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Freedom of speech needs to be reevaluated in digital age: Experts

04/12/2024 10:07 PM
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Fu Wen-cheng, a professor of journalism at National Defense University, explains online coordinated behaviors at an information manipulation forum in Taipei on Friday. CNA photo April 12, 2024
Fu Wen-cheng, a professor of journalism at National Defense University, explains online coordinated behaviors at an information manipulation forum in Taipei on Friday. CNA photo April 12, 2024

Taipei, April 12 (CNA) Freedom of speech in the virtual world and in the context of giant social media platforms in the digital era is in need of further discussions, said experts when asked about ways to cope with Chinese platforms such as TikTok at a forum held in Taipei on Friday.

Hung Chen-ling (洪貞玲), director of National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Journalism, said freedom of speech should not be the knee-jerk worry that stops governments from taking actions to curb information manipulation.

She made the comment when asked about how Taiwan should respond to Chinese platforms such as TikTok that are popular among Taiwanese young people but have been shown to be operated in accordance with China's national interests by disinformation-combatting groups Taiwan AI Labs and Doublethink Lab.

While banning them might incur criticisms of freedom of speech infringement, Hung said before easily raising freedom of speech as a justification for not doing so, "we now have to first get to the bottom of how the contemporary informational environment operates."

"The freedom of speech question is no longer simply about protecting it in order to fight an authoritarian government like once before. What we are facing in our era is a situation where our freedom of speech is directed by and at the mercy of giant platforms and business interests," she stressed.

Hung said freedom of speech in this new context has been relatively less discussed.

"When a democracy is constantly threatened by a neighboring authoritarian country through information manipulation [on digital platforms], the talk of freedom of speech needs to be done in a new light to see how a democracy's freedom of speech and national security can be protected," Hung said.

The journalism professor said the government should have the courage to do more, citing as an example the bill passed by the United States House of Representatives forcing Beijing-based ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, to sell the platform or else face a total ban in the country.

Hwang Chao-hwei (黃兆徽), content executive officer of Taiwan AI Labs, said the ultimate end of freedom of speech is the protection of human rights.

"But in a virtual world, we have to ask whether this human is real or fake. Fake humans should not be granted rights," Hwang said.

She also pointed out that when one person can control and manipulate hundreds of accounts to sway online discussions, as her organization found, "it is also against the spirit of freedom of speech."

Hwang said she does not support using laws to regulate content.

What should be done instead is structural regulation, meaning demanding transparency "in the platforms' money flow, algorithms, and where their adverts come from," she said.

On TikTok in particular, Fu Wen-cheng (傅文成), professor of journalism at National Defense University, said through exchanges with the national defense systems of other countries such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore, which are all on the so-called first island chain, "we found that Taiwan is not the only one bothered by TikTok-produced disinformation."

"As an alternative to banning TikTok, we are thinking about real-time sharing of information and analyzing power, which we have not yet been able to do," he said.

Fu also raised the concern of young soldiers being affected by manipulated information on TikTok, "which could cause harm to our national defense resilience."

He said he is putting effort into equipping soldiers with discerning ability, by collaborating with other related institutions and civil groups.

IORG information engineer Lin Shao-hung (林玿弘) concurred that what is most urgent is "continuing the work in enhancing media literacy among the public, as platforms can always be newly created when one gets banned."

(By Alison Hsiao)


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