How China is waging a digital war against Taiwan

Beijing’s state-backed ‘disinformation campaign’ is aimed at eroding the island’s robust democracy

Taiwan has been a top target of misinformation campaigns propagated by the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies since 2000.

Beijing’s primary objective in spreading disinformation is to undermine trust in the island’s democracy and governance. China hopes to convince Taiwanese citizens that the only way to avoid war is to support plans to ‘peacefully’ unify with mainland China.

Taiwan’s robust democracy is underpinned by freedom of speech, media and association – liberties that China seeks to exploit to spread disinformation.

In the past few years, numerous Communist Party-backed campaigns have targeted Taiwan’s commercial news outlets and social media landscape.

False stories are often generated by content farms – websites that produce large quantities of low-quality content designed to place highly on search engine results – then republished in Taiwanese media and amplified by state-sponsored accounts.

The CCP’s messaging has evolved over time.

Pro-unification rhetoric has lessened while content purporting to be from local citizens, written in traditional Chinese characters commonly used in Taiwan and claiming to care about politics and society, has increased.

Presidential election

For the CCP, disinformation remains a cost-effective method to interfere with Taiwanese electoral politics.

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, the CCP spread falsehoods about President Tsai Ing-wen forging her doctoral thesis, leading to the London School of Economics releasing a statement refuting the claims.

After the election, Chinese disinformation campaigns tried to discredit Tsai’s victory and claimed it was manipulated by the CIA in the United States.

Beijing’s strategy also aims to increase political polarisation and sow public discord. In 2018, Chinese media outlets amplified criticisms that Taiwanese diplomats were unable to evacuate their citizens from Osaka during a typhoon.

They also spread falsehoods that Taiwanese citizens had to claim they were Chinese to be evacuated.

China’s Navy has conducted ‘live-fire’ drills in the Taiwan Strait. Photo: PLA Daily

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese state-sponsored actors spread disinformation about Taiwan’s Medigen vaccine and tried to discredit officials with fake stories about not complying with social distancing rules.

China’s attempts to bring the island closer to the mainland via political co-optation and preferential economics have largely failed, especially after the passing of Hong Kong’s national security law discredited the CCP’s “One Country, Two Systems” framework.

Beijing will increasingly rely on what President Tsai has called “cognitive warfare” – the use of “false information to create disturbance in the minds of the people.”

This form of psychological warfare is deployed alongside near-daily cyberattacks, drone flights, and military exercises around Taiwan.

Regular use of these tactics aims to wear down Taiwan’s military and civil reactions, as well as to undermine public trust in Taipei’s ability to protect its citizens.

Disguising fake and misleading news as Taiwanese-produced content could reduce its citizens’ abilities to discern fact from fiction and weaken social trust in news outlets.

Misleading information

But as China’s efforts have evolved, so too have Taipei’s responses.

Civil society organizations such as Taiwan FactCheck combs through public interest issues, Cofacts runs a crowdsourced platform for LINE, and Doublethink Lab maintains a set of tools to counter conspiracy theories and propaganda.

Volunteer-led organization FakeNewsCleaner holds media literacy workshops to help distinguish misleading information.

Such initiatives are needed due to the vulnerability of Taiwan’s deregulated commercial media landscape, in which many shareholders have business interests with mainland China.

Introducing laws to penalize those that spread false information will unlikely have a deterrent effect due to the length of time it takes to detect malicious actors and prosecute them in the courts.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs has also introduced a range of measures to combat disinformation. This includes the g0v civic hacking program and a bilingual Google assistant chatbot for Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control.

China has used economic coercion against Taiwan and its allies. Image: File

One of the most effective approaches continues to be ‘humor over rumor,’ in which fake news is reposted on social media with humorous memes, such as a Shiba Inu dog, explaining the facts.

Most of these initiatives are based on Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s belief that technology should strengthen democracy by ensuring open data, transparency, and accountability tools.

This approach also recognizes that Taiwan cannot counter Chinese state-sponsored disinformation through excessive regulation or by limiting freedom of expression. Such moves would weaken Taiwan’s democratic credentials, which are the backbone of the island’s policy.

Last year, public criticism led to a law proposed by the Tsai administration to fine internet platforms for failing to remove harmful content being shelved.

Since the bill would have put government agencies in charge of defining disinformation, it was perceived as an attempt by the government to punish critical content and restrict internet participation.

Military intimidation

The same criticism was leveled by opposition parties at President Tsai for proposing amendments in February to the General Mobilization Act.

The changes would allow the government to enforce wartime controls on information in the digital, broadcasting and publishing domains, and those found responsible for spreading disinformation could face up to three years in jail.

Beijing’s attempts to economically coerce and militarily intimidate Taiwan to accept unification will continue to be accompanied by attempts to polarise Taiwanese society.

Understanding how Taipei balances robust oversight and regulation, high civic participation, and a diverse media will also be critical for other countries seeking to counter Beijing’s interference in the democratic processes beyond Taiwan.

Dr Sheryn Lee is Senior Lecturer at the Swedish Defence University.

This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.