Beijing launched a “disinformation campaign” on Taiwan to undermine the island’s democracy and boost its own image last year, researchers in Taipei have found. The campaign took place ahead of Taiwan’s general elections and at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Analysing thousands of online posts from mid-2019 to mid-2020, researchers from DoubleThink Lab traced how content from Beijing-backed actors forwarded a narrative that “democracy was a failure,” worsening ideological rifts within Taiwanese society.

File Photo: Elson Tong/HKFP.

The lab’s full findings were released in a report called “Deafening Whispers” on Monday.

“According to our research, the purposes of China’s information operations are not limited to elections,” the report read. “China aims at propagandizing its governance model and values; that is ‘China’s model is better than Western democracy.'”

“[T]ogether the cacophony of whispers threatens to be deafening: sowing division in Taiwanese society, pushing groups into echo chambers, and attacking fundamental democratic values,” the researchers wrote.

The report identified four ways in which Beijing-backed “fake news” infiltrated the Taiwanese internet: persuading traditional media channels to spread state propaganda, using Chinese nationalist netizens to propagate “low-end” disinformation, manipulating online platforms to spread disinformation for a profit, and collaborating with Taiwanese-users.

Photo: DoubleThink Lab.

“Unlike the previous view that China’s cyber army is only ‘cheerleading’, China’s information operations are also negative and aggressive. They amplify discord, harshly criticise certain ideologies, and fabricate conspiracies,” the report summary read.

“Fake news” about President Tsai Ing-wen failed to block her landslide victory last year, but researchers said Beijing’s disinformation campaign still had lingering effects: “It would be too hasty to assert that China’s information operation was in vain.”

“The attack created a divided society. This scenario, being divided by ideologies, has never been this serious before in Taiwan,” the report concluded.

The report proposed seven ways for countries to resist Beijing’s disinformation campaigns, including legislation tightening regulations on social media platforms and improving transparency in foreign agent registration.

Taiwan has been ruled by the Republic of China government since 1945 after Japan — which occupied the island for 50 years — was defeated in the Second World War. The People’s Republic of China claims that Taiwan is one of its provinces and does not recognise it as an independent country.

‘Testing ground’

DoubleThink Lab’s report said Beijing’s tactics deployed against Taiwan may be similarly implemented in other countries. “We’ve observed that information operations occurring in different countries share similar narrative frames, contents, and techniques with those that have earlier occurred in Taiwan,” the report read.

Photo: cottonbro, via Pexels,

DoubleThink Lab’s chairman Puma Shen said foreign countries needed to be vigilant against “word-of-mouth” rumours spread by Beijing actors that corroborate online conspiracy theories.

“There could be online and offline disinformation… offline rumours locally here could speak to the online information and that could be very effective,” he told HKFP.

“That is something that the world can learn from Taiwan. If [Beijing] can reach the local elites and influencers and spread local rumours, and try to manipulate misinformation on YouTube and Facebook, that could be very influential,” he continued.

Shen added that the research identified users who identified as apolitical as those most likely to believe in online conspiracy theories.

“China is trying to influence the world using this kind of method, information operation… so what we really want to do right now is to raise awareness, not just here in Taiwan but the world,” the academic said.

HKFP has reached out to the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing for comment.

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.