Disinformation can contribute to polarization within a targeted society while eroding belief in the objective truth. China’s information warfare efforts are helped by a media environment in Taiwan that suffers from a variety of deficiencies, writes J. Michael Cole. 

By J. Michael Cole, January 6, 2020

Although Chinese disinformation is very much in the news today — literally — there is nothing particularly new about this phenomenon. In fact, the use of disinformation, misinformation, or, as we call it today, “fake news,” is as old as politics itself.

We read about it in Tacitus, the greatest chronicler of the Roman Empire. The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu writes at length about deception and how to confuse the enemy with misleading signals and information. The Nazis weaponized the media and used disinformation to achieve their objectives; as did the Soviet Union. By the late 1920s, as Joseph Stalin consolidated his power, the newspaper Pravda had become his personal weapon. Throughout his reign, Stalin used “fake news” — including the infamous “Doctors Case” — to justify his purges.

With its political designs on Taiwan, China — or rather the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — has also relied heavily on disinformation to confuse its enemy, while using both “fake news” and heavy censorship at home to shape the narrative on Taiwan.

Over time, and as it became clear that developments in Taiwan, such as democratization, would make its goal of “reunification” harder to achieve, Beijing realized that the mere appeal of its large economy, or the threat of its military, are insufficient to compel the Taiwanese. More and more, therefore, it needed to rely on “sharp power,” or political warfare, to seek to undermine its opponent, co-opt potential allies, and change the narrative in its favor.

This has been going on for years. In fact, one the first attempts at disinformation and propaganda aimed at Taiwan, known as “Voice of the Straits” radio, was launched in the 1950s, and began online broadcasting in April 2000. Since then, this effort has been merged with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Liaison Department’s 311 Base in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province.

Two things have changed over the years, however. First is the intensity of the CCP’s efforts targeting Taiwan; and the second is technology, which has provided new avenues by which to penetrate Taiwanese society and attempt to weaken its will to resist.

There is no doubt, either, that the Chinese state apparatus and its proxies have learned from the experiences of other autocratic regimes worldwide, chief among them Russia under Vladimir Putin, which has engaged in “hybrid warfare” in places like Georgia, Ukraine, Western Europe, and the United States. China’s approach to political warfare and disinformation, however, is idiosyncratic. Applying the Russian model to the PRC’s efforts would be both misleading and dangerous as we seek to counter its more nefarious impact. While Russia mostly seeks to confuse its enemy, China’s approach is more refined and uses a larger array of vectors.

For one thing, Beijing chooses sides, and uses disinformation to strengthen its potential allies — especially when the targeted society is, like Taiwan, a multi-party democracy that holds regular elections. Unlike Russia, China also has the advantage of being in a position to provide attractive economic incentives for those who choose to side with it.

My personal journey on this subject began when I was still an editor and journalist at the Taipei Times. This was when the CCP first began to seriously intensify its efforts to penetrate and co-opt the media environment in Taiwan. That journey began in 2008, not long after a Taiwanese billionaire, who made his fortune in China, acquired a media company in Taiwan. We began reporting on the potential repercussions of that acquisition on that media empire’s editorial line, which we suspected would lead to a more pro-Beijing stance. Over time, a war of words developed between that particular company and the Liberty Times Group, the parent company of my newspaper.

This was followed by lawsuits, which led my editor in chief to kill, at the very last minute, a front-page article I had co-written. My newspaper didn’t want to get dragged into that legal battle. So very early on, lawfare — the threat or use of legal action to silence journalistic inquiry — became a factor. It would only get a lot worse, as we have seen in recent years.

The story with that particular media group flared up again a few years ago when it sought to acquire other media in Taiwan, as well as a cable distribution system. Fearing both a media monopoly and what was termed China’s “black hand,” and convinced that the Ma Ying-jeou government at the time had failed to conduct the appropriate reviews, civil society took action.

This was now 2012. The Alliance Against Media Monster, in many ways a precursor to the Sunflower Movement of 2014, had launched a sustained series of protests to compel the Investment Commission and the National Communications Commission to properly review the bid. During that period, many of the leaders of the movement were threatened with lawsuits and victimized by the media company — often through disinformation. The movement eventually prevailed, and the company, its reputation having suffered a major blow, pulled out.

But it did not disappear. For all the reputational damage it suffered, the media group remained in operation and found new avenues to collaborate with Beijing. Chinese delegations visited its studios, sometimes including Chinese officials who were known to have close ties with the United Front apparatus.

Then cross-Strait media forums were launched, and the chairman of the said media company led the delegation. The first one was held in November 2015. At this one, there were 34 representatives from Taiwan, and 45 from China.

By May 2019, the 4th “Cross-Strait Media People Summit” counted about 70 media personnel from Taiwan representing print, broadcast, radio, new media, advertisement, film distribution, education and other sectors. All the major “blue” media in Taiwan were present.

During that summit, participants were told by the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office that it was their “responsibility” to promote “peaceful reunification,” the so-called “1992 consensus,” and the “one country, two systems” formula. According to the China Times — which participated in the forum — a number of media organizations signed a series of cooperation agreements at the gathering (which is also known as the Beijing Taiwan Media Forum), which consists of one main forum and three roundtable discussions.

Other media forums, meanwhile, began taking place elsewhere in China, including in Xiamen, which by 2016 had become a major center of political warfare operations aimed at Taiwan.

The main reason behind the CCP’s intensified efforts on information warfare and “sharp power” is Taiwan’s democratic firewall and the refusal of its people to be annexed by China.

Despite its official rhetoric, the CCP is aware that its ambitions have collided with that resistance. Its frustrations started with the threat of force ahead of Taiwan’s first free direct presidential elections in 1996, followed by the election of a pro-independence candidate in 2000, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, and the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s inability — and unwillingness, I would add — to give Beijing what it wanted during the years of rapprochement between 2008 and 2016.

The election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, on the heels of the Sunflower Movement and a reenergized Taiwanese civil society, made it clear to Beijing that more of the same simply will not work. For all its talk of time being on its side and of its winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese through various incentives, Beijing must know that the trend lines are moving in the opposite direction — not support for unification, but rather a strengthened Taiwanese identity with democracy as a non-negotiable.

This bring me back to an earlier point: CCP disinformation is not only aimed at Taiwan but also at the Chinese people, who cannot be told that the CCP’s policy on Taiwan has been, for the most part, a complete failure. Given its nature, the CCP cannot admit failure; so it must deceive its people — hence all the talk about historical inevitability and the eventual “reunification” of China. I would add here that Xi Jinping and his small circle of advisers may also be lying to the hawks in the PLA about Taiwan, to avoid having to use force at a time when the leadership is not ready to do so. 

Cognizant that it cannot win the hearts and minds of a sufficiently large number of Taiwanese, Beijing’s political warfare efforts, therefore, now aim to undermine the coherence of Taiwan as a functioning state; to balkanize or Lebanonize it by breaking the bond between the center and the peripheries; to exploit existing divisions and polarization and contradictions in Taiwanese society; and, where possible, to co-opt individuals who are more amenable to Beijing’s ambitions. There is a role for disinformation in all this.

We must note as well that all these activities began to intensify when President Ma was still in power. And of course, much of these activities were helped by the various agreements that were signed between the Ma administration and Beijing when he was in office, which opened various sectors of Taiwan to Chinese investment and influence. This, I will add, was not accompanied by a commensurate investment in greater counterintelligence capabilities by Taiwan.

Since disinformation is a component of political warfare, we must also be conscious that a Marxist-Leninist party like the CCP does not differentiate between war and peace; instead, everything is part of a continuum of constant struggle. That is why what may appear to us like contradictory policies — for example, extending economic incentives while threatening war — is perfectly logical for the CCP. And since the use of military force is part of Beijing’s continuum, we must therefore regard disinformation efforts and their role in seeking to undermine Taiwanese society, as also being part of possible preparations for use of military force against Taiwan.

The situation Taiwan faces today is this: Beijing has launched an all-out effort to weaponize information as part of a multifaceted campaign to create conditions that are suitable for unification or annexation. That campaign is waged against Taiwan itself, and it is waged abroad to further isolate Taiwan internationally and undermine U.S. commitments to its security. Disinformation about Taiwan’s unwillingness to defend itself, for example, is directly aimed at the U.S. to undermine support for its Asian ally.

China’s strategy relies on:

(1) traditional media in China (People’s Daily, Global Times, South China Morning Post, Xinhua News Agency, etc) as well as new media (e.g, China Review News);

(2) traditional media in Taiwan (newspapers, TV, radio), several of which have been co-opted, often in return for content distribution in China or market access for affiliated businesses; in some cases, Taiwanese media or their affiliated businesses have also received heavy subsidies from the Chinese state;

(3) social media — Facebook groups and fan pages (dozens and dozens have been identified), Line, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Weibo, WeChat, PTT Board, etc; also, trolls, bots, cyborgs, “sock puppets” to swarm targets, increase share volume, and interfere with algorithms; Facebook is a key battleground for these kinds of activities in Taiwan: it is the No. 1 social media platform in Taiwan, with a coverage rate of 88% — significantly higher than the average of 79% in other countries;

(4) dozens of content farms/mills, with content increasingly generated by Taiwanese or people with similar linguistic footprint (e.g., ethnic Chinese in Malaysia). Content farms have been created by Chinese and Taiwanese (often Taichung-based) businesspeople;

(5) “influencers” or “opinion leaders” — online personalities with a large following and whose sponsors often are registered in Hong Kong or China. “Influencers” who fail to toe Beijing’s line will immediately lose their sponsorship and their Chinese accounts on Weibo will be shut down;

(6) online intimidation — threats against entertainers, “influencers,” politicians, commentators, journalists on Facebook, Twitter and other social media; legal action or the threat thereof against academics and journalists who are investigating Chinese influence.

This author has been the target of such disinformation, with claims that he is paid by President Tsai, or a foreign agent working for the CIA or “Western intelligence.” Willful mistranslation of his work into Chinese, as was the case earlier this year with an article about Han Kuo-yu, the KMT candidate in the presidential elections, has also been a feature of this campaign. In that particular case, the intimidation and “fake news” came from KMT politicians, as well as anonymous Han supporters online, many of whom appeared to be Malaysian Chinese. The same disinformation was then recycled for months in the China Times, CtiTV, United Daily News, and a few web sites that have been identified as content farms — including Chinese ones, as well as traditional media there. This campaign even included people online changing or adding false information on the author’s Wikipedia page.

China’s disinformation efforts have also been assisted by weaknesses in Taiwan, including:

(1) high degree of polarization — the blue versus green divide, which is reflected in the Taiwanese media environment and results in tribalism, “groupthink” and confirmation bias; this also tends to sideline moderates who call for collaboration;

(2) controversial issues like pension reform, same-sex marriage, President Tsai’s PhD from LSE, etc, have created opportunities for China to insert disinformation to target the Tsai administration;

(3) poor corroboration and fact-checking practices, a highly competitive media environment in Taiwan, overworked beat journalists, vertical chain of command in media with older editors lording it over young reporters, and lack of incentives for investigative journalism, all of which have provided the false-corroboration necessary for disinformation to enter the Taiwanese media bloodstream. The incident surrounding the suicide of a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan is a clear example of this false-legitimization: this started with a post on Chinese social media with an IP address linked to China, then was submitted to PTT board, then appeared as a news story in state-run CNA followed by other media, then the object of discussions on evening TV talk shows and pressure by opposition lawmakers.

Links to China have also been established for domestic news about pension reform, same-sex marriage (here this tends to overlap with the views of fundamentalist Christian Evangelicals in Taiwan), President Tsai’s PhD, new laws governing accounting and incense burning at Buddhist temples, agricultural-sector reform, the validity of the Taiwan/ROC passport abroad, and so on. Several PRC-linked content farms have also repeated the meme of Taiwan as a “ghost island” (gui dao), to create poor perceptions of the Taiwanese economy while reinforcing the appeal of China for young Taiwanese. This has been accompanied by disinformation by the Taiwan Affairs Office about the number of Taiwanese who have allegedly responded positively to the 23 incentives program; the PLA Air Force has also used fake imagery — e.g., the passage of bombers close to iconic mountain ranges in Taiwan — on its official Weibo account to foster a sense of embattlement and inevitability in Taiwan and abroad; these images were then reproduced online and in mainstream media in Taiwan;

the PLA has also relied on hawkish retired military generals and complicit media to amplify military exercises by China, often to coincide with efforts by Beijing to pressure the Taiwanese government. Through this, routine live-fire drills are turned into instruments of coercion; far too often, Taiwanese media — and foreign media and wire agencies — have given undue credibility to articles that clearly contained fabrication and quotes by so-called “experts” who are known to be unreliable; the problem is that media seeking drama or sensationalism crave such voices, and are disappointed when other experts downplay the seriousness of the issue, as I have often experienced when I refused to engage in alarmism surrounding certain PLA exercises in recent years;

(4) disinformation generated by the blue and deep-green camps in Taiwan, which further confuses the environment;

(5) co-opted pro-Beijing politicians, political parties (China Unification Promotion Party, Red Party Taiwan, New Party), and deep-blue commentators who portray all efforts by the current government to counter Chinese political warfare as either undemocratic, authoritarian, or based on “fake news” itself. The response by some KMT politicians to a recent Australian spy case scandal, and attacks on the integrity of journalist Nick Mckenzie, who broke the story, is a case in point. Such politicians are also purveyors of disinformation, and the tendency of Taiwanese media to make news out of their Facebook posts gives them the oxygen and platform they need. Sometimes not reporting something would serve the public interest better than to make news out of something that is evidently fabrication;   

(6) absence of appropriate regulations to govern the media, especially the “grey zones” involving new media and social media. Punitive measures adopted by the NCC against media which willingly generate or distribute false content are insufficient and fail to make a dent in business empires that have billions of dollars in their bank accounts, and which receive large subsidies from the PRC; it is also clear that market force alone will not resolve the problem of large media that act as purveyors of disinformation;

(7) efforts have also been hampered by the need to ensure media freedom and to avoid a slippery slope: excesses would give Beijing what it wants by undermining Taiwan’s democratic values. Still, in cases where the actions of a media organization are sustained and involve rampant efforts to help a foreign entity, regulation other than those governing the media — such as a foreign agents bill — should apply, otherwise the bad behavior will never cease;

(8) underinvestment in state media, failure to modernize existing state media and public diplomacy institutions; and underfunding for think tanks and academic institutions that are researching this issue have also slowed down Taiwan’s ability to respond accordingly to the challenge.

Does it work?

The final question we need to ask ourselves is, Does it work? Does disinformation actually work? It is, admittedly, very difficult to quantify the effectiveness of all this. From what we know so far, disinformation fails if its aim is to “brainwash” a targeted public. However, it is most effective when the aim is to solidify existing views, exacerbate polarization, and sow confusion — especially among less-educated sectors of the targeted society. If disinformation succeeds in making a domestic political party an even greater enemy that an external challenger — in other words, completely dividing a society — then it will have accomplished its mission.

On several occasions this author been utterly stunned by some of the things that cab drivers, for example, were telling me about Taiwan, the Tsai administration, and Han Kuo-yu: it boggles the mind, and a simple search on Google would rectify those views. But they believe it religiously, and often they cannot even tell us where they got the information from — often, it’s “a friend,” or a Line group.

Disinformation also appears to have had some effect on perceptions among the elderly on the question of legalizing same-sex marriage, as well as the import of food products from Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture.

Thus, if the aim is to turn society against itself, to deepen divisions and to even split political parties themselves, then disinformation is successful and will continue to be so until traditional media have cleaned up their act and civil society as well as government have provided the instruments needed to identify and counter “fake news.”

Large amounts of fake news also serve to sap the resources of targeted government agencies, which must dedicate substantial time and energy debunking and countering  disinformation. We should not underestimate the distractive effects that this can have on government.

Rampant disinformation also serves to create an information environment in which there no longer is an objective truth, in which facts and numbers no longer have any use. Opinion, popularity contests and populism thus benefit when such an environment has been created. This problem is also compounded by the fact that, largely thanks to the Internet and social media, actual experts in their field have been increasingly sidelined by opinion makers. Whoever shouts loudest or is best at attracting large followings, gets the ear of the public, while individuals with expertise often are ignored, their claims portrayed as “fake news,” “biased,” or cooked up by one’s political opponent. Views have also become so entrenched that fact-checking is itself treated as “fake news,” as are accounts by media described by politicians as having been “bought” by a political party or engaging in “fake reporting.”

It’s also unclear the extent to which disinformation can help a particular political candidate or sway an election, unless the race is a very close one. Sustained disinformation, especially when it touches on people’s livelihood, can help mobilize and increase voter turnout for a favored candidate, which probably was the case in some ridings during the November 2018 local elections.

Future challenges

(1) improved use of AI by China to generate false content, especially in the digital sphere, such as “deep fakes”; self-learning software will always be one step ahead of measures taken to identify disinformation;

(2) the vagaries of Taiwan’s politics always creates the possibility that parties and officials will be elected who do not regard the threat of Chinese disinformation as a major threat to Taiwan’s democracy — the loss of a DPP/green alliance majority in the LY following next January’s elections could complicate efforts to reform or pass bills to address those issues;

(3) implications of media access to the Chinese market — what if Facebook eventually were allowed to operate in China? At what cost to Taiwan?

What can be done?

It is unlikely there is a perfect solution to counter all this, or that the practice will one day cease altogether; but we can certainly find ways to mitigate the impact of disinformation through media literacy, education, proper investment in our news institutions, and responsible journalism.

It is also incumbent upon the government to update laws on libel to better protect investigative journalists and academics. Much higher thresholds for lawsuits should apply when the targeted intellectual is a well-regarded expert with a track record of responsible work and the plaintiff is part of efforts by an authoritarian regime to silence its critics and encourage self-censorship. Otherwise, Taiwan will remain a jurisdictional heaven for those who seek to silence inquiry.

Collaboration with social media companies and likeminded democratic governments will be essential. This was demonstrated recently with actions by Facebook to prevent the sharing of content on its platform from sites which had been identified as content farms, and the shutting down of several Facebook pages and fan groups which were known to be spreading disinformation.

This article is adapted from a keynote speech delivered by the author at the Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Taiwan International Journalism Conference — “Disinformation: Time for Solutions” — held at the Central Library in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 27. 

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