As Taiwan gears up for a pivotal presidential election, a new wave of narrative attacks and disinformation is sweeping across the strait. Recent incidents, such as suspicious videos featuring Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen seemingly endorsing cryptocurrency investments, have raised concerns about advanced disinformation tactics, including deep fakes, to blur the lines between legitimate information and state-sponsored content. In response to these challenges, Taiwan's Criminal Investigation Bureau deemed the videos to be likely deep fakes. This sophisticated manipulation underscores evolving disinformation strategies by some geopolitical actors determined to influence Taiwan's democratic processes.
Taiwan's Resilience and Model Defenses
Despite the increasing complexity of disinformation tactics, Taiwan stands as a model for other democracies grappling with foreign meddling. The island nation has built resilience against external interference through various factors. One notable strength is its mature community of fact-checkers, considered among the world's most advanced. Government investments complement these fact-checking efforts, international media literacy partnerships, and a growing public skepticism towards third party information sources, especially when unvalidated or attributed to the mainland.
Taiwan's proactive approach includes the establishment of a dedicated task force to address election-related fake news, reflecting the government's commitment to countering disinformation. Taiwan's digital minister, Audrey Tang, emphasized the importance of staying agile in the face of evolving threats, recognizing that the battleground extends beyond traditional warfare to the realm of information and perception.
Fact-Checking and Citizen Empowerment
Taiwan's vibrant fact-checking community is crucial in countering disinformation. Organizations like Fake News Cleaner, Cofacts, Doublethink Lab, and MyGoPen contribute to a robust collective effort. Fact-checkers debunk false claims and empower citizens with information literacy education. Melody Hsieh, the co-founder of Fake News Cleaner, notes a positive shift in public awareness, with citizens developing internal "warning bells" for suspicious narratives.
However, challenges persist. Recent incidents involving deepfakes targeting outspoken critics of Beijing, such as Vice President Lai Ching-te, highlight the need for ongoing vigilance. China's disinformation strategy continues to adapt, using subtle and organic posts to influence public opinion rather than flooding the zone with obvious pro-China messaging.
Maintaining Vigilance: The Role of Government and Society
President Tsai Ing-wen has consistently addressed the government's commitment to combating Beijing's disinformation campaigns. The fear, uncertainty, and doubt generated by disinformation are recognized as significant challenges. Taiwan's strategy involves providing the public with knowledge and tools to identify and report false or misleading information.
Efforts to increase media literacy, such as the ‘humor over rumor’ campaign leveraging meme culture, aim to combat public apathy and increase awareness. President Tsai stresses that countering disinformation must be a whole-of-society effort, acknowledging the difficulty posed by well-funded, large-scale disinformation campaigns that can erode trust in democratic institutions.
Here are several narratives likely intended to influence public perception, identified by Blackbird.AI’s Constellation Narrative Intelligence Platform:
Narrative #1: The Public of Taiwan is against the DDP and pro-PLA
On December 7, 2023, a social media user with a significant following in mainland China criticized Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen for avoiding the media for over 700 days. He claimed that public opinion in Taiwan is strongly against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), making it nearly impossible for them to maintain control. His YouTube channel, known for its pro-China content, reflects his pursuit of the "truth." Later, on December 17, a social media post from a research fellow in China from the Netherlands, with a moderate follower count, reported that Beijing had encouraged about 300 executives from 152 Taiwanese companies to vote pro-China at an event organized by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office director Song Tao. This narrative was further supported on December 19 by a post from a major Chinese English-language news outlet, stating that the DPP's actions were contrary to public sentiment, emphasizing the unstoppable trend of cross-strait exchanges. This post was also shared by a prominent English portal to Chinese news, highlighting the narrative against the DPP and in favor of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Narrative #2: The U.S. is turning Taiwan into a war zone. Only China can stop it.
On November 22, 2023, a Chinese influencer expressed concerns that the U.S. and Taiwanese figures Lai Ching-te and Xiao Meiqin intended to transform Taiwan into a war zone. Following this, on November 27, another man based in China with a notable social media presence and a YouTube channel rich in pro-China content claimed that Taiwan was evolving into an armed enclave with U.S. support, potentially jeopardizing U.S.-China relations, though this post was removed. On December 2, a response from a user with a smaller online audience suggested that any potential entry of China's PLA into Taiwan would be to remove terrorists and traitors, not an invasion. This discussion was further expanded on December 12 by a post from Global Times, a major Chinese English language news outlet, which raised questions about the intentions of certain U.S. politicians comparing Taiwan with war-torn countries, hinting at a possible plan to convert Taiwan into a similar battlefield. Finally, on December 21, a statement from a self-proclaimed defense strategist in Washington DC, with a substantial online following, argued that Taiwan must rapidly arm itself to convince the U.S. of its worthiness for defense, focusing on preserving the current state of affairs rather than seeking independence, and emphasizing U.S. self-interest as a primary reason for supporting Taiwan.
Narrative #3: Taiwan's independence will harm stability in the region
On November 22, 2023, a report from a mainland media company with a moderate audience shared a statement by Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council. Chen criticized DPP candidate Lai Ching-te for minimizing the harmful and dangerous nature of "Taiwanese independence" separatist activities, attempting to improve his image as a "troublemaker" and "war instigator." A week later, on November 29, the Global Times, a major Chinese English language newspaper, echoed Chen Binhua's message, emphasizing that Taiwan's independence would negatively impact the well-being of the Taiwanese people. This viewpoint was further supported on December 5 by a large online account based in Puerto Rico. This account relayed a statement from China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, which stated that Taiwanese independence equates to war and is a dead-end route, reinforcing the argument that the island nation’s succession would be detrimental to regional stability.
Narrative #4: Losers of the Korean War fled to Taiwan while the rest of the Chinese warriors fought back and were repatriated to the mainland to stand up for China.
On December 11, 2023, a professor of Modern Chinese Law at GW University shared an intriguing historical detail about the Korean War. He revealed that of the approximately 21,000 Chinese prisoners of war, only a third were repatriated to Communist China. In contrast, the majority, over 14,300 prisoners, ended up in what the social media user referred to as “Nationalist Taiwan.” The next day, a person claiming to be a U.S. war veteran posted a picture representing the valor and bravery of American soldiers in the Korean War. This was followed on December 19 by a comment from a mainland-based individual with a significant audience, who noted that many of the soldiers who surrendered and later relocated to Taiwan were originally KMT soldiers captured by the PLA between 1946 and 1949. This commentator argued that these soldiers had minimal combat capacity and their descendants in Taiwan are now viewed as "losers," perpetuating the narrative that those who aligned with the U.S. and fled to Taiwan after the Korean War were not the true victors of the conflict.
This is one example of perception manipulation around a high-stakes national election. Still, narrative attacks targeting elections and liberal democracies are becoming the norm worldwide. As Taiwan navigates the intricate landscape of contemporary disinformation, its resilience, fact-checking capabilities, and public awareness serve as valuable lessons for democracies worldwide. The ongoing battle against disinformation requires constant adaptation and collaboration, emphasizing the importance of a united front to safeguard democratic processes.