The Online Assault Against Taiwan

January 03, 2024
China has waged information warfare against the island ahead of its presidential elections.

2024 is a “super-election” year. From Indonesia to the United States, and from India to South Africa, many of the world’s major democracies are holding votes. Arguably one of the most consequential will be Taiwan’s on January 13, the importance of which is reflected in the ferocity of China’s disinformation campaign. At the core of Beijing’s strategy is installing fear in the Taiwanese that they face a critical choice.

The Taiwanese are politically engaged, with nearly 75% participating in the last presidential election in 2020. They are also a dynamic electorate. In this election, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led the polls for months, sometimes by as much as 20 percentage points. Yet the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) has seen a sudden surge in the final leg of the race, which has left Taiwan-watchers scratching their heads. Could Chinese information warfare be behind the move?

In November 2023, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which oversees cross-strait ties, made known its dissatisfaction with the island’s fractured opposition. Unhappy with the DPP, it released a statement noting that “Taiwan faces a choice between peace and war, between prosperity and decline.” The statement also warned against keeping the DPP in power. The opposition KMT has a similar view: It sees a DPP vote as one that could lead to conflict. 

China has used disinformation to interfere in previous Taiwanese elections, but two major features of the current campaign were much less present in the 2020 election. One is the narrative that the 2024 vote is a choice between peace and war. The other seeks to cement the impression that Taiwan is isolated and that the United States will not come to its aid in a crisis. 

A recent report from the nonprofit Taiwan FactCheck Center highlights the differences between the two campaigns. It notes that, in 2020, the focus was on disinformation related to vote-rigging and attacks on candidates. But in the current campaign, stirring up security fears and fostering distrust of the United States have been priorities. Multiple Chinese military exercises near Taiwan have attempted to hammer these points home. That is also new.

A similarly coordinated campaign was seen in August 2022 when former US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen. An online disinformation campaign claiming that Beijing had decided to evacuate Chinese citizens from Taiwan coincided with a large-scale People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drill that encircled the island.

The purpose of the disinformation was to generate a sense of urgency, suggesting that a Chinese attack was imminent. Opinion polls, however, indicated that the strategy was ineffective. A significant majority of Taiwanese, 78%, said they were not afraid. Only 17% expressed fear. Still, a continuous stream of disinformation can have a cumulative effect, leading to a gradual, long-term shift in public opinion. And the Chinese strategy is, in fact, persistent. A fake video that allegedly showed a missile passing over Taiwan accompanied a Chinese military drill last April, when Tsai visited the United States. The Taiwan FactCheck Center quickly revealed that the footage had been shot elsewhere. Another video, whose release coincided with a subsequent PLA exercise and DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te’s August visit to the United States, was captioned “China’s People’s Liberation Army has gathered in Fuzhou!”, referring to a city on the Chinese side of the Taiwan Strait. The video showed a convoy of more than a dozen tanks advancing on a highway. The location was later determined to be Shijiazhuang, an inland Chinese city, but the images by then had gone viral. What all the videos have in common is a subliminal link between DPP and war.

Images that are altered or used out of context are a common technique in China’s disinformation campaign. Footage appeared last April to spread disinformation about the crash of a US military aircraft in the South China Sea, but the crash in fact occurred in 1999 in American waters. On the other hand, in an effort to emphasize the PLA’s superiority, a picture of a spacecraft was released with the caption “China successfully tests space bomber.” The image was found to be from a video game.

Seeing Is Believing

A report from the Information Operations Research Group reveals that individuals using the Chinese social media platform TikTok are more inclined than others to believe Chinese posts. The study also shows that slightly over half of TikTok users, 51.8%, think the current DPP government’s pro-American stance is provoking China and might result in a cross-strait war. Those in this slim majority are also more likely to vote for opposition presidential candidates, including the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih.

As for the effort to instill skepticism about the United States’ coming to Taiwan’s assistance, this has involved distortion of remarks by Joel Vowell, the commanding general of US Army Japan. Vowell’s comment meant to confirm that the United States would join Japan in protecting regional stability was edited in such a way that his words could be construed to mean an abandonment of Taiwan.

More recently, battlefield scenes from Gaza have captured the attention of Taiwanese audiences. Those who post the images, particularly those with Chinese-language descriptions, seek to convey a lesson about the horrors of war and stress the importance of avoiding a similar conflict with China.

In a wider context, China may be using Taiwan as a testing ground for future information warfare campaigns. The many 2024 elections in major democracies present Beijing with more opportunities to exert influence, even if it is unlikely to expend the same level of resources on these countries as it does on Taiwan. Still, a better understanding and countering of Chinese electoral interference methods, particularly disinformation, is crucial for preserving the integrity of democratic processes worldwide. Taiwan can contribute to this effort by sharing the details of disinformation campaigns aimed at the island, its methods for verifying and eliminating disinformation on social media, and its practices to improve media literacy among voters. Other democracies would undoubtedly benefit from the experience and lessons learned.