Students of Fake News Cleaner listen to volunteers as they learn how to use the LINE app to identify fake news during a class in Kaohsiung City, southern Taiwan, on March 16, 2023.

Students of Fake News Cleaner listen to volunteers as they learn how to use the LINE app to identify fake news during a class in Kaohsiung City, southern Taiwan, on March 16, 2023.
| Photo Credit: AP

Their days often began at the crack of dawn. They would head out to a church, a temple, a park and set up a stall. They would seek out seniors in particular, those who are perhaps the most vulnerable citizens of the information-saturated society that has enveloped them. To get people to stop and listen, they would offer free bars of soap — a metaphor for the scrubbing that they were undertaking.

They would teach techniques to punch through the static, to see the lack of logic in conspiracy theories, to find the facts behind the false narratives that can sometimes shape our lives. In nearly six years, with just one formal employee and a team of volunteers, Fake News Cleaner has hosted more than 500 events, connecting with college students, elementary-school children and the seniors.

Like any democratic society, Taiwan is flooded with assorted types of disinformation. It touches every aspect of a person’s life, from conspiracy theories on vaccines to health claims aimed at promoting supplements.

Personal impact

Despite its very public nature, disinformation has a deeply personal impact — particularly among Taiwan’s older people. It thrives in the natural gaps between people that come from generational differences and a constantly updating tech landscape, then enlarges those gaps to cause rifts.

“They have no way to communicate,” says Melody Hsieh, who co-founded the group with Shu-huai Chang in 2018.

Taiwan is already home to several established fact-checking organisations. There’s Co-Facts, an AI-driven fact-checking bot founded by a group of civic hackers. There are the Taiwan Fact Check Center and MyGoPen. But such organisations presume that you are at least somewhat tech-savvy — that you can find a fact-check organisation’s website or add a fact-checking bot.

‘Patience and respect’

Yet many of the people most affected are the least tech-savvy. Fake News Cleaner believes addressing this gap requires an old-school approach: going offline. At the heart of the group’s work is approaching people with patience and respect while educating them about the algorithms and norms that drive the platforms they use.

Ms. Hsieh said she was moved after seeing too many instances of division because of fake news: a couple that got divorced, a mother who kicked her kid out of the house. Many such stories surfaced in 2018 when Taiwan held a national referendum on a number of social issues including on nuclear energy, sex education, and gay marriage.

Fake news relies on emotion to generate clicks. So often, headlines are sensational and appeal directly to three types of emotions: hatred, panic or surprise. A click or a page view means more money for the websites, volunteer Tseng Yu-huan explained to a crowd of seniors at a community centre

Chuang Tsai-yu, sitting in on a recent lecture by the group in Taipei, once saw a message online that told people to hit their chest in a way that would save them in the case of heart discomfort. She said she actually tried it out herself. Later, she asked her doctor about it. His advice: Go directly to the emergency room and get checked for a heart attack.

“We really do believe the things people will send us,” Ms. Chuang said. “Because when you are older, we don’t have as much of a grasp on the outside world.”



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