Electoral Resilience: How Taiwan fought off Chinese Disinformation Campaign

January 25, 2024
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By – Tirtha Ajith  (Student of Army Institute of Law)

INTRODUCTION

Amidst the rising tensions between China and Taiwan, the recent Taiwanese election had brought to light the Chinese disinformation campaign that was employed during the electoral process. This campaign aimed at distorting the political landscape and manipulating public opinion in Taiwan. By spreading false information and using deceptive tactics, the Chinese government attempted to influence the outcome of the election and sway Taiwanese voters towards candidates who were seen as more favorable to China. This disinformation campaign had raised concerns about the extent of foreign interference in Taiwan’s democratic processes and the implications it may have on the future of the region.

As Taiwan approached its January presidential election, it was once again facing a barrage of influence efforts, both online and offline, orchestrated by Beijing. The objective was to oust President Tsai and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) from power, replacing them with the more pro-Beijing Kuomintang (KMT). China was strategically utilizing local proxies within Taiwan, such as pro-mainland Taiwanese media outlets, paid influencers, and co-opted political figures. These local actors were employed to amplify partisan narratives that foster division in Taiwanese society and undermine confidence in the island’s political system. Unlike more overt tactics like troll factories and spam, the use of local proxies makes it challenging for Taiwanese voters and officials to distinguish between Chinese influence and genuine domestic discourse.

The January 13, 2024 Taiwanese election marked a decisive win for President William Lai Ching-te from Democratic Progressive Party(DPP) and exposed the shortcomings of China’s disinformation tactics. In an era dominated by technology and social media, disinformation has become a powerful tool used by state actors to shape public opinion and disrupt democratic processes. Despite China’s extensive attempts to sway Taiwan’s election through disinformation, the results underscored the resilience and discernment of the Taiwanese people. They were able to recognize and counteract such propaganda, highlighting the population’s ability to withstand external influence.

CHINESE EFFORTS TO SWING THE ELECTIONS

For many years, China has endeavored to influence Taiwanese voters through various local entities, including temples and online initiatives. Previous communication from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) aimed to present Beijing positively, encourage Taiwanese voters to support candidates favorable to the PRC, and in some cases, discourage them from voting altogether. China has been breathing down Taiwan’s neck by imposing fruit bans and bolstering their military presence around Taiwan. There have been a large quantity of PRC (People’s Republic of China) misinformation campaigns seen during Taiwanese elections.

In 2020, scholars recorded what may be the most extensive array of misinformation campaigns orchestrated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during a Taiwanese election, all with the goal of discouraging support for Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). However, despite these efforts, Tsai emerged victorious in a decisive win over the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu. This raises two crucial inquiries: What is the actual impact of PRC misinformation on Taiwanese voters? And in what circumstances does PRC misinformation effectively alter the opinions of Taiwanese voters?

Despite the potential ineffectiveness of its previous campaigns, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continued its efforts to influence Taiwanese voters. From Beijing’s perspective, there was no downside in employing various methods to sway Taiwanese voters away from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which the PRC strongly opposes as the ruling party in Taiwan. The PRC’s strategy has been to explore multiple approaches to misinformation.

From Taiwan’s viewpoint, there was a growing concern about the PRC’s more subtle and potentially more successful approach in the 2024 election. Instead of a straightforward “don’t vote for Tsai” message or positive portrayals of the PRC, the misinformation campaigns for this election focused on creating skepticism about the United States or attempted to intimidate Taiwanese voters through actions such as PRC fighter jets operating in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone or the arrest of Taiwanese citizens in the PRC. 

In the 2024 election, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) persisted in disseminating misinformation. Specifically, it was utilizing local intermediaries to promote partisan narratives that exploit concerns about escalating cross-strait tensions, a legitimate source of anxiety in Taiwan. The Kuomintang’s (KMT) presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih,  framed the election as a choice between “war and peace,” asserting that the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) efforts to strengthen ties with the United States and advocate for independence will lead to conflict.

To amplify this narrative, the CCP further enlisted Taiwanese businesses to suggest that voting for the DPP would result in war. For instance, the Want-Want Group, a Taiwan-based media company receiving subsidies from the Chinese government,  produced multiple videos praising the KMT and emphasizing the possibility of war. One video’s title asserted that the “DPP is ‘on the road’ to corruption, to war, and to danger,” while another accused the DPP of “quietly preparing for war” and spread a rumor about the DPP vice presidential candidate meeting with U.S. political operatives to discuss a Chinese-Taiwanese conflict. Accusing DPP politicians of having overly close ties with their U.S. counterparts is a common practice for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its local allies. An instance of this involves a Taiwanese newspaper inaccurately claiming that the United States requested Taiwan to develop biological weapons. According to reports from the Taipei Times and Taiwanese government officials, it is probable that this article originated from Chinese propaganda sources.

Beijing has maintained proxies in Taiwan for an extended period. As outlined by Puma Shen, a professor at National Taipei University and former chair at DoubleThink, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has funded opulent trips to the mainland for local Taiwanese officials and leaders since at least 2019, with the aim of influencing public opinion. Utilizing proxies could also assist China in circumventing Taiwan’s defensive measures. In instances like 2018, 2020, and 2022, social media companies like Meta became proficient at identifying and promptly removing posts originating from suspected content farms, thereby constraining the impact of China’s campaigns. 

TAIWAN’S RESILIENT TACTICS

In 2018, as China intensified its online information campaigns against Taiwan, two civil society organizations established the Taiwan Fact Center with the goal of improving media literacy and mitigating the impact of disinformation. In response to China’s attempts to manipulate information in Taiwan, various digital innovations have emerged, such as fact-checker apps designed for popular social media platforms in the country.

While countering Chinese proxies can pose greater challenges, Taiwan’s responses to Beijing’s interference became more effective. Civil society groups in Taiwan dedicated to combating international disinformation  emerged as leaders in the field, utilizing new AI tools. These tools have the capability to swiftly scan and identify posts on social media platforms that contain misleading content, including instances where Chinese proxies have taken information out of context or used incomplete data. These groups are also actively engaged in media literacy and social resilience programs, staying abreast of the tactics employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Established in June 2022, the nonprofit organization Kuma Academy provides training programs aimed at educating the public on China’s changing strategies to influence Taiwan’s political, social, and informational spheres. The courses offered by Kuma Academy are highly sought after, with thousands of individuals eagerly waiting to participate in the organization’s monthly basic training sessions.
 

In anticipation of the election, the government  collaborated with civil society groups to utilize AI tools like ChatGPT to develop bots capable of rapidly identifying, categorizing, and debunking potentially misleading content online. In a more direct effort to combat disinformation, Taiwan’s government established a task force in 2023, bringing together various departments, including the Digital Affairs Ministry, the Ministry of Education, the Central Election Commission, and the Ministry of Justice. This task force monitors the internet and media for indications of information manipulation related to the election.

Additionally, Taiwan implemented laws to address suspected instances of election interference. The Anti-Infiltration Act, enacted in 2019, prohibits foreign entities from making political donations and prevents the use of unlawfully obtained funds for political purposes. The government is actively employing this law to counter Beijing’s attempts to exploit local proxies, as seen in Taipei’s comprehensive investigation into a 2023 money-laundering scheme where the Chinese Communist Party both paid and coerced Taiwanese businesses with interests in China to financially support pro-Beijing candidates.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, Taiwan’s ability to resist and counteract Chinese disinformation campaigns during its 2024 presidential election highlights the resilience of its democratic processes and the discernment of its populace. Despite the persistent efforts of the Chinese government to influence public opinion, Taiwan’s multifaceted approach, combining technological innovations, civil society initiatives, and legal measures, proved effective in safeguarding the integrity of its electoral system. The Chinese disinformation tactics, evolving from overt messaging to more subtle strategies, underscore the adaptability of state-sponsored interference. However, Taiwan responded with proactive measures, such as the establishment of organizations like the Taiwan Fact Center and Kuma Academy, utilizing AI tools and engaging in media literacy programs to empower the public against misinformation. The collaborative efforts between the government and civil society, as exemplified by the task force formed in 2023, demonstrated a comprehensive approach to monitoring and countering online manipulation. Furthermore, Taiwan’s legal framework, exemplified by the Anti-Infiltration Act, showcased a commitment to thwarting foreign interference in its democratic processes, addressing not only disinformation but also financial influence from external actors.

The successful outcome of the 2024 election, where President William Lai Ching-te secured a decisive win, reinforces the notion that a well-informed and resilient society can withstand external pressures and make independent electoral decisions. Taiwan’s experience serves as a valuable case study for democracies worldwide, emphasizing the importance of fostering media literacy, leveraging technology, and implementing legal safeguards to fortify electoral resilience in the face of evolving threats. As geopolitical tensions persist, Taiwan’s proactive stance against disinformation stands as a testament to the enduring strength of democratic values and the ability of a vigilant society to safeguard its democratic processes.