At the height of the on-going controversial pension reforms debate in Taiwan, LINE—the most popular messaging application on the island—and internet users reportedly began seeing a flood of messages and numerous websites that falsely claimed that the central government was planning to impose draconian restrictions on pensioners (Liberty Times, July 18, 2017). Alerted by the potential instability that such rumors may cause in a society already on edge over the issue, the Taiwan government quickly issued a statement denying the fake news (Pension.president.gov.tw, July 17, 2017). According to Taiwan’s national security apparatuses, a growing volume of disinformation are the products of “content farms” (內容农场) emerging from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (Liberty Times, July 18, 2017).
The disinformation campaign concerning the pension reform is one example in a long history of the use of propaganda and disinformation as political tools across the Taiwan Strait. While Taiwan may have enjoyed an advantage at the beginning of the information war due to access to more resources and technology (e.g., help from the United States), that advantage is eroding as Beijing, while remaining a close authoritarian government, exploits the openness and transparency of Taiwan’s democratic and economic system to unduly influence Taiwan. Unchecked, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda and disinformation campaigns could have a corrosive effect on Taiwan’s democracy.
CCP Propaganda and Disinformation: 1949-1991
Propaganda and disinformation are used by the PRC as tools for political and psychological warfare (Project 2049, October 14, 2013). During the Chinese Civil War, both the Communist and Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) armies spread false information to sow discord in enemy-controlled areas, spreading rumors about defections, falsifying enemy attack plans, and stirring up unrest in an effort to misdirect enemy planning. After the Nationalist government relocated to Taiwan in 1949, the propaganda and disinformation war continued as the two sides flooded propaganda and disinformation into enemy-controlled territories to affect public opinion and troop morale.
Starting in the 1950s and continuing until the 1990s, the two sides were engaged in an intense ‘Taiwan Strait psychological war’ (台海心战). Following the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958, while the two governments were locked in an intense international diplomatic contest, engagements were limited to covert operations, subterfuge, and other efforts to encourage defections by enemy officers through psychological warfare. Ground-zero of the psychological war was between ROC-controlled Kinmen (金門) and PRC-controlled Xiamen (厦門), where the two sides used megaphones and radio stations to spread propaganda and disinformation into enemy territory. They utilized balloons and floating carriers to send leaflets and other objects seeking defectors, promising rewards and small gifts including underwear, toys, and cooking oil, among other messages meant to exert a psychological effect on the targeted population (Phoenix TV, 2013). In an instructive example of how the CCP used propaganda and disinformation, in 1971 the PLA blasted propaganda leaflets over Kinmen touting the military successes of the Khmer Rouge (the CCP’s allies) against the United States. The timing was not coincidental: in the same year Taipei was replaced by Beijing in the United Nations, and Communist triumphs in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia had left the government in Taiwan panic-stricken. The propaganda touting a Communist victory was apparently meant to amplify the fear among the people at the time that the United States was unable to protect Taiwan .
Cross-Strait relations began to liberalize in the 1980s and the CCP officially shuttered its overt propaganda program from Xiamen in 1991 (FTV News, October 13, 2013). On the surface, the war without gunfire that had lasted for over 40 years appeared to be over—this could not be farther from the truth. Rather, propaganda and disinformation found new outlets in the mass media and now new media (Heritage Foundation, July 12, 2013).
A New Media Environment in Taiwan
New information and communication technologies has magnified propaganda and disinformation to an unprecedented degree. The viral aspect of social media has made it an effective tool for propaganda and disinformation. Taiwan has one of the highest Internet usage rates in the world, at 82.3 percent in 2017 (Focus Taiwan, December 29, 2017), as well as a smartphone penetration rate of 73.4 percent (Emarketer.com, December 16, 2016)—second in the world only behind Denmark. Taiwan also boasts a robust ICT industry with the sixteenth fastest Internet speeds in the world and fifth fastest in the Asia-Pacific (Taipei Times, June 12, 2017). The two most popular social media platforms in Taiwan are Facebook and LINE. For instance, 75 percent of the population of Taiwan used Line in 2015. PTT, a bulletin-board service system similar to Reddit, is also popular (Oxford University, June 16, 2017).
CCP Propaganda and Disinformation on Social Media
The CCP uses social media in a number of ways to spread propaganda and disinformation in its influence operations against Taiwan, as noted by analyst J. Michael Cole (Taiwan Sentinel, January 19, 2017).
One important way is circulating fake imagery, in the hopes that it will go viral and be picked up on by traditional media outlets in Taiwan. In one instance, an image was posted on social media showing Chinese bombers flying near Taiwan’s Jade Mountain. This photo was likely posted to instill fear in the hearts of the Taiwanese public. Even though Taiwan’s defense ministry denied the veracity of the image, the denial came after the photo had already been widely shared (Taiwan Sentinel, January 19, 2017).
Another time-honored tactic, reinvigorated by the social media era, is deliberately obscuring or misquoting statements made by Taiwanese persons, usually officials or ex-officials—whether in forums held in China or in interviews—in order to tarnish the person’s reputation or mislead the readers into believing that the person supports a particular political position held by the CCP. These tactics, used by both China and Hong Kong-based media, have ensnared retired former generals, high-level defense officials, lawmakers, and even entertainers in a host of political controversies (The National Interest, July 30, 2017).
The CCP also uses proxy organizations to spread fake news. Taiwan is a democracy with a diverse civil society, an openness which can also make it vulnerable. And indeed, observers have noticed a troubling uptick in the infiltration of Taiwan’s civil society by proxy organizations associated with CCP’s United Front Work Department, with possible financial ties to the PRC government (USCC.gov, April 5). These United Front organizations may then be used to propagate disinformation, as was reported in the case of some anti-pension groups, and counter perspectives from other segments of Taiwan’s civil society (Liberty Times, July 18, 2017).
Finally, the CCP has also begun to use computational propaganda, in the form of bots, social media, and content farms, to saturate Taiwan’s information space with pro-Beijing political propaganda. According to J. Michael Cole:
… computational propaganda has allowed Beijing to insert itself into the battleground of domestic Taiwanese politics, so much so that various (dis)information campaigns can no longer be solely attributed to the KMT and other pan-blue forces, which adds to the confusion. In recent cases, Chinese disinformation efforts have overlapped with—and in some cases appear to have co-opted—traditional blocking action by opposition legislators and civic groups opposed to reforms. These recent cases include protests against pension reform, government plans to limit the (environmentally unfriendly) burning of large quantities of incense and ghost money at Buddhist temples, and limits for the Tsai administration’s Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program” (Oxford University, June 16, 2017).
The CCP has a long history of using propaganda and disinformation against Taiwan. In social media it has found a fertile information environment to amplify its time-honed tactics of political and psychological warfare. Flooding Taiwan’s society with propaganda and disinformation can weaken its people’s trust in democratic institutions and lead to political instability.
The challenge is not lost on Taiwanese officials and civil society. For instance, Taiwan government is reportedly taking a long-term approach, attempting to tackle the problem of fake news through public education by including topics such as “media literacy” on the curriculum in schools (TIME, April 7, 2017). To counter the challenge of dubious news sources on LINE, private developers created a bot that will inform users whether or not a suspicious links is providing false information, and provide relevant facts on the issue (Oxford University, June 16, 2017). Taiwan’s national security apparatuses have also reportedly ramped up surveillance programs to monitor the connections and finances of potential proxy groups and individuals with ties to Beijing (Taipei Times, March 13, 2018).
In general, propaganda and disinformation exploits the openness of democratic institutions and can undermine the people’s ability as citizens to think and act effectively and collectively. The CCP’s ultimate goal is the subjugation of Taiwan under the PRC, and propaganda and disinformation are means to weakening morale and people’s resistance towards that political end.
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief. The views expressed in this article are his own. He served as Editor of China Brief from 2007-2011.
- For an overview of these and other CCP psychological warfare techniques at the time, see this extensive article by SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.): https://www.psywarrior.com/NationalistChinesePropaganda.html.