As Taiwan prepares for its crucial presidential election next month, the island is bracing itself against a flood of disinformation, primarily originating from China. This disinformation campaign is not only a threat to Taiwan’s electoral integrity but also a test of its resilience against external influence.
At the center of Taiwan’s defense against this flood of misinformation is a series of innovative fact-checking applications, such as the chatbot Auntie Meiyu. These applications have become increasingly important in the island’s fight against false information. Auntie Meiyu, for instance, actively debunks various rumors, ranging from unscientific Covid-19 treatments to fake speeches and fraudulent reports. This fact-checking intervention is vital for Taiwan, a vibrant democracy of 23.5 million people, especially as it gears up for an election under the shadow of Beijing’s increasing hostility.
Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, which it has never controlled, has intensified its efforts to influence the upcoming election. This is not just limited to election seasons; Taiwan is continuously targeted due to its precarious geopolitical position. Stockholm University’s Varieties of Democracy Project noted Taiwan as the top receiver of disinformation from outside its borders for the tenth consecutive year.
Taiwan’s security agencies are on high alert. A recent closed-door security briefing attended by CNN revealed that China aims to influence Taiwan’s election through various means, including disinformation and economic operations. A senior Taiwanese security official pointed out, “They hope that the party they dislike will lose the election,” referring to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which asserts Taiwan’s sovereignty and has strengthened ties with Western powers.
The election sees Vice President Lai Ching-te of the DPP, disliked by Chinese officials, leading the polls against Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang party and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, both perceived as more favorable to Beijing. China’s cognitive warfare operations, including content farms and fake social media accounts, focus on amplifying narratives favorable to China-friendly candidates.
Additionally, tactics such as impersonating genuine news websites, manipulating Taiwanese television soundbites, and illicitly funding local news organizations in Taiwan have been employed. A notable piece of disinformation involved rumors about Hsiao Bi-khim, the DPP’s vice-presidential candidate, being a US citizen, which was debunked by the Taiwan FactCheck Center.
China’s influence isn’t limited to the digital sphere. It also exerts pressure on Taiwanese businesses and politicians, offering incentives for promoting pro-Beijing candidates. CNN’s request for comment from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office on these allegations remained unanswered.
Taiwan’s history shows that China’s attempts to sway voters haven’t always been successful. In the 1996 presidential election, Beijing’s missile threats intended to intimidate voters backfired, resulting in a landslide victory for the pro-independence candidate Lee Teng-hui. Similarly, despite Chinese warnings, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, from the DPP, won two consecutive terms.
Experts like Puma Shen, an associate professor at National Taipei University, highlight that China’s disinformation campaign often targets independent and young voters. Shen, who is running for a legislative position with the DPP, notes that researchers can sometimes link these campaigns to Chinese authorities by analyzing the IP addresses and automation of the accounts spreading rumors.
Taiwanese security officials also warn of China’s potential “false flag” operations that could justify military actions against Taiwan. An incident involving a fabricated report about Taiwan developing biological weapons, later refuted by both Washington and Taipei, raised concerns about such tactics.
Despite these challenges, Taiwan is determined to safeguard its democracy. Chen Pei-huang, a senior journalist at the Taiwan FactCheck Center, emphasizes the importance of promoting media literacy alongside fact-checking, as an informed public is less likely to fall prey to misinformation.
Unfortunately, the freedom that Taiwan experiences in it democratic system allows China to infiltrate to propagandize Taiwan’s election and attempt to change the results. This is being done overtly. You can bet that powerful covert methods are underway as well. These are exceedingly powerful techniques.
It is possible that Taiwan could be subverted into voluntarily reuniting with China?