The 2017 US National Security Strategy (NSS) stresses strategic competition with revisionist authoritarian powers, namely Russia and China. According to the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, China probably poses the greatest threat to the United States beyond 2025. While Russia presents an immediate challenge, it is arguably a declining power. Whereas China’s growing global influence and, with it, political interference in the democratic process of other countries are becoming more aggressive and disruptive. Malign political interference not only affects the domestic political environment of those countries but also those countries’ relations with third parties. Indeed, the NSS highlights how “[r]ival actors use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy. They advance anti-Western views and spread false information to create divisions among ourselves, our allies, and our partners.”
The heightened attention towards China’s malign influence operations is occurring against the backdrop of the national security communities in many democracies growing concerns over China’s “sharp power.” Among the tools in China’s “sharp power” toolkit are information operations including propaganda and disinformation. As noted by the authors of the National Endowment for Democracy report: “[t]his authoritarian influence is not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation.” Taiwan is at the frontline of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government’s information campaign. There are many layers through which China’s sharp power is “piercing, penetrating, or perforating the political and information environments.” They take many different forms and have been coupled with an increasing tide of fake news and disinformation in Taiwan’s information landscape.
The controversial pension reforms debate in Taiwan thrust the issue of fake news into the public square as Taiwan’s netizens and users of a popular messaging app began receiving a flood of messages and were pushed to websites carrying false claims about the central government’s plans. Taiwan’s national security authorities attributed the source of the fake news to a growing number of “content farms” based in the PRC. The “poison” of disinformation could also have deadly consequences. Fake news that was circulated about a Taiwanese envoy’s alleged failure to assist Taiwanese tourists stranded at a Japanese airport after a Typhoon struck in September led tragically to the diplomat committing suicide. The source of this fake news was reportedly traced to an IP address in Beijing and attributed to a Chinese government task force. Other sources have been attributable and traced back to “content farms,” social media accounts, and IP addresses based in China. Other measures include co-opting Taiwan’s traditional media outlets. For instance, a media report supposedly citing information from the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) — which is equivalent to the American FBI — stated that media outlets and online public opinion companies in Taiwan have received “benefits” from China and published polls and news content with favorable positions towards China.
Taiwan’s diplomacy is also being complicated by Chinese disinformation. A widespread but false media report that one of Taiwan’s diplomatic ally was about to switch ties in May was traced back to a social media account based in the PRC’s Hebei province. A real-time news clarification webpage set up by the Taiwan government, which had to respond to 820 suspected fake news reports in 2018 alone, represented only the “tip of the iceberg” of the problem. As noted by Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, “with the advent of new technology, disinformation and falsehoods are spreading faster than ever — in many cases faster than we can clarify.”
That China is interfering in Taiwan’s political process and attempting to undermine its democracy is not news. Yet, the Chinese Communist Party’s political interference in other countries’ elections was thrown into sharp international relief when President Donald Trump, at the UN Security Council meeting, accused China of interfering in the US midterm elections. “Regrettably, we’ve found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” President Trump said on September 26. “They do not want me — or us — to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” he added. The president later substantiated his claims by pointing to the Chinese state-sponsored China Daily inserts in Iowa’s Des Moines Register that were railing against the Trump administration’s trade policy.
In the midst of the ongoing US-China trade war, the United States and Taiwan signed an agreement for the latter to import soybeans from the United States, then reports raising health concerns over GMO soybeans from the United States began circulating in Taiwan’s social media. While the claims about their adverse, if not catastrophic, health effects have been debunked by civil society and the government, it has not yet been determined whether the Chinese government was behind the disinformation campaign. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that CCP propaganda has also been directed against America’s soybean farmers with the focus of weakening domestic support for Trump’s trade policy.
Highlighting the challenge, President Tsai Ing-wen underscored her government’s determination to tackle the challenge of disinformation:
For cases involving systematic dissemination of disinformation from specific countries, we will strengthen cross-border collaboration. That includes not only experience sharing, but also setting up monitoring and notification mechanisms, so that together, we can respond to any damage or negative impact that disinformation has on social stability in various countries.
Indeed, the United States and Taiwan are strengthening cooperation to combat fake news and disinformation. US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby participated in an international workshop held in Taipei co-organized by the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office under the auspices of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). In his keynote address, Secretary Busby noted:
Taiwan also knows all too well how a determined external actor with hostile intentions can place enormous strain on democratic institutions through various influence tactics, including disinformation. As our Vice President noted recently: ‘The Chinese Communist Party shapes the information environment by rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials.’
The US State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) is charged with leading the US government’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation from foreign actors. The mission of GEC, which was established in April 2016, is to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”
To address the shared challenge of propaganda and disinformation, the United States and Taiwan should establish a mechanism that brings together technologists, academics, and civil society groups from both sides on a regular basis to systematically share information and identify solutions to combat CCP propaganda and disinformation. A common operating picture is critical for enhancing transparency and promoting greater situational awareness. This may be facilitated by the creation and joint maintenance of a shared platform for rapid identification of propaganda and disinformation sources, adversaries’ use of propaganda and disinformation technologies, a monitoring mechanism of the interaction of cyber operations and information operations for malign purposes, assessments of adversaries’ responses to counter-foreign propaganda and disinformation, as well as technological and other policy solutions.
The main point: To address the shared challenge of propaganda and disinformation, the United States and Taiwan should establish a mechanism that brings together technologists, academics, and civil society groups from both sides on a regular basis to systematically share information and identify solutions to combat CCP propaganda and disinformation.