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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Van den Haute

The Evolving Role of Civic Tech against Disinformation in Digital Democracy

By Tatiana Van den Haute and Irene Chou

In the era of digital interconnectivity, Taiwan has witnessed the blossoming of information transparency and public-private partnerships under initiatives of open government and open-source data. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have played a crucial role in combating misinformation and disinformation which ranks first on the World Economic Forum’s calculation of “the most severe short-term risk the world faces.”

Taiwan’s digital information environment, as it happens, is no less susceptible. As a vibrant democracy – voter turnout in the 2024 presidential elections was around 72% – Taiwan also leads the world as the target of foreign disinformation operations, according to the Digital Society Survey from Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem). Despite Taiwan’s seemingly hostile information environment, CSOs have successfully mitigated the harmful effects of disinformation, serving as a valuable case study for other democracies looking for cross-sector solutions. The rise of civic tech and the challenges CSOs encounter as they grow and expand provide key insight into the maintenance and longevity of digital democracy.

Civic Tech and the G0v Movement

CSOs constitute a thriving part of Taiwanese democratic identity. On the one hand, they work to enhance and strengthen existing democratic and governmental structures. On the other hand, they create alternative outlets for civic participation and democratic discourse. A prominent example of the culmination between CSOs and innovative technology is the g0v (pronounced ‘gov zero’) movement, which began in 2012. G0v defines itself as a “decentralized civic tech community with information transparency, open results and open cooperation as its core values.”

The name of the community encapsulates a radical vision of digital democracy in which citizens, specifically civic hackers, play a direct role in government transparency. According to Audrey Tang, a leading civic hacker in Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Student Movement who later became Taiwan’s inaugural Digital Affairs Minister, the quite technical concept behind g0v is to identify underdeveloped websites built by Taiwanese government agencies with the domain name “” and make a forked version under the domain name “” Contributions from civic hackers are then reincorporated into official government websites.

G0v engages in public affairs “by drawing from the grassroot power of the community,” hosting biennial hackathons bringing together hackers, various experts and community members from across Taiwan to participate in what it calls ‘civic tech’ projects. Over the years, g0v has sought to improve and streamline Taiwan’s political processes through open-source collaboration. For instance, out of g0v was born virtual Taiwan (vTaiwan for short), a “decentralized open consultation process that combines online and offline interactions.” Put simply, vTaiwan uses advanced technology to facilitate crowdsourced lawmaking. Its model for people-public-private partnerships (PPPP) brings together citizens, industry experts, and government representatives to discuss and collaborate on policy proposals online.

In a 2023 initiative, vTaiwan partnered with Chatham House and the AI Objectives Institute for the OpenAI Democratic Inputs to AI project. The project centered on human rights across different legal and cultural contexts. Large-scale conversations were hosted on, a digital platform for opinion collection and the exploration of Large Language Models (LLMs). This project sought to infuse global AI discussions with Taiwan's nuanced perspectives, including considerations around ChatGPT and similar technologies.

vTaiwan demonstrates how digital democracy can be implemented by engaging the public in legislative processes, enhancing policy legitimacy through broader consultation. While policy recommendations are not legally binding on Taiwan’s government, hence limiting the actual policy impact, several cases of crowdsourced lawmaking have been successful, including the regulation of online alcohol sales and Uber.

Cofacts as the G0v-Inspired CSO

Under the guiding values of information transparency and open cooperation, members of the g0v community launched the Cofacts project in 2016. In an exclusive interview with Safe Spaces, Co-Founder Billion Lee stated that the founding mission of Cofacts is to ensure fact-checking in an information environment where disinformation is on the rise. Cofacts was set in motion with the backdrop of same-sex marriage legalization in Taiwan. Following the Constitutional Court ruling in 2017, the 2019 bill prompted public health fearmongering. While disinformation was quickly debunked by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Cofacts founders sought to create a fact-checking process that automated the online verification of false news.

In 2017, Cofacts received the Spring G0v Civic Tech Prototype Grant, jump-starting the development of a fact-checking chatbot on LINE, the most popular instant messaging app in Taiwan. While encrypted chats that secure user privacy prevented the social media app from fact-checking and content moderation itself, LINE users can add the chatbot from Cofacts as a contact with the LINE ID @cofacts then forward any unverified information to the chatbot, receiving an automated verification response. Alternatively, anyone can go onto the Cofacts website and copy and paste possibly false news for verification from editors.

The LINE chatbot draws from Cofacts’ crowdsourced database, a citizen-driven, collaborative fact-checking platform. Cofacts’ g0v genesis is reflected in the platform’s open participation. Fact-checking responses are written and posted from other contributors, and everyone can be a fact-checker. Fact-checkers can even label a reported message as one that “contains personal opinion,” then provide opinion pieces with different viewpoints as reference. Fact-checkers are given editor meetings and workshops every two months.

Not only does the unique crowdsourcing model address the need for immediate response to the constant influx of misinformation circulating on LINE, it also builds public trust, staying true to g0v egalitarianism in which every civilian can build their media literacy muscles and hone their fact-checking skills.

Funding Transparency and Public Trust

As a crowdsourced project, Cofacts relies on crowdfunding and volunteer contributions. This revenue model sets itself apart from other fact checking CSOs, which often receive financial support from social media platforms. For instance, Meta and Google continue to form partnerships with the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and other organizations. While Meta’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program was the predominant source of funding for fact-checking organizations last year — facilitating investment in skilled staff members and advanced technology — fact-checking outlets’ rising dependence on big tech is a critical concern.

In 2019, facing false accusations that Cofacts lacked funding transparency, including its initial g0v civic tech project grant, Cofacts emphasized that providers of the grant, including the Vision Project at Taiwan’s United Press, Taiwan Mobile Foundation, and a former Taiwan minister, had no interference in the operation of Cofacts. Fast forward to 2024, Billion states that there is also a clear separation between Cofacts and the government. As a non-governmental organization (NGO), Cofacts steers clear of government support and subsequent interference. The Taiwanese government may cite Cofacts and other trustworthy NGOs when debunking disinformation. However, these debunking announcements would not be sourced from the government itself.

Ongoing Challenges

Cofacts’ collaborative model of egalitarian crowdsourcing and funding transparency brings its own drawbacks. Each week, about 250 new messages are entered into Cofacts’ database, and about 210 people forward new messages to the database. Yet, fewer than 12 active editors are contributing volunteer work to provide responses. In contrast, hundreds of government officers may be involved in disinformation campaigns across China. Last year, Meta removed almost 8,000 Facebook accounts in efforts to dismantle the Chinese disinformation operation. With a volunteer-based workforce at Cofacts, debunking disinformation at an effective rate remains a struggle.

The egalitarian g0v model of fact-checking therefore indicates shortcomings of scalability. When there is limited funding and a small volunteer taskforce, contributions from other fact-checking CSOs, such as the Taiwan FactCheck Foundation and MyGoPen, as well as volunteers from the general public become indispensable, forming a collaborative fact-checking network.

Additionally, developing AI-powered detection tools and fostering collaboration with AI experts are how Cofacts responds to volunteers’ needs. Confronting deep fakes, synthetic media, and other forms of AI-generated disinformation, Lee stated that, “Collaboration with AI rather than being afraid of AI” is how Cofacts is staying ahead of disinformation trends.

Forming a Global Network – Domestic and Beyond

Bottom-up initiatives such as g0v, and Cofacts by extension, are not alone in tackling disinformation: the Taiwanese government has dedicated itself to fostering media literacy, passed legislation such as the 2020 Anti-Infiltration Act, and created national action plans in response to AI development. Government agencies also provide immediate responses that correct fake news and disinformation, timing their debunking with news cycles to ensure facts are spreading faster than falsehoods.

Nonetheless, in a digital democracy, the government's role must be carefully maintained to avoid overreach, while ensuring that policy recommendations from civic tech are implemented. The government can leverage its convening power to bring together diverse stakeholders, including tech companies, academia, and civil society, to develop and implement educational initiatives on media literacy and policymaking like vTaiwan. Further, government agencies along with news media should continue to cite fact checking CSOs to boost the visibility of their contributions, referencing open data analytics such as those provided by Cofacts.

Beyond the domestic realm, the open-source model of CSOs like Cofacts helps foster international collaboration and technological innovations among democracies fighting disinformation. As an open-source software project, Cofacts provides an open-source API (short for Application Programming Interface), which assists in the generation of third-party downstream chatbots in Taiwan as well as the replication of source code in other countries. For instance, Cofact Thailand also created a collaborative fact-checking platform.

Taiwan’s experience with creating and maintaining a digital democracy serves as an example to emerging democracies on how to strengthen civil society's role in governance and information integrity. At the same time, Taiwan also ensures that efforts to combat disinformation do not impede freedom of expression and the free flow of information, maintaining a balance between regulation and rights.

The civic tech community forms the pillars of digital democracy. CSOs like Cofacts illustrate the advantages of transparency and disadvantages of crowdsourcing. There is limited funding because transparency is prioritized. As a result, CSOs must continue proactively securing grants, contributions, and donations. News media relevance and visibility, by way of references and citations from renowned news media and government agencies, are critical to attracting financial support and volunteer staffing.

Simultaneously, crowdsourced fact-checking, which does not require professional journalistic editing like other fact-checking groups, may lack standardization.  However, Cofacts bolsters public trust, improves media literacy, and upholds the egalitarian spirit of the g0v movement. If a digital democracy is to grow, CSOs must address key issues in financial support, political relevance, and, most importantly, civic engagement. CSOs play the essential role of fostering whole-of-society policy deliberation and debate, thus helping push democracies and their constituents beyond elections and party ideology – creating convergence in place of polarization.

Looking ahead, Taiwan’s civic tech community will continue to foster collaboration across public, private, and people partnerships, building a more resilient global network of digital democracies, each drawing strength from the lessons learned and best practices developed in Taiwan.  

This article was previously published on CommonWealth Magazine on April 29, 2024.


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