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  • Irene Chou

Taiwan’s Fight Against Chinese Disinformation: A Policy Analysis

Coming up in January, Taiwan’s presidential election underscores the vital importance of public trust in democratic government, which ensures active civic engagement. China aims to undermine this trust among Taiwanese citizens through “cognitive warfare,” crafting disinformation narratives that promote its reunification agenda. Taiwan has developed strategies to counteract Chinese influence. However, in today's social media-driven era, the impact of disinformation is heightened, increasing the reach and effect of Chinese influence. This intensifying disinformation battle highlights the need to recognize Chinese disinformation tactics and evaluate Taiwan's policy response effectively. 


The Narrative of Chinese Disinformation 

China's rise as a superpower poses a challenge to the existing U.S.-dominated global order. China’s ascent is particularly evident in the context of Taiwan, whose ideological and strategic significance has amplified China's disinformation efforts. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views Taiwan as a breakaway province, destined for reunification. Taiwan's successful development as a democracy, bolstered by strong U.S. support, directly contradicts the CCP's nationalist narrative. Consequently, the CCP has long engaged in a sophisticated disinformation campaign, termed "United Front work," targeting Taiwan. This initiative has evolved into a multibillion-dollar media enterprise, which reflects the intensity and scope of the operation. 


Chinese disinformation strategically aims to erode Taiwanese trust in U.S. military and political support, hinder the functioning of Taiwan's democratic government, and portray unification as the most feasible path for the relationship between the mainland and the island. In essence, this narrative reinforces the idea that resistance against inevitable unification is both futile and dangerous. 


Pro-unification propaganda weaves the common narrative themes of isolation, intimidation, and skepticism. Chinese disinformation taps into Taiwan's historical orphan mentality, a sense of abandonment and doubt about U.S. support. The narrative emphasizes how past instances of U.S. diplomatic shifts—like the 1970s transition from recognizing Taipei to Beijing as the legitimate government of China—will recur. The underlying message is the futility of resistance for a Taiwan portrayed as solitary and disconnected from supposed allies.  

A chilling instance can be found in a viral video, in which U.S. Representative Seth Moulton commented about “blow[ing] up” Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co’s (TSMC) facilities in Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion against the island. The video was strategically clipped to cut off Moulton’s immediate disagreement with the idea. Nonetheless, the video trended on Douyin, the Chinese social media equivalent of TikTok. Taiwanese newspapers and talk shows began reporting on the misrepresented remarks the next morning. From social media to mass media, the propagation of misleading news took less than 12 hours, successfully provoking outrage among the Taiwanese public.   


Another example reveals how a Chinese narrative misconstrues Taiwan's military readiness as the leadership's cowardice. In the lead-up to Taiwan's 2023 Han Kuang military exercises, annual drills designed to simulate attacks by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), numerous reports from Chinese state media depicted these exercises as escape rehearsal for Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. citizens. Beijing's tactic of spreading fear is designed to sow public distrust in Taiwan's political leadership and its strongest ally, the United States. 


Taiwan’s Preemptive Measures against Chinese Disinformation Tactics  


Despite the overwhelming flood of disinformation, the Taiwanese public has remained resilient, largely due to the lack of persuasive quality in the vast quantity of Chinese disinformation. China employs a Russian-inspired cyber army, utilizing bought accounts and content farms worldwide. Workers in China, working in shifts, produce fake news articles that are then amplified by mass media in Taiwan and other regions. While the scale of this operation is notable, its impact on public opinion has been minimal. The reason is its transparent nature, making it easy to distinguish from credible information sources. 


China may have conducted the largest covert disinformation campaign to date, for instance, but it was removed by Meta in August this year. The takedown included 7,704 Facebook accounts, 954 Facebook pages, 15 Facebook groups, and 15 Instagram accounts traced back to Chinese origins. Other social media platforms including TikTok, X, LiveJournal and Blogspot participated in the mass removal of hundreds of spam accounts forming part of the Chinese campaign. Meta described the operation as a “wide and noisy” network. The takedown reflects how broad swathes of Chinese influence — seeking to strengthen pro-China sentiments against the U.S. by peddling Covid conspiracies and fueling racial divides — has not reached far beyond its own typo-ridden echo chamber.   


However, the poor execution of the Chinese disinformation operation does not conceal the CCP’s pertinent objective: to dominate the digital media landscape by way of flooding the space with “spamouflage,” or fake news accounts camouflaging as authentic news outlets or personnel. By identifying the tactics behind Chinese influence, Taiwan then carries out preemptive measures through a whole-of-society approach, which includes fortifying public trust and streamlining private-public collaboration.  


At the highest level, the Executive Yuan effectively counters fake news with prompt and clear responses, accessible to everyone through various means, including press statements and engaging memes on social media. These memes are often shared among younger netizens and their less media-savvy family members. Initiated in 2022, the Ministry of Digital Affairs' "humor over rumor" approach is designed to preempt Chinese influence in the information sphere. This strategy seeks to protect Taiwan's public discourse from the infiltration of fake news and conspiracy theories. 


In cross-sector collaboration, the Taiwanese government works alongside civil society groups and digital media platforms. During the 2020 elections, Facebook, in partnership with Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, downranked posts violating electoral laws. Additionally, Facebook collaborated with the Taiwan Fact Check Center to append accurate information to fake news posts, which, although downranked, remained accessible to the public. LINE, a widely used messaging app in Taiwan, also joined forces with the government and NGOs, including Cofacts and Taiwan Fact Check Center, to launch the “LINE information checker” in 2019. This multifaceted approach played a crucial role in preserving the integrity of Taiwan's 2020 election process. 


For the upcoming January election, Taiwan must reinforce its comprehensive whole-of-society response to Chinese disinformation, since the digital landscape is rapidly evolving. The Taiwanese government's preventive approach depends on vigilant monitoring of digital media and prompt content removal. With the advent of generative Artificial Intelligence, pro-China propaganda can be generated faster and with more nuanced modifications, making it more convincing to Taiwanese audiences. The sheer volume of disinformation may overwhelm manual monitoring and corrective measures, even with the assistance of civil society actors. 


Therefore, policies must adapt to changes in the digital media landscape. First, in a democracy cautious about restricting the free exchange of ideas, it is crucial for the Taiwanese government to balance public interest and free speech. Legislative guardrails could play a key role in combating online disinformation, offering a possible solution to the intensifying deluge of fake news. Second, Taiwan’s comprehensive strategy should maintain public-private collaboration, fostering individual awareness of disinformation and empowering government task forces to counter Chinese influence effectively. As cognitive warfare wages on, public trust in the Taiwanese government can be maintained through timely policy responses, ensuring that news media and innovative ideas remain credible in the digital era.

This article was previously published on The News Lens International on December 12, 2023.


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