Taiwan is to roll out a new school curriculum to teach children how to identify and combat fake news, becoming an Asian pioneer in countering a rising global threat to free speech and democracy.
The curriculum, expected to launch in the next school year, will include “media literacy,” according to Digital Minister Audrey Tang, to help students develop critical thinking when using social media.
Skills will include deciphering propaganda and sources of information. “[It’s] basic journalism training and how this changes or does not change in the information society,” says Tang in an interview with TIME.
She believes this new approach to teaching children how to discern the truth marks democratic Taiwan out as a “unique” beacon of free speech in a region where other governments often try to suppress it. Tang was a driving force in designing the curriculum, while working at the National Academy for Educational Research (NAER) before becoming a minister.
A computer genius with an IQ of 180, and self-described “civic hacker,” she has since been acting as an expert adviser after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration announced a “war on fake news” in January.
She’s only 36, but Tang has been breaking new ground her whole life. She left school at 12 to pursue a passion for programming, and by 19 was already working as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, retiring from business at 33. When she was 24, Tang began transitioning to a woman, and made history last year when she was appointed Taiwan’s first transgender minister.
Speaking to TIME, she says she refuses to use the “antagonistic” term fake news, viewing it as “an affront to journalism.” She refers instead to the less catchy “systematic computational propaganda based on rumors” and describes it as an advanced form of “psychological manipulation.”
The concept of “fake news,” a catchall phrase encompassing propaganda, misinformation and hoaxes, has been coined a modern-day epidemic. It reached a frenzied apex last year when Russia was accused of interfering in the U.S. elections.
Fake news has particular resonance in Taiwan. The island is in a unique position as a self-governed nation with little diplomatic recognition, and living under the shadow of a hostile Chinese neighbor with formidable cyber capabilities. The island democracy, viewed by Beijing as a breakaway province that will eventually be reunited with the mainland, has long suspected China of trying to sway public opinion through psychological warfare, to weaken trust in Taiwan’s democratic institutions.
In December, the public was alarmed when a picture emerged on the Chinese air force’s Weibo microblog, appearing to show a PLAAF H-6K bomber flying close to peaks later identified by Chinese media as Taiwan’s Jade Mountain. Denials by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry were drowned out by the clamor from the Taiwanese and U.S. media to link the apparent sighting to a protocol-breaking telephone call between Tsai and U.S. President Donald Trump that had angered Beijing.
Tang is less convinced than many in Taiwan that disinformation is “remote-controlled” by Beijing, but she does believe that children need to be taught skills “to identify a legitimate website versus a fake domain” in order to spot misleading fabrication.
Having worked on counterspam initiatives in the early 2000s, Tang hopes the fake-news phenomenon can be overcome with a “cocktail” of solutions, of which school education is just one.
She believes Taiwan’s resolve to combat online propaganda stems from its grounding as one of Asia’s most open societies. On Thursday, Reporters Without Borders, an NGO supporting freedom of the press, chose Taiwan as the location for its new Asian headquarters.
“I would say that we take freedom of speech much more seriously than most of the other Asian countries,” says Tang. “Many other Asian countries see it as a utilitarian value that could be traded somehow, if some other value of higher utility, like national security, is at risk. But for many Taiwanese it’s a core value … and I think we’re unique in that.”
Taiwan will be the first country in Asia to introduce school lessons on fake news, believes Hung Yung-shan, director of the NAER’s research center for curriculum. “Knowledge is not the end of learning but how to identify and how to understand the information is important,” she says.
But while the move has been welcomed, lawmakers and academics argue that Taiwan must do more to educate the public more generally. Lin Chun-hsien, a legislator with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, says the government is not rebutting fake news forcefully enough.
“Some ministries already have a website, but it’s not working very well. If there is some news that proves to be fake then you should respond quickly and prove the facts,” he says.
Michael Cole, a Taipei-based analyst and editor of the Taiwan Sentinel, says that Taiwan is a “world leader” in countering cyberthreats “because they’ve been at it for much longer than other countries.”
But when it comes to fake news, he believes Taiwan’s fast and loose media scene is hampering the country’s ability to tackle “information political warfare” from China.
“The news environment itself is quite irresponsible and serves as a means to amplify whatever fake information comes from across the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese would have, very early on, identified this,” he says.
“A bit more effort on the part of Taiwanese intelligence agencies and more publicity would educate journalists, the general public and academics about which outlets are credible and which ones should be approached with a bit more skepticism.”