Protesters against Taiwan’s KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu during a protest in Kaohsiung. Contest is in effect a referendum on the future of the self-governed island’s relationship with China
Citizen groups in Taiwan are fighting a Russian-style influence and misinformation campaign that is believed to originate across the strait in mainland China with just weeks to go before it votes for its next president,
Taiwan goes to the polls on 11 January to decide between two main candidates, incumbent president Tsai-Ing-Wen of the Democratic People’s party (DPP) under whom ties with Beijing have become fraught, and Han Kuo-Yu of the Kuomintang party (KMT), which advocates closer engagement with China.
The contest is in large part a referendum on the future of Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, which sees the self-governed island as a renegade province that one day must return to the fold. Han is Beijing’s favoured candidate while Tsai’s party has been campaigning on the slogan: “Resist China, Defend Taiwan”. In a televised debate with her rivals for the job on Sunday, Tsai said China’s “expanding ambitions” were the biggest threat to its democracy.
Citizen groups in Taiwan say the openness of one of the freest societies in Asia is being used against it by groups in China to wage an online disinformation campaign, made more potent by their shared language, Mandarin. A recent study by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that Taiwan was the most exposed to foreign dissemination of false information.
False reports include claims Tsai’s doctorate degree was fake or that Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong kicked an elderly man when he visited Taiwan in October and met members of the DPP.
“China has multiple ways of pushing misinformation. We’ve found that content mills are no longer simply producing fake information. More and more, they are manipulating opinions,” said Jarvis Chiu, senior manager for the Institute for Information Industry, which has been assisting government efforts to prevent disinformation.
According to Chiu, an army of trolls will leave thousands of comments under a candidate’s post or a news article, shifting the focus of the debate. Fake social media accounts also share pro-Beijing content or inflate the number of likes such content gets. “Subliminal attacks” include repeatedly searching for one candidate’s name to influence search algorithm results.
“China won’t give up this practice. It will only increase and because it is non-military, it won’t get much global attention,” Chiu said.
The uncertain status of Taiwan, functionally independent but not internationally recognised, has been an issue in every campaign since direct elections were introduced in the 1990s following decades of martial law under the KMT.