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How Taiwan Should Combat China’s Information War

Beijing assaults Taiwan with a nonstop barrage of conspiracy theories and lies to undermine people’s faith in democracy — and China’s efforts are getting more sophisticated. Taiwan must do even more to fight back. 

By Tim Niven

June 2024

When William Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won Taiwan’s presidential election in January — the party’s third consecutive victory — some observers breathed a sigh of relief: Chinese information manipulation had once again failed to sway the country’s election. Yet a single contest, no matter its outcome, is just one battle in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s wider information war against Taiwan.

Undermining the DPP’s electoral chances is only one of the objectives of the CCP’s information-manipulation efforts. There are at least three others: 1) “selling” the CCP’s governance model to make the prospect of unification more attractive; 2) inducing anxiety about Taiwan’s strategic situation and making resistance seem futile by flexing the asymmetry in military power with China and eroding faith that Taiwan’s allies will come to its aid; and 3) unraveling the fabric of Taiwan’s democracy by undermining people’s attachment to the status quo, driving polarization, and chipping away at trust in institutions and government.

What, exactly, is “information manipulation”? One way to understand the term is as the attempt to create and convince people of “deep narratives” — that is, broadly accepted collective perceptions — through the persistent drip of granular stories that seemingly provide evidence for those narratives. For example, a steady stream of stories from news outlets and social media about government corruption may, over time, convince citizens that their government is inherently corrupt. So if we want to know whether information-manipulation efforts are working, we must assess whether people are buying into the deep narratives that information manipulators are peddling.

To do this, Doublethink Lab, where I work, conducted a representative poll of Taiwanese voters ahead of the 2024 election, asking whether they believed in narratives we had observed the CCP pushing in Taiwan. Worryingly, the results, taken together with existing polling, suggest that the CCP has been making significant progress on two of its main objectives. But the news isn’t all bad.

The CCP has utterly failed to sell Taiwanese voters on its governance model. Polling on identity shows that the majority of people in Taiwan identify as Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese or both Taiwanese and Chinese, and that they overwhelmingly prefer Taiwan’s independent status quo. Furthermore, less than 10 percent view China as trustworthy. Even the Kuomintang (KMT, or Chinese Nationalist Party), Taiwan’s former authoritarian ruling party, took steps to distance itself from Beijing before the election.

Why did the CCP fail in attracting Taiwanese voters to its governance model? No doubt certain hard realities of recent years were simply too difficult to overcome: The CCP government locked covid patients in their apartments and left them to die in building fires; it committed horrific human-rights violations against China’s Uyghur minority and crushed civil society in Hong Kong; and it persistently lobs military threats and engages in diplomatic bullying against Taiwan and others, all while the Chinese economy continues to slide. This makes for a tough sell.

But that is no cause for complacency. CCP-controlled social-media platforms may offer a new avenue for appealing to Taiwanese citizens. Research has correlated TikTok use with increased pro-China views among apolitical audiences and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) supporters, who had previously been independent or swing voters. Some young Taiwanese now write using simplified Chinese characters rather than the traditional characters typically used in Taiwan. This could start to soften attitudes on China. Additionally, Doublethink’s research on WeChat influencers found that instructions provided to apolitical-content creators in Taiwan trying to sell products to China advise that 10 percent of their feeds should consist of pro-unification content for algorithmic optimization. We believe that the CCP is using its control of lucrative social-media algorithms to encourage influencers to slip what is essentially propaganda into otherwise apolitical content. This is a tried-and-true technique. Russia Today, for example, built a large following in Europe through its sports content.

Narratives about Taiwan’s vulnerability, meanwhile, have taken hold among the two parties that together currently control the Legislative Yuan. According to our survey, a clear majority of KMT voters and a slimmer majority of TPP voters subscribe to a set of narratives collectively known as “U.S. Skepticism.” These include: “The United States is not trustworthy and wants to exploit Taiwan”; “the United States uses Taiwan to provoke China and pushes Taiwan into war”; and “if the PRC attacked Taiwan, the United States would definitely not send military assistance.” These same voter groups also assign majority blame for cross-strait tensions to the DPP and believe that “the current government’s defense policy is to use the young generation as a sacrificial lamb.”

Pulling the Thread

The CCP’s information-manipulation narratives strike at Taiwan’s democracy in numerous ways: Narratives about government corruption undermine faith in democracy as a system that delivers for society; narratives about election fraud cast doubt on electoral processes and democracy’s legitimacy; and emotionally manipulative content helps to polarize society. Polarization, in turn, can undermine the legislative process — encouraging lawmakers to grandstand for partisan audiences, close space for discussion and concessions, and ride roughshod over democratic processes.

In the aggregate, Taiwan’s voters report satisfaction with democracy and trust in electoral processes. But survey responses are highly polarized. A clear majority of KMT voters and a slim majority of TPP voters reported dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s democracy. At the time of the election, 57 percent of KMT voters said they distrusted the electoral system, whereas 66 percent of TPP voters said they trusted electoral processes. In the wake of the TPP’s electoral defeat, however, an information-manipulation campaign claiming electoral fraud gained significant traction among the party’s voters. Thus this finding is likely already out of date.

The polarization that Taiwan is now seeing has been driven in part by long-running CCP information-manipulation campaigns pushing disinformation and conspiracy theories about government corruption and antidemocratic behavior. Our survey found that a clear majority of KMT and TPP supporters believe in the following narratives: “The current government favors certain companies and provides the public with contaminated eggs and subpar vaccines”; “the current government is the primary producer of misinformation”; and, strikingly, “the current government is no different from the CCP, and Taiwan lacks freedom of speech.”

Information-manipulation campaigns pushing the government-corruption narrative have had tangible effects on voting behavior. We asked survey respondents who they voted for, if they changed their vote in this election, and if so, which issue changed their minds. For voters who switched from the DPP to either the KMT or TPP, the clear number-one issue was a conspiracy theory that claimed DPP corruption had delivered dangerous locally produced vaccines to citizens. Furthermore, belief in this narrative had the largest negative correlation with respondents’ reported level of satisfaction with Taiwan’s democracy (-0.62).

Recent political developments have raised concerns about the “Hong Kongification” of the Legislative Yuan. In May, the KMT-TPP majority coalition passed a bill expanding lawmakers’ powers, sparking significant protest from a coalition of civil society organizations and sending tens of thousands of people into the streets across the country in what has been dubbed the “Bluebird movement.” The law was passed without any discussion, and the details of the final version were purposefully kept from the public and from DPP legislators, in flagrant violation of standard democratic processes. Moreover, the new powers raise concerns about national security, as legislators (some of whom are openly aligned with the CCP) can publicly ask for any information, and those who do not comply with such requests can be fined repeatedly. These same powers could be turned against civil society organizations, forcing them to hand over sensitive information, such as contacts in the Hong Kong and Uyghur diasporas who are targets of Chinese transnational repression.

Assessing the Problem

The CCP itself, of course, is not single-handedly carrying out every information-manipulation campaign — indeed Taiwanese and other citizens participate both knowingly and unknowingly for a variety of reasons. This is no surprise. It is a longtime tactic of foreign adversaries to work through local proxies, and to collaborate with locals who share their strategic interests or beliefs. We have observed this evolution in the CCP’s tactics as well: Over the last five years, it has been leaning more heavily on local proxies and allies to initiate stories and then stepping in as a super-amplifier.

Given the scale and duration of CCP information-manipulation campaigns and its role as amplifier, the CCP likely bears significant responsibility for shifting Taiwanese attitudes about the island’s security and its democracy. The CCP’s capacity to amplify mis- and disinformation around these issues is perfectly illustrated by a fake story with origins in Russia that began on social media: In early 2023, a Taiwan-based pro-China influencer posted on Facebook, “Biden has a plan for the destruction of Taiwan.” This was a lie made up by Russian state media. Nevertheless, the CCP boosted the claim, including by then–Foreign Affairs Commission director Wang Yi raising it at a Foreign Ministry press conference. The story then made its way (or “broke out”) into Taiwan’s mainstream media, eventually forcing the government to issue a response.

Pushing Back

Taiwan has not sat back in the face of the CCP’s relentless information manipulation. Its resilience has rightly been credited to a tireless and dynamic whole-of-society response. Doublethink Lab commissioned an international-elections expert to develop a model capturing the key components of this approach. The result is expressed with the acronym “POWER”: Taiwan’s response is purpose driven, with a diverse range of citizens rallying around an existential threat; organic, driven from the bottom-up and decentralized; whole-of-society, allowing anyone to start or participate in an initiative; constantly evolving along with the nature of the threat; and remit bound, with specialized roles including fact checking, building media literacy, and investigating the ins and outs of the CCP’s information manipulation.

This is a start. But to successfully defend its sovereignty and its democracy, Taiwan needs more support while there is still time. It needs to strengthen its capacity for confronting information manipulation. It needs to put in place methods or an organization for nonstop strategic coordination for countering information manipulation, not just during emergencies such as the passing of controversial legislation. And, crucially, it needs greater strategic-communications capacity. Reactive messaging — fact checks and objective information about information manipulation — must reach the right audiences: the apolitical, TPP voters, and less partisan KMT voters.

Yet a reactive strategy that deconstructs information manipulation after it has already spread is a losing formula. Taiwan cannot be stuck “doing autopsies.” We must devise more effective ways to communicate the positive story of our democracy and to compete strategically in the battle of narratives. We have the raw materials: the rule of law, free and open information, and opportunities to improve our own lives. Now we must confidently, competently, and creatively communicate our values.

Tim Niven is Research Lead at Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based civil society organization dedicated to building democratic resilience to malign authoritarian influence and interference.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Man Hei Leung/Anadolu via Getty Images




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