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Post-election analysis of Taiwan's models for combating disinformation

fot. PAP/ Wiktor Dąbkowski
fot. PAP/ Wiktor Dąbkowski

A few months before Taiwan's presidential and parliamentary elections, the People's Republic of China (PRC) intensified its disinformation offensive. China’s propaganda focused on security, economic stability, and Taiwan-US relations. Politicians including outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai) and his deputy, Hsiao Bi-khim, became targets. On 13 January 2024, Ching-te won the presidential election, Hsiao Bi-khim will be vice-president and the DPP's victory guarantees that Taiwan will continue its sovereign and assertive policy towards PRC.

From Beijing's perspective, the massive disinformation attack did not have the desired effect, but experts point out that information warfare is using increasingly insidious methods, which should be particularly worrying in the ‘Super Election Year’.

In 2024, around 2 billion voters will go to the polls in more than 60 countries.
In November 2023, the ‘Taiwan Insight’ website published an article by Margaret Siu and Tommy Hall, entitled 'Cyber Security and National Security in Taiwan and Japan'. The authors pointed out that Taiwan's geopolitical position, particularly its complex relationship with the PRC, places the country at the centre of digital political conflict, especially in terms of cooperation with other Asian countries or the US in strengthening cybersecurity. They also stressed the importance of the anti-US narrative, one of Mainland China’s favourite propaganda tools, that is “a targeted campaign to erode the foundation of Taiwan-US relations, shifting from critiques of unbalanced exchanges to allegations of abandonment and exploitation.”

According to the authors, “This is exacerbated by the concept of ‘US Scepticism’, a term coined by Kuang-Shun Yang of US-Taiwan Watch. It represents a series of narratives, often promoted by PRC-linked entities, that encourage Taiwan to distance itself from the United States, aiming to destabilise Taiwanese politics. These narratives, gaining momentum, especially after the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, portray the US as an unreliable ally, influencing Taiwan’s foreign policy and public opinion.

“To effectively counter ‘US Scepticism’ and escalating cyber threats, Taiwan is adopting an all-encompassing approach. This strategy involves improving information accessibility and fostering digital literacy alongside deploying strategic communication and embracing multidisciplinary research. Key to this strategy is the government’s support for initiatives like the Taiwan Pàng-phuānn Association of Education’s workshops. These workshops play a pivotal role in heightening public awareness and underscoring the necessity of discerning credible information. By educating a wide spectrum of the population, from students to senior citizens, these workshops are instrumental in building a society well-versed in navigating the complexities of the digital age. This comprehensive approach not only combats misinformation and cyber threats but also bolsters the democratic fabric of Taiwan by empowering its citizens with the knowledge and skills to critically evaluate and engage with information in the cyber realm,” the article read.

The Taiwan Pàng-phuān Education Association's workshops were initiated to familiarise the public with the dangers of manipulation and disinformation. Not exclusively the domain of the government, as they are also organised by NGOs and fact-checking agencies such as the Taiwan FactCheck Foundation (TFC), Cofacts and Doublethink Labs. Each of these entities is dedicated to exposing fake news and observing content published in Taiwanese traditional and social media. From the perspective of Central Europe and the war in Ukraine, it is worth mentioning that Taiwanese fact-checking agencies have been following and analysing Russian propaganda since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. They highlight similarities with the propaganda used by China against Taiwan.

"We are following the Russian disinformation campaign against Ukraine because we see similarities to the narrative that the PRC is using against Taiwan. Initially, the Russian narrative portrayed Ukraine as a solitary state that no one in Europe cares about, an antisemitic, Nazi state that needs to be 'purged'. At the same time, Russia emphasised the civilisational, linguistic and cultural community between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, with an emphasis on the supposed brotherhood of the two nations, and that they should be one country. The PRC in its propaganda towards Taiwan also emphasises that Taiwan is part of them," Wu Min Hsuan, known as Ttcat, a co-founder and CEO of the Doublethink Lab, told FakeHunter.

Indeed, on the Doublethink Lab website there are not only analyses of the impact of disinformation campaigns in Taiwan or the broader picture of Beijing propaganda, but also reports revealing the manipulative narratives of the Russian Federation concerning Ukraine as well as those that juxtapose the PRC’s disinformation with Russian propaganda.

A particularly interesting example of an analysis that takes into account the Russia-PRC-Ukraine thread is an article by Doublethink Lab’s analyst Jerry Yu: ‘How Ukraine has been Nazified in the Chinese information space?’

Jerry Yu stressed that his analysis "highlights the tug-of-war for influence across the Chinese diaspora and the ability of Chinese state media to shape public opinion even as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party – FH) government refrains from taking an official line.” He added that “cooperation between Chinese and Russian state media is a major factor. Russia Today (RT) in 2015 signed a cooperation agreement with China Central Television, and China Central Radio and Television have both cooperated with state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta to jointly produce Sino-Russian headlines since 2018. In addition, Russian official media, including the Sputnik news agency, publish news in Chinese for Chinese readers and operate Weibo accounts.”
“Chinese-language Russian state media accounts pushed the denazification angle prior to the invasion, before Chinese state media (Global Times/CGTN etc.) picked up President Putin’s anti-NATO expansion reasoning upon the outbreak of hostilities, and later went on to focus on the denazification angle themselves, citing Russian government officials’ speeches and statements,” he wrote. 

“Chinese state-linked media blogs encouraged a sense of solidarity between Russia and China on the basis of mutual suffering at the hands of “foreign forces interfering in internal affairs” and foreign-funded Nazism,” Yu added and stressed that “prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, discourse around “Ukrainian Nazis” was unfamiliar to Chinese-speaking communities, and the subject received no noteworthy attention in the Chinese media environment. Post-invasion, Chinese official media, blog and video platforms are awash with content related to Ukrainian Nazism.”

Yu also analysed Chinese-Russian propaganda in Taiwan’s media. “In Taiwan’s relatively freer media environment, similar content began appearing on the Facebook accounts of prominent pro-China figures, starting with Wang Ping-Chung, a long-time advocate of unification with China. In a Feb. 22 post, concurrent with Putin’s speech establishing a basis for the invasion, Wang alleged that the Ukrainian government condoned the brutal massacres of Russians in the contested area of Eastern Ukraine by far-right Nazi forces,” he wrote.
The authors of the ‘Taiwan Insight’ article also mentioned Russian propaganda in a context broader than the war in Ukraine. When analysing the revision of Japan's National Security Strategy, they stressed that “the updated National Security Strategy of Japan marks a decisive shift towards a more assertive stance in information warfare, a move partly motivated by the hybrid warfare techniques seen in the Ukraine conflict. Key to this strategy is the establishment of a new governmental structure dedicated to the collection and analysis of disinformation from foreign sources. This initiative underscores the critical importance of tackling this modern warfare dimension. This proactive approach goes beyond mere defence against cyberattacks; it involves the anticipatory neutralisation of potential cyber threats. In this light, Japan’s proactive approach is following trends set out by the U.S.’s cyber-security strategy, including modernising cyber defences, integrating government bodies responsible for response, and making attempts to ’disrupt and dismantle‘ malicious actors before they have a chance to strike first.”

Pork scare

After the election in Taiwan information that Chinese leader Xi Jing Ping had called Lai Ching-te to congratulate him was published on social media. It was fact-checked by the Taiwan FactCheck Foundation (TFC). In its report, the TFC wrote that this was fake news. The TFC was established in April 2018, as an initiative of two NGOs: the Association for Quality Journalism and the Taiwan Media Watch Foundation. The TFC reports provide a detailed account of all major disinformation narratives targeting Taiwan.

In December 2023, the TFC published an analysis: ‘Where has the pork gone? The disinformation narratives targeting food safety during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election’ on false narratives spread in Taiwan. Why pork? As the report's author, Wei-Ping-Li, PhD, explained, such disinformation has been a regular feature of any election over the past three years, including the latest presidential and parliamentary elections. The genesis of this narrative can be traced back to 2021, when “Taiwan relaxed the ban on importing US pork containing a certain amount of ractopamine, a feed additive that is typically used to increase the leanness of meat but may be harmful to human health if consumed in excess,” he wrote.

“The hope was that by allowing more pork imports from the United States, Taiwan would increase its chances of negotiating free trade agreements with the United States. However, the additive-added American pork raised concerns about food safety. The question of whether to reintroduce the prohibition on importing ractopamine-containing pork was also included as one of the issues in the national referendum held in late 2021, in which 51.2% of voters said ‘no’ to reintroducing the ban,” Wei-Ping-Li wrote. 

Nonetheless, concerns about American-imported pork have still lingered in the minds of many Taiwanese people. Since then, disinformation regarding imported pork has haunted Taiwanese society. In 2023, pork was joined by eggs imported from Brazil that were recalled in September 2023 due to mislabelled expiry dates. Thus, the disinformation about the safety of ractopamine pork returned, along with falsehoods concerning eggs. 
According to Wei-Ping-Li, in addition to taking advantage of current events, the ractopamine pork disinformation would also appear during the Chinese Lunar New Year, when the Taiwanese prepare food to celebrate the lunar spring festival. “With the approaching 2024 Taiwanese presidential election, the old disinformation returned in November 2023. ‘The Taiwanese pork was tested positive for containing ractopamine higher than the standard’ as information emerged again,” he wrote.

“The first peak (of disinformation – FH) was when a pro-China Hong Kong media outlet published an article about the testing of Taiwanese pork. The second peak was after the referendum held in December 2021. The third peak was in January 2023, after the local elections held in November 2022. We observe another peak in November 2023 before the 2024 presidential election, which is scheduled to take place in January 2024,” the report read.
The author added that “the narratives of disinformation about ractopamine pork across all these years, including those spread during 2023 before the 2024 presidential election, focused on two themes. The first disinformation theme claimed that the Taiwanese government assisted merchants in lying about the origin of the pork… The disinformation further claimed that the imported American pork could have been labelled as Taiwanese products to cheat consumers. This type of disinformation was designed to raise people’s concerns that they had unknowingly consumed items derived from American pork that contained an unhealthy amount of ractopamine.”
Wei-Ping-Li recalled one of the disinformation pieces in which the narrator asked the rhetorical question “Where has the pork gone!?” The answer, according to the narrator, was that the government allowed merchants to import pigs so that the pigs could be slaughtered and their meat could be processed in Taiwan and labelled as a product of Taiwan.

In the report’s summary he wrote that “compared with disinformation trends in the elections of past years, false information about food safety is more prevalent in this election. Part of the reason was due to several food-related incidents this year, ranging from the food safety concern triggered by the release of treated Fukushima nuclear wastewater to the recall of imported eggs. These events offered opportunities for disinformation actors to generate and spread false information. Using ingredients gathered from old disinformation and facts about current events, the disinformation actors pushed the wrong pieces of information into the mainstream and social media. The ultimate goal was to stoke fears and direct wrath at political parties and candidates.”

War narratives

Spreading disinformation to make the public fearful of consuming toxic food is one side of the disinformation. The other is using manipulation to heighten the Taiwanese people's fear of a possible armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait while undermining confidence in the Taiwanese government and army. As relations between Taiwan and Mainland China deteriorated, such disinformation became a regular feature of the information war. Comparing the PRC's armed forces with Taiwan's combat capabilities, undermining confidence in the United States as an ally willing to defend Taiwan against aggressors, highlighting alleged unfulfilled US promises to Taiwan—these were the instruments used by the PRC in its propaganda.

In another report, “Inciting anxiety about the looming war - the disinformation narratives about the possible Taiwan Strait crisis during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election” the TFC wrote that “in addition to emphasizing the military gap (between the PRC and Taiwan armies – FH), the disinformation creators use current international events, such as the ongoing war in Gaza, to remind audiences of the dire consequences of war, sending the message that avoiding war with China is the best option for the Taiwanese.”

TFC analysts compiled the main narrative threads used to intimidate the Taiwanese people. Among them there were fake news, such as “the Taiwanese government has started drafting citizens, even older people, to prepare for the war” or “high-ranking Taiwanese politicians and Taiwanese citizens are fleeing Taiwan.”
Similar narratives were identified by the TFC in 2022 on Facebook, such as “The Taiwanese military is dragging citizens into combat” or “the U.S. will destroy important assets of Taiwan, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)” 

In April 2023, possible support from the US for Taiwan was discredited by fake news on social media. In a Facebook post, its author wrote that when a Chinese aircraft carrier entered Taiwan's eastern waters, the US quickly ordered the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier to pull out to Japan “at full speed.” 
The rumour of conscription of "everyone, regardless of age" fell on fertile ground as it began to be spread on social media at a time when there was a growing call for preparation for civil defence in Taiwanese society, and the Taiwanese Defence Ministry proposed to amend the law “All-out Defence Mobilisation Readiness Act”. According to the draft of the new legislation and its Article 16, the government had to prepare a plan of how to mobilise civilians to ensure that the country has proper preparation in peacetime and adequate resources during a national emergency.

“Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education discussed maintaining a list of Taiwanese students older than 16 for emergency preparation. Some major Taiwanese media outlets then inflated these proposals, claiming that the government planned to force young people to manufacture weapons, or even deploy students to fight. On social media, there were also false and exaggerated reports that students would be drafted into the military. For instance, identical posts spread on social media, asserting that ‘the All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act means the military can enter the school to drag students away and force them to serve the military. Even teachers don’t have the right to stop them’,” the report read.

Wei-Ping Li, who prepared the report, wrote that “the proposed Article 16 made no changes to the enlistment of students. Even the plan discussed in the Ministry of Education does not include sending students to battle. As a matter of fact, the rule for engaging the youth in the emergency preparation plan has been in the All-Out Defense Mobilization Law and other related laws for many years. No regulations in Taiwan would allow the government or the military to draft students from the campus, either.” He added that “in May 2023, another wave of disinformation arose again. One of the threads showed an image of a Taipei City government notification suggesting that an 80-year-old citizen had been called for a civil defense drill… Later that month, another piece of misinformation was spread based on the ‘old man has to fight in the war’ story, claiming that ‘in addition to requiring the elderly to serve, the decommissioned age for reserve force members is increased’.”

During 2022 and 2023, the US government approved arms sales and military aid programmes to Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, disinformation creators exploited these sales to taint the relationship between Taiwan and the US, with a particular emphasis that the weapons sold to Taiwan were dangerous or useless. Another piece of disinformation aimed at arms sales said that the arms or fighter jets the Americans sold to Taiwan were still under the remote control of the US and would not function unless the US gave permission. Furthermore, it presented the United States as a paper tiger that may desert Taiwan at a critical moment.
Disinformation aimed at undermining Taiwan's relationship with the US had another twist. In July 2023, the Taiwanese media outlet ‘United Daily News’ (UDN) published an article ‘Does America Want Taiwan to Build a P4 Laboratory to Develop Biological Weapons?’ The article allegedly revealed information about a top-secret plot to develop biological weapons in Taiwan at the request of the US. The news spread widely on the island and even in the US, thus an unnamed spokesperson from the US Department of State stated said that the UDN’s report had no factual basis. The story was fake news and part of a Chinese disinformation campaign.

Personal attacks—"from dual citizenship" to "secret history"

In addition to the narrative directed to Taiwanese people's sense of security, candidates running in the election were victims of manipulation. One target of such attacks was Hsiao Bi-khim, Lai Ching-te's deputy and currently Taiwan's vice-president-elect. Prior to the presidential election, posts appeared on social media stating that “Hsiao Bi-khim has dual citizenship and should not run for election” with a link to newspaper article from November 2000 showing that Taiwan's vice-presidential candidate had US citizenship. This article was published a year and a half before she renounced her US citizenship. On 5 December 2023, the Taiwan Election Commission ruled that she, like other candidates in the election, met the conditions for citizenship. Taiwan prohibits individuals with dual citizenship from running for public office.

Wu Min Hsuan said that the president-elect, Lai Ching-te (to be sworn in on 20 May 2024), was among the main targets of disinformation in Taiwan's election campaign. “He has been accused of corruption, tax evasion, and false information about his personal life were spread to discredit him,” the Doublethink Lab co-founder added.
The information war also reached out to Taiwan's outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, to whom a 300-page e-book 'The Secret History of Tsai Ing-wen' was dedicated. It was an attack not only on her but also on Lai Ching-te. The publication portrayed Tsai Ing-wen as a corrupt person devoid of any moral brakes. The e-book was published in December 2023 in the open online repository Zenodo. The publication was followed by AI-generated videos that flooded social media.

On 11 January 2023, the case was analysed by the daily ‘Taipei Times’. It quoted a government official who said that “the content’s creation and spread bore the characteristic traits of an informational operation by the Chinese Ministry of State Security.” The videos, which were being shared about 100 times per minute, were promptly replaced if deleted. The AI-generated videos used virtual hosts, including characters that resembled Chinese-speaking anchors, foreigners, and in at least one instance, Santa Claus. According to the official quoted by the ‘Taipei Times’, “the content did not generate high rates of engagement due to the low production quality, including the artificial appearance and voice of the virtual hosts, and the use of Chinese-language terms not commonly used by the Taiwanese.”

Austin Wang, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, echoed the official’s assessment. “The flood of videos suggests that Beijing has the ability to create the impression that the material is generating public,” Wang said and added: that “its scale far exceeded anything we tracked before.”

The AI Taiwan Labs phenomenon—censorship is not an option

The intensity with which internet trolls exploited some topics and which accounts were used during the election was analysed regularly by the Taiwan AI Labs agency. The agency's reports had dozens of pages and were an example of comprehensive coverage of topics, methods, goals, and transmission channels of internet trolls.
“We are not a fact-check center. We are AI Labs, the first open AI research institute to expose and evaluate the abuse of technology. At the same time, we assess the danger of GenAI. We are not government nor social media funded. We also expose the bias and misuse of technologies of commercial social media. We think that fact-checking is not effective, so we don’t do it. We detect information manipulation: Taiwan AI Labs' approach is not based on fact-checking. We are using a large language model (LLM) to detect cognitive warfare by understanding troll accounts’ behaviours on a large scale.

We don't encourage censorship, as content censorship became the tools for dictators. We educate the general public to use AI tools to evaluate and reveal manipulation,” Ethan Tu, the Taiwan AI Labs founder, told FakeHunter.

“Taiwan is facing continuous information manipulation. There are hundreds of attacks daily. It is not meaningful to tell which is the first. According to our observations, the first cluster attacks in scale related to the Taiwan 2024 election occurred in March 2023 when President Tsia visited the United State. The state-run media, including taiwan.cn, ChinaNews and FJTV, distributed distorted narratives that are spread out by foreign troll account groups. China state media as well as TikTok help to spread distorted stories,” he said.“Among these, I would single out the narrative that ‘Ms. Tsia met Kevin McCarthy (at that time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives – FH) in California. She is afraid of bringing war to Taiwan if Kevin McCarthy goes to Taiwan’. Others would be that ‘Ms. Tsia's meeting (in the US – FH) got cancelled to show the bad relationship between Taiwan and the United States’ or that ‘Ms. Tsia's crew smuggled cigarettes during her visit to the US’,” he added.
Ethan Tu also cited the example of information manipulation regarding a shortage of eggs in Taiwan. “It leveraged a slight shortage of eggs and created a large volume of narratives on social media convincing people to rush into stocking eggs. After successfully amplifying the chaos, it started to inject misinformation or disinformation to attack the government's policies and efforts. When the government debunked the narratives, the troll accounts massively debunked ‘the debunked’. Each time when users tried to discuss these issues in a neutral and understandable way, they were attacked by troll accounts.”

One of the most interesting solutions proposed by Taiwan AI Labs is the Infodemic platform, which uses AI to detect manipulation. Using the platform, any information can be checked, regardless of its format—it can be a URL, an image, a video, or a sentence.
On 17 January 2024, Taiwan AI Labs released the report ‘2024 Taiwan Presidential Election Information Manipulation AI Observation’. It was the world's first report on election manipulation created with the help of LLM and multiple AI models.
"With many countries holding elections in 2024, Taiwan has become a benchmark for the impact of foreign disinformation operations around the world as the first democratic country to hold elections in 2024 and as a pioneer in the use of AI technology to track disinformation during elections," Ethan Tu said during a press conference accompanying publication of the report. He also expressed hope that it might be Taiwan that sets out rules for AI risk assessment and a code of conduct based on the concept of "protecting digital rights" rather than censoring content, which, he said, could threaten freedom of expression.

In 2024, around 2 billion voters will go to the polls in more than 60 countries around the world. That's about a quarter of the world's population. This is why 2024 is called the ’Super Election Year’. People in the United States, Mexico, India and Indonesia, European Union member states, and Poland, among others, will head to the polls. The Taiwanese were the first, and their experience in information warfare could be an inspiration for others to build a better resilience of the information space against propaganda and disinformation activities.

Prepared by Olga Doleśniak-Harczuk