On November 24, Taiwanese citizens will cast their ballots in an election that will be viewed as a litmus test for President Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). After two years of contentious legislative reforms to labor and pension laws, along with a grim outlook on the growing restrictions to Taiwan’s international space, the lead up to the midterm elections offers the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) an opportunity to capitalize on political discontent and potentially make gains in some of the 22 counties, cities, and special municipality districts on the ballots. Yet, the DPP and the KMT are not the only players appealing to public opinion in Taiwan, the authorities in Beijing appear to be taking an active role as well.
The Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau, which is Taiwan’s equivalent to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, established a big-data and public opinion task force and found “unequivocal evidence” that Beijing was responsible for spreading fake news articles in an effort to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan. Examples include the Chinese state-run media entity, China Central Television (CCTV), airing old footage of the People’s Liberation Army exercises to exaggerate the implications of a live-fire exercise, and online “content farms” being used to spread disinformation about the status of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. In May of this year, when Burkina Faso announced that it was severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a post on the PTT Bulletin Board System stirred controversy when it claimed that Honduras was also in talks with Beijing. It was reported that the post was later traced to a “Chinese disinformation mill” that was sponsored by the Chinese government.
In a display of even-keeled leadership, on Taiwan National Day President Tsai appealed to the populace to be alert in the face of widespread disinformation. The President noted that Taiwan’s national security is not only under threat by military coercion, but also through diplomatic pressure, social infiltration, and predatory economic policies. President Tsai emphasized her government’s steadfast determination to prevent “foreign powers from infiltrating and subverting [Taiwan] society […] and create chaos.” Notably, President Tsai did not implicate the Chinese government by name. Rather, it is widely accepted that the source of disinformation can be attributed to actors in China, but it remains unclear if the strategy is a coordinated government-sponsored effort. However, what is clear is that the confusion and distrust cultivated by disinformation campaigns could have consequential implications for Taiwan’s vibrant democratic processes. While the debate within Taiwan on how to combat disinformation and mitigate its damages continues, who stands to gain from these disruptive strategies?
President Tsai’s appeal for further awareness, citizenry, and cooperation with like-minded countries, like the United States, on media literacy are just a few of the tools to support a more resilient Taiwanese public amidst the onslaught on its democratic freedoms and institutions. In addition, civil society will play an important role in maintaining a clean media/cyber environment. Non-profit organizations such as The Taiwan FactCheck Center, established by Media Watch, aims to provide a long-term, non-governmental solution to fake news by enhancing media literacy and fact-checking major news stories and rumors.
Presently, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using forms of perception management through co-option, corruption, censorship, and disinformation to target political and economic elites, the media, civil society, and academia to shape policies and perceptions that are in line with Beijing’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. In Taiwan’s case, Beijing’s goal would be the subjugation of Taiwan’s society, government, history, and people to unify under the CCP’s leadership in a “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement.
To win the “hearts and minds” of the Taiwanese people, Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conduct psychological, public opinion, and legal warfare against Taiwan, commonly referred to as the “three warfares,” to wear down the sovereignty and will of the people. Interestingly, a year ago an article was published on PLA Daily highlighting a new type of warfare, “cognitive warfare” (制腦作戰), which is to “influence and lead the cognition, emotion, and consciousness of the public and national elites, and ultimately influence a country’s values, national spirit, ideology, cultural traditions, and historical beliefs […] to achieve the strategic goal of winning without war.”
While a limited amount of information is available to decipher how Chinese military strategist views the use of cognitive warfare, the US military has identified the need to address the role of information and how information can change or maintain the drivers of behavior. In a public study released in July of this year, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) published the “Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE).” The report highlighted challenges facing US joint forces in an information environment where an adversary could leverage the information domain to “paralyze the US Government with policy and legal issues” and thus gain freedom of action. The report addresses building the US Joint Forces’ capability to understand the perceptions, attitudes, and other elements that drive behaviors that affect Joint Forces Commands’ objectives. Ultimately, the US military is actively working to address how information, or disinformation, may adversely affect its war-fighting capabilities. When shifting this concept to a civilian, peace-time environment, the disinformation campaigns being waged on Taiwan not only targets the people’s decision-making process, but also that of Taiwan’s elected leaders.
The possible application of “cognitive warfare” to a peacetime environment raises important questions. Is disinformation being used as a tactic of “cognitive warfare” that aims to influence Taiwan’s population to only consider a specific set of options favorably to the CCP’s interests? If Beijing, or Chinese actors are indeed behind Taiwan’s disruptive disinformation campaigns, what would be their goals? Proof that democracy is unstable and unviable? To paralyze Taiwan’s government and its decision-making ability? To win the war of unification on Beijing’s terms without fighting? If “cognitive warfare” is being waged on the Taiwanese people, how can they be defended?
Disinformation must have the intent to deceive. Undoubtedly, the single most effective disinformation campaign wielded against Taiwan is Beijing’s “One-China Principle,” where the People’s Republic of China (PRC) aims to dictate and lecture to sovereign countries around the world on how they should conduct their relations with the government in Taiwan. The PRC, under the leadership of the CCP, has maneuvered all sources of state power—economic, education, military, civil society, media, and politics—to influence foreign governments and populations to adopt Beijing’s successor state theory that the Republic of China (Taiwan), and the government seated in Taipei, had cease to exist following 1949, 1972, and 1979. This of course does not accord with objective reality.
The main point: The PRC’s disinformation campaigns against Taiwan is a form of cognitive warfare that targets the people’s decision-making process, but also that of Taiwan’s elected leaders, and represent a national security threat for its ability to sow discontent, mistrust, and fear.