collaboratively edited.

“I believe it can do a little help to prevent the spreading of fake news, but if the news/issue itself is controversial, then people will argue on the newshelper / wikipedia platform,” Lee said.

The United States is currently in the midst of a fake news “epidemic,” as Hillary Clinton characterized it in early December. Representatives from the right, including Donald Trump, have appropriated the label and slap it on any news item that contradicts their narrative. Rush Limbaugh went so far as to say that “the fake news is the everyday news.” Meanwhile, outlets like Breitbart are proud of turning the left-wing fake news “panic” on “establishment media.”

Solutions—finally—are in the works. Facebook has brought on several news organizations to fact check (for free, as a service to the public) articles shared on the platform. But conservative outlets like Breitbart are proactively taking issue with the perceived partisanship of the 3rd party fact-checkers, including Snopes and PolitiFact.

As Breitbart’s skepticism illustrates, the challenge for anyone working on the fake news problem will be breaking down the digital walls that make up our filter bubbles, and not further reinforcing them. For that reason, it is worthwhile to look outside our borders to ways that other citizen groups, like g0v.tw, have tried to tackle the problem.

And, to remind you what a long shelf life fake stories have, here’s a tweet from October 2016 about Beijing watching a fake sunrise amidst a smog emergency.