As Taiwan prepares to hold local elections on Saturday, concerns are growing that Beijing’s long effort to sway the island’s politics has been armed with a new weapon: a Russia-style influence campaign.
The island’s elections for city mayors and county and village leaders will in part serve as a report card on President Tsai Ing-wen, whose administration has come under immense pressure from Beijing. But Taiwan officials are sounding alarms at what they say is a campaign by Beijing to spread disinformation that serves its agenda by exploiting the island’s freewheeling public discourse.
“There are those people who mistakenly think that if you simply shout falsehoods loudly, they’ll become real,” Tsai wrote on Facebook last week. “We must not let them succeed.”
Taiwan officials say the population of 23 million is regularly fed misleading information in the news media and on social networks that range from unverified footage of large-scale Chinese military drills to false reports of stranded travelers being abandoned by the island’s government.
The onslaught of misinformation seems aimed at undermining the Tsai administration and her governing Democratic Progressive Party, which that leans toward independence — while helping politicians deemed more sympathetic to Beijing and unification, who are typically with the opposition party Kuomintang.
China’s ruling Communist Party considers Taiwan part of its territory, and wants to bring the democratic island under its control. Tsai became president in May 2016 and has refused to meet China’s demand that she endorse Beijing’s so-called One China principle, which holds that the mainland and the island are part of a single country.
In response, Beijing has sought to isolate Taiwan by drawing away its diplomatic allies, pressuring companies to erase references to Taiwan as a separate country and stepping up military drills.
Taiwan authorities say they suspect that Beijing is also illegally funneling money to political campaigns through Taiwanese businesses in mainland China. Late last month, the government said that it was building cases against candidates who were being funded by Beijing and that it had shut down two underground money exchanges through which funds earmarked for influencing the election had been flowing.
Taiwan’s government fears the use of social media misinformation campaigns are a new front for meddling.
Beijing denies engaging in any kind of interference in Taiwan. A spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Ma Xiaoguang, described Tsai’s Facebook comments as “fake news” and “not even worth refuting.”
Ma said wider allegations about meddling were “completely fabricated out of thin air. We hope our Taiwanese compatriots won’t believe it.
But the propaganda war goes back seven decades, with attacks originating from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Many years after the Kuomintang government fled to the island after its defeat by the communists in 1949, each side continued sending the other balloons carrying propaganda. They filled the airwaves with propaganda in slogans, news and music.
In 1996, by which time the Kuomintang had effectively given up its claim on the mainland, China fired missiles toward Taiwan in the days before the island’s first democratic presidential election in an attempt to intimidate voters from casting ballots for democratic reformer Lee Teng-hui. But the effort backfired, and Lee won a resounding victory.
Taiwan leaders say propaganda is now carried over the strait through posts on Facebook, the chat app Line and a popular online bulletin board known as PTT.
In September, PTT drew scrutiny for carrying a widely shared post that claimed that Taiwanese travelers stranded in Japan were being rescued by buses sent by China’s consulate — but only on the condition that they declared themselves Chinese. The post, which was carried by Chinese media, led to criticism from the Taiwanese public that their government had failed them.
Su Chii-Cherng, Taiwan’s top diplomat in Osaka, Japan, killed himself, leaving a note saying that the “news” had been troubling him. Witnesses from the Japanese airport later refuted the news, while PTT users traced the original post to an IP address in Beijing.
Concerns about Chinese meddling have grown as the election race heats up. Of particular concern to Tsai and her party, known as DPP, is the mayoral race in the southern city of Kaohsiung — where Han Kuo-yu, a Kuomintang candidate, has enjoyed a surprising surge in popularity. Han’s victory would end two decades of DPP control of the city and be a significant setback for Tsai.
In October, lawyers for Chen Chi-mai, the DPP candidate originally seen as a shoo-in for Kaohsiung mayor, told reporters they had evidence that misinformation defaming Chen that had spread widely on Taiwanese social media had originated from overseas accounts, including some with mainland IP addresses.
Han seemed unfazed by the prospect of outside interference in the political process. He directly addressed the authors of the posts, saying: “I don’t know you, but I thank you.” It is unclear what, if any, public position his party has on the question of election meddling.
It is difficult to determine exactly how much influence Beijing is having on the Kaohsiung race. Nathan Batto, who has been following Taiwan elections since the 1990s, said that is because discussions often take place in closed, private groups.
“It’s hard for us to look in from the outside and see exactly how much there is and exactly how much influence it’s having,” said Batto, an assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most distinguished scholarly society. “We have some sort of fuzzy idea that they’re helping Han Kuo-yu in Kaohsiung quite a bit — but I don’t know if that’s why he’s surged in the polls or not.”
Part of Taiwan’s challenge, experts say, lies with weak media literacy and a hypercompetitive news industry that sometimes compromises editorial standards in the race for traffic.
A recent research report by the University of Oxford and the Reuters Institute noted that posts on social media accounts run by China’s People’s Liberation Army were picked up widely this year by Taiwan news outlets, which ran photographs and video from the military’s accounts without checking their veracity.
Danielle Cave, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Center, said that Taiwan’s government should work harder to raise public awareness of covert influence operations.
“It’s hard to see the Taiwanese government being able to successfully counter such operations if most citizens don’t actually understand what’s going on,” she said.