Rumors and fact-checking challenges during the 2024 legislature reform controversy and protests in Taiwan

Rumors and fact-checking challenges during the 2024 legislature reform controversy and protests in Taiwan

By Wei-Ping Li, PhD

Taiwanese citizens have just had a turbulent May. On May 20, Lai Ching-te was sworn in as Taiwan's new president. However, a few days before the inauguration, fights erupted in Taiwan's Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's highest legislative branch) as opposition parties attempted to pass controversial legislature reform bills. This sparked a protest outside of the Legislative Yuan, which quickly grew into a large-scale social movement known as the "Bluebird Social Movement" in the following weeks. During the legislative process and the protest, rumors also spread throughout Taiwan's media environment. For experienced fact-checkers, the topics of the false information pieces were more intricate, posing another major challenge.

The current wave of rumors surrounding the recent legislature reform events revolved around three major themes: the increased legislative powers granted by the new bills, the hasty legislative process, and the subsequent protests resulting from people's worries about the bills and the legislative process. The complicated knowledge required to understand the legislature's reform bills, as well as people's unfamiliarity with these matters, have offered fertile ground for rumors to thrive. 

After commentators and legislators of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) raised concerns about the bill's rushed passage that could "open the door to China's interference in Taiwan," Taiwanese citizens were even more eager to learn about the bills and the reasons for the brawls in the legislature. Individuals and political parties thus condensed information into simpler ways to convey complex knowledge to aid citizens in understanding the bills and the legislative process. As useful as summarized online information posts or infographics may be, they also contain mistakes and cause more confusion.

Protesters gathered outside of the Legislative Yuan on May 21, 2024. (Taiwan FactCheck Center)

The controversial legislature reform bills pushed by the alliance of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People's Party (TPP) are deemed to expand the legislature's power while limiting the president's. For example, the passed bills grant legislators the power to investigate and hold hearings. Individuals or government agencies who refuse to disclose information or attend hearings will face a fine. When public officials answer questions posed by lawmakers, their behaviors of refusing to answer or engaging in "reverse questioning" (which is not clearly defined) would constitute "contempt of the legislature" and are punishable. Moreover, those who make false statements could face jail time. The new bills also allow the legislature to "invite" the president to deliver an annual address and respond to lawmakers' questions immediately following the address. 

In addition to the legislature reform bills, another set of bills concerning the transportation infrastructure in eastern Taiwan was also in the spotlight. The KMT party has proposed to build a high-speed rail system, an expressway in eastern Taiwan, and a highway through the Central Mountain Range. To pay for the building, the KMT party also suggested introducing sovereign wealth funds from other countries to finance the construction. 

Legislators from the ruling DPP vigorously rejected the opposition parties' bills, raising concerns such as the vague articles that may violate the separation of powers. They also claimed that the opposition parties KMT and TPP, who outnumber the DPP in terms of the combined seats in the legislature, hurried to pass the bills without proper consultation and negotiation process. The KMT and TPP, on the other hand, maintained that the reform legislation aimed to increase government transparency and introduce more "checks and balances."

Because the laws and legislation process were exceedingly complex and required legal and policy expertise, political parties and their supporters shared social media postings, short movies, and infographics, explaining to the public the bills' content and what occurred during the legislative session. The majority of the online messages focused on explaining the legislature's new power of investigation and hearings, the elements of "contempt of the legislature," the amount of money proposed by the bill to build the highway running through the Central Range Mountains, whether the KMT and TPP legislators rushed the bills with sneaky strategies, and so on. On social media, a war of online information and infographics erupted, with each side attempting to "correct" the other's information and get their own message across. 

However, many of the information pieces and infographics were filled with false information: some misstated the laws and exaggerated the punishment, some cherry-picked information and presented partial facts, and some referenced past events out of context. For example, a graphic stated that the "contempt of the legislature" crime would be applied to ordinary citizens and domestic and foreign businesses. This graphic further claimed that those who refuse to answer requests from the KMT legislators would be put in jail for three years and fined 300,000 New Taiwan Dollars (around 9,254 USD). Actually, the crime of "contempt of the legislature" is only applicable to government officials. The false information confuses this violation with legislators' powers of investigation and holding hearings under other laws.  

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An online post that misrepresented the elements and penalties of the recently passed "contempt of the legislature" regulation

Another example is a video titled "Do you know you are sharing fake news?" which tried to demonstrate that the KMT and TPP legislators did present the bill amendment materials for deliberation in time. This video was meant to contradict DPP lawmakers' claim that the opposition parties provided the amended bills at the last minute and left DPP lawmakers with little time to evaluate and discuss the bills. The video also suggested that DPP legislators were lying about the "black box" legislation procedure. However, messages like this did not tell the full story, such as the opposition parties providing several versions of the amendment bill at different times. Furthermore, the total context was far more complex than a few lines could explain. In fact, legislative process experts indeed pointed out that legislators of the opposition parties exploited procedures and customary rules, passing bills that would seriously impact Taiwan's democracy without sufficient debate.

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A video titled "Do you know you are sharing fake news?" tried to refute DPP legislators' allegation that opposition legislators did not give all the legislators enough time to review the amendment bills. However, the video only pointed out some aspects of the facts. The whole context of the legislative process was more complicated.

Amidst the confusing social media posts vying to deliver "facts" about the bills and legislation, some Taiwanese media and online influencers spread a rumor that the whole brouhaha in the Legislative Yuan and the Taiwanese society was China's plan. The rumor stated that after the Taiwanese elections held in January 2024, the Chinese government had already planned to use the Taiwanese legislature to bring Taiwan into chaos and create opportunities for China to unify Taiwan. According to the online rumor, a document purportedly leaked from Chinese officials claimed that China would pressure KMT lawmakers to advocate reforms in Taiwan's legislature, causing turbulence among lawmakers and further disrupting President Lai's administration. Although it is difficult to verify the truthfulness of this story, it has circulated rapidly and sparked prevalent concern that China was behind the opposition parties' legislative reform measures. 

For fact-checkers, the incorrect information and rumors around legislative reform bills present significant challenges. First and foremost, the rules and legislative process involved technical specifics and historical contexts, making it difficult for fact-checkers to classify the information by using standard labels such as "false," "partially false," or "prone to be misunderstood." Furthermore, the format of fact-checking reports, which usually correct particular errors with accurate information, is insufficient to deliver the nuanced knowledge and in-depth context required to explain such specialized topics. As a result, in addition to regular fact-checking posts, the Taiwan FactCheck Center produced a series of featured articles to provide readers with more details to clarify the issues that most perplexed them. These featured articles examined the arguments about the bills presented by both sides in the legislature, the regular procedures for passing legislation, and instances where lawmakers deviated from the norms. 

TFC's special section on the 2024 legislature reform controversy

While incorrect information about the bills continued to circulate, false information about the Bluebird movement, which was triggered by the controversial bills' passage and resulted in multiple large-scale protests, started to spread. In contrast to the false information about the bills and legislation process, the majority of the false information about the protests maliciously attacked the participants, trying to cast the movement in a negative light and paint the participants as immoral, cowardly, or senseless. For example, one disinformation piece claimed that some participants were there not to protest but to seek flings. Nevertheless, the image used in the post was an old picture that had been appropriated from previous events and used by other fake information campaigns targeting other events. 

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A social media post claimed that protesters in the Bluebird movement were actually looking for sexual encounters. The image used in this inaccurate piece was appropriated from another event irrelevant to the protest.

Notably, aside from Facebook and LINE, false information about the protests and the controversial bills has widely spread in Meta's Threads. One possible reason is that Threads has thrived as a new social media platform for Taiwanese youth. According to an academic survey conducted during the protests, Threads was the top source from which young people received information about the protests. The above-mentioned false information attacking protesters was also disseminated on Threads.  

As of the writing of this analysis, the latest development regarding the newly passed legislative reform bills is that the Executive Yuan is planning to request that lawmakers reconsider the bills, such as legislators' expanded investigation powers. This new development suggests that more political turmoil is about to come, and so is another wave of false information. 

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.

Claire Chen (Managing Editor at the Taiwan FactCheck Center) contributed to this analysis.