How China uses four ways to launch disinformation campaigns against Taiwan?

Doublethink lab, a research institute in Taiwan that focuses on conducting research about China’s information operation, released its latest research paper on May 24, which highlights how China tried to mislead Taiwan’s general public by deploying false information campaigns during the 2020 presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic. After further research, evidence shows that most of these false information campaigns were initiated by Beijing.

In the latest report from Doublethink Lab in Taiwan, it highlights that the specific narratives that dominated Beijing’s information operation during the 2020 presidential election in Taiwan were messages like “democracy is a failure.” Additionally, China has tried to use false claims related to the pandemic as a way to disrupt political processes in Taiwan while damaging trust in civil society.

The researchers examine thousands of posts on social media platforms and try to determine the source, purpose, target audience, effectiveness, and methods of spreading the false information through the content.

In the report, the team categorized four main modes of China’s information operation, which include broadcasting twisted information through media outlets, often those controlled by the Chinese government or media outlets with financial incentives to repurpose China’s propaganda.

Another type of operation is the mobilization of Chinese nationalists to post or amplify disinformation favoring China’s narrative online. The third type of its operation is establishing websites that aggregate low-quality articles that can create high engagement to amplify or spread disinformation on social media platforms.

The last type of operation is the collaboration with online influencers in target countries and get them to share the preferred messages through their platforms. Puma Shen, the author of the report and chairperson of Doublethink Lab, said when dealing with disinformation from the “content farms,” government will need to cooperate with social media platforms and when dealing with disinformation spread by online influencers, Taiwan will need to pass relevant laws to address this problem.

“Disinformation extended from content farms can usually accurately target a certain group of people, and even if it only affects a small group of people, it can have some troublesome effect,” Shen said. “On the other hand, the government will need to prove that the person spreading the disinformation is indeed an influencer in order for them to attribute the campaign to Beijing.”

Additionally, the team also points out that apart from being disseminated by politically oriented disinformation manufacturers and distributors, there were also a large number of actors driven by financial interests that cooperate with others in a decentralized pattern.

“A significant difference between Chinese and Russian information warfare is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) owns many information operation units and outsources its missions,” the authors wrote. “In other words, the division of labor for the CCP is far from precise which leads to its scattered and incoherent attack patterns.”

During the 2020 presidential election, Beijing uses the narrative that “democracy has failed” to support its information operation in Taiwan, emphasizing that democracy has failed to give Taiwanese people good governance, positive international relationships, and a strong economy. It argues that democracy has led to moral decadence in Taiwan. “‘Democracy is a failure’ was a constant narrative that played out during the presidential election campaign up until the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote.

Additionally, they also found that the goal of China’s information operation isn’t just about influencing Taiwan’s elections, but it also aims at propagandizing its governance model and values. “Unlike the previous view that China’s cyber army is only ‘cheerleading’, China’s information operations are also negative and aggressive,” the authors wrote. “They amplify discord, harshly criticize certain ideologies, and fabricate conspiracies.”

The team proposed a few different ways for the Taiwanese government to consider when it comes to how to deal with the threat that comes with China’s information operation. It includes:

Puma Shen thinks that Taiwan needs to pass legislation related to foreign agents so the government can have the right to openly identify who are the influencers spreading disinformation favoring China. “If Taiwan can’t pass relevant laws, the government won’t be able to deal with the disinformation campaign initiated by influencers, because it will be very hard for them to prove that the campaign is related to China,” he said.

Overall, Shen thinks that when compared to citizens from other countries, Taiwanese people have a relatively modest capability to deal with the threat posed by disinformation campaigns from China. However, the greater threat actually comes from conspiracy theories, which are often hard to determine its truthfulness.

“Since it’s often hard to verify the truthfulness of conspiracy theories, the best way to cope with these challenges is to reveal how opponents launch these attacks and emphasize that these content come from China,” he said. “Then citizens should be urged not to read these content because they contain certain purposes.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.