TAIPEI, Taiwan—The United States can learn from Taiwan how to confront the Chinese regime’s disinformation, according to a recent report by the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The report, titled “Protecting Democracy in an Age of Disinformation: Lessons from Taiwan,” analyzed campaigns from China that spread misleading information about Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The think tank acknowledged that “the disinformation campaigns carried out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are often obscured by the secrecy and opacity of the CCP’s ‘united front’ approach, which makes it difficult to accurately diagnose and right-size the problem of disinformation, complicating efforts to craft effective solutions.”
But the Taiwan government’s tactics, such as setting up a fact-checking agency and promoting internet memes that dispel false news, can prove effective, the report noted.
China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) is an executive CCP agency behind Beijing’s “united front” efforts to persuade organizations or individuals to spread the Party’s propaganda, both inside and outside China. In October last year, the U.S. State Department designated the Washington-based National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification, which is controlled by the UFWD, as a foreign mission for its “malign influence” in the United States.
Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province, despite its status as a self-ruled island with its own democratically-elected government. It seeks to bring the island under its fold, no matter through military actions or peaceful means. The latter includes the tactics of spinning Taiwan’s public opinion in Beijing’s favor—by persuading Taiwanese to lose faith in their democracy or embrace the Chinese regime’s calls for greater integration between the two sides.
“Taiwan’s very existence as a democratic rebuke to the socialist authoritarian model offered by Beijing has likely further strengthened China’s resolve to degrade and erode domestic faith in the durability of the island’s democratic institutions,” the report said.
Beijing’s disinformation has thus targeted Taiwan’s politics and social events.
The different channels available to Beijing to carry out such disinformation, such as recruiting Taiwanese businesspeople with significant activities in the mainland to advance CCP-friendly interests in Taiwan, make it difficult to determine whether a case of disinformation is “Beijing-backed” or “China-linked,” the report noted. Oftentimes, there is no specific or verifiable evidence pointing to the involvement of Chinese state-backed entities.
“[W]hile it is certain that Beijing is behind a rising number of disinformation attacks, it is not true that they are behind them all. Local Taiwanese play their own part in originating, disseminating, and amplifying domestic disinformation,” according to the report.
Citing a 2019 report by Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, the think tank identified several main methods of Chinese disinformation.
The CCP distorts real news stories from Taiwan, and spreads it through Chinese state media and social media, where the content is likely to be picked up by Taiwanese social media platforms.
It also skews information about controversial news topics in Taiwan and has Chinese internet trolls, including those from the “fifty-cent” army, spread it on Taiwanese social media, in order to alter Taiwanese public opinion.
In mainland China, the term “fifty-cent” army refers to internet users who are reportedly paid a meager 50 cents by the CCP for every comment they leave on news articles and social media. On articles that portray the CCP positively, the commenters agree enthusiastically. On articles that are critical of the CCP, they react angrily and stoke nationalist sentiment.
The CCP also creates fake content and uploads it to content farms, which are websites with large collections of shallow or low-quality articles. The communist regime then waits for the fake content to be picked up by social media groups in Taiwan.
Finally, the CCP also directly feeds Taiwan’s pro-Beijing media materials, or provides them with reporting guidelines, with the goal of having other media outlets follow suit.
“As Covid-19 evolved into a global pandemic, Taiwan witnessed a steady increase in disinformation efforts centered on the disease,” according to the report.
COVID-19 is a disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus. The virus originated from China’s Wuhan city before spreading to countries and regions around the world.
Taiwan has earned internal accolades for being able to effectively control the spread of the virus, after reporting its first confirmed infection case on Jan. 21 last year. As of Jan. 31, Taiwan has a total of 911 confirmed infection cases and eight deaths.
The think tank report cited several examples of disinformation, all pushing a similar narrative of the Taiwan government being ineffective at handling the local outbreak.
One Facebook user shared on a Facebook group that his mother learned from her high school classmate, a Taiwanese lawmaker, that the Taiwanese government wasn’t able to track down infected patients.
In another example, one Facebook user wrote that the local government quickly cremated a body, which the user suspected was a patient who died of COVID-19. The user insinuated that Taiwanese health officials refused to make the same assessment.
Forged Taiwan government documents have also circulated on the internet. One forged document was purportedly from the Taoyuan municipal government, announcing the city will be placed on lockdown after infections were detected at one of the city’s hospitals.
Taiwan has never initiated lockdowns. According to local media reports, police tracked down the IP address of the person who posted the fake document, to a location in China’s Hebei Province.
“Overall, the impact of their campaigns appears to have been limited,” the report said. “Many of the [online] posts made sloppy mistakes, often lapsing into mainland linguistic conventions which revealed their true origin.”
The two regions sometimes use different words in Chinese to refer to the same noun. For example, mainland Chinese use the words bao’an (保安) for “security,” but Taiwanese use baoquan (保全).
The report applauded Taiwan’s responses to China’s disinformation campaigns.
Taiwan has relied on civil servants in different government agencies to timely respond to disinformation by publishing counter messages or memes on social media, written in a humorous or internet language to enhance their appeal to people.
Additionally, the island has robust fact-checking systems in place. The Taiwan FactCheck Center, a nonprofit established in 2018, publishes its review process and references for every factual assertion. Additionally, Line, a messaging app commonly used in Taiwan, hosts a fact-checking chatbot named Cofact, where users can forward questionable messages for Line’s editors to review.
“Taiwan’s multifaceted approach to disinformation would not be possible without the high levels of public trust that exist in the country,” the report noted.
Global Views, a local magazine, polled 1,032 people between Dec. 3 and Dec. 7 last year. The poll found that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen had an approval rating of 54.6 percent. Meanwhile, Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s minister of health and welfare and the head of the island’s epidemic command center, had an approval rating of 74.3 percent.
The report concluded that there needs to be extensive international cooperation to respond to China’s disinformation campaigns.
“Democracies need to exchange intelligence about Chinese efforts and share best practices on how to reduce and counter disinformation campaigns,” the report said. “The efforts should include government agencies, media leaders, and civil society groups.”