Taiwan's Social Media Landscape: Ripe for Election Interference?

11/13/2018

[Photo by Pen Tsai on Unsplash]

 

Taiwan’s local elections, known as nine-in-one elections (九合一选举) for the nine types of local positions in contest, will take place on November 24th. Though local elections will always inherently center on local dynamics and priorities, they are also a fairly accurate bellwether of party performance in the succeeding national-level elections. As such, Beijing has demonstrated a keen interest in the results of the upcoming local elections as an indicator of the future of Taiwan’s political landscape and any associated shifts in its cross-Strait policies.

 

While there is a long history of Chinese disinformation campaigns in Taiwan, there has been an escalation of such efforts in recent years to target President Tsai Ying-wen’s administration and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in a concerted attempt to undermine their credibility in the eyes of domestic audiences. Beijing’s broader objective is to discredit her administration and portray the DPP as ill-equipped to govern.

 

This article explores the potential for China’s interference in Taiwan’s elections by co-opting an important resource for the consolidation of DPP and pan-green support: social media.

 

Background

 

Despite continued reassurances from Taipei that it remains committed to maintaining the status quo, Beijing’s distrust and disdain for Tsai’s DPP administration has led to the termination of official contacts and concerted efforts to squeeze Taiwan’s international space in both formal and informal settings. Beijing has also become increasingly invested and active in Taiwan’s domestic politics. This is seen in coordinated efforts to paint the DPP in a negative light while continuing engagement with the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and rewarding KMT-held districts with economic “carrots” and exchanges with local Chinese officials.

 

China juxtaposes its continual criticism of the DPP’s ability to govern, with affirmations that—in spite of its flaws—the KMT is better poised to take the reins of leadership, on both the cross-Strait front and domestic affairs. More specifically, Taiwan Net (台湾网), run through the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Taiwan Work Office and the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, and Taihai Net (台海网), an affiliate of Fujian Daily run by the Fujian Provincial Party Committee, have both spotlighted polls that show Tsai and the DPP’s decline in public opinion, stressing support for the opposition and referencing the administration’s mishandling of pension reform.

 

More critically, the CCP is working through informal channels to bolster its agenda. For example, a recent report from Taiwan’s Common Media on the island’s Unionist Party—run by Chang An-lo or “White Wolf”—details the level of infiltration by the group, which supports efforts by the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) and has likewise been accused of receiving money from China (a literal translation of the Chinese name of the Unionist Party [中华统一促进党] is China Unification Promotion Party). The party and its leadership have forged strong interpersonal relationships at the grassroots level, inserting members within local temples, agricultural groups, and charities and championing and funding associated causes [1]. The Unionist Party has also capitalized on the freeze of official cross-Strait contacts by serving as a conduit for entrepreneurs and businesses looking to invest in China’s markets. Unionist supporters, the Common Media report alleges, cut across Taiwan’s blue-green spectrum.

 

Most recently, Taiwan’s Minister of Justice revealed that the Ministry is investigating the funding sources of specific candidates in the upcoming elections, as these individuals have allegedly received money from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, with funds channeled through Taiwanese businessmen to evade political contribution laws.

 

Social Media

 

Given the above, it is worth exploring China’s perceptions—and depth of understanding—of Taiwan’s social media landscape, as these platforms are readily accessible channels through which Beijing can manipulate and shape Taiwan’s local political discourse. Academic studies and media commentary out of China demonstrate an acute awareness of the importance of social media to political debates among the island’s populace, as well as its role in election strategy. For example, research out of Xiamen University notes that, while political candidates in Taiwan used social media as early as 1994, use of such platforms did not gain momentum until Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) mayoral campaign in the 2014 local elections and was a factor in Tsai’s victory over the KMT’s Eric Chu for the presidency in 2016.

 

China has thus been closely following trends and developments on Taiwan social media pages. As early as 2015, an article featured on the People’s Daily Overseas Edition noted the popularity of social media in Taiwan, quoting statistics that, at the time of writing, the island had 15 million active Facebook users, 12 million of which used the platform daily. The article, which was published during Taiwan’s 2016 election cycle, noted that the “battlefield” for the election had moved to “cyberspace” and emphasized the DPP’s greater familiarity and comfort using social media, referencing a local saying that the “Blue [or KMT] is Version 1.0, while the DPP has upgraded to Version 3.0.”

 

China’s assessment of Taiwan’s social media use extends beyond Facebook to PTT (批踢踢实业坊) and Twitter. The former is a Bulletin Board System (BBS) that is widely used in Taiwan as a forum for public discussions (notably, a study out of Oxford University found that PTT is the island’s primary forum for political discussion, with Facebook taking on a more peripheral role). An op-ed for the Global Times highlights the popularity of PTT, which at the time of publication in March 2018 had 1.5 million registered users with 150,000 active users during peak hours. In regards to the latter, a People’s Daily Overseas Edition report noted that Twitter is less popular in Taiwan than other social media platforms but that Tsai aims to use it as a medium through which to engage with audiences outside of Taiwan [2], highlighting the various languages her tweets appear in and the emphasis on promoting “Taiwan’s international visibility (国际能见度).” The article likewise quotes a Taiwanese scholar who sees social media as a way for Taiwan’s leaders to connect with counterparts despite restrictions stemming from the lack of official contacts.

 

Of note, most of these commentaries are interjected with lines tailored toward China’s domestic audience that warn of the dangers of unfettered social media use and access, such as the risk of catering to populist and extremist demands, a cheapening of electoral culture centered around seemingly irrelevant yet viral posts, and driving an even deeper wedge in existing political and social divides.

 

Chinese Social Media Interference in Taiwan

 

China’s netizens have already demonstrated a readiness and capability to conduct coordinated co-optation of Taiwan’s social media platforms in support of favored election outcomes and policy objectives. For example, while Facebook is usually banned within China, the site was accessible for a brief period in November 2015, during which Chinese netizens spammed then-presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s official page. It remains unclear if the move was a premeditated attack from overzealous Chinese netizens, at the direction of the “fifty-cent army" [3], simply a result of a hole in the Great Firewall stemming from glitches in university networks, or some combination of the three (curiously, the KMT candidate’s social media page was largely unaffected). This was soon followed by a similar attack in January 2016, wherein Chinese netizens again bombarded Tsai’s Facebook page as well as those of popular Taiwanese media outlets.

 

In these two cases, the source of these posts was obvious, given the use of simplified characters over traditional, word-for-word repetition of Chinese government slogans, and featuring an unwarranted degree of animosity and vitriol. As clear attempts at interference by mainlanders, neither of these efforts did much to distort or influence Taiwan’s political discourse.

 

At the same time, however, there appear to be attempts to better understand how Taiwanese interact with one another on social media. One Taiwanese scholar purported that China’s Internet army has started a “localization” (本土化) campaign, converting text on accounts and messages from simplified Chinese to traditional and imitating local Taiwan ways of speech. The same scholar also noticed a strategy focused on swaying swing voters, targeting pan-green pages to weaken perceptions of support, and adding Taiwanese friends and posting positive articles about the pan-blue camp, among others. A Weibo post purportedly outlining a “battle plan” to the abovementioned January 2016 event seems more or less in line with this assessment, asking participants not to swear, to keep their emotions in check, and to focus on promoting “anti-independence” materials.  

 

In the summer of 2017, Chinese netizens reportedly discovered that the Great Firewall no longer restricted access to PTT. Earlier that year, Taiwan media reported that PTT accounts were being sold on Taobao, with Chinese netizens calling for support in the terms of funding so that they could buy accounts and gain access (Taiwan media has likewise reported on Facebook accounts being available for purchase on Taobao). It is unclear if any accounts were purchased and, if so, if they were used to support political objectives. It is likewise worth stressing the difficulty of determining the actual source of social media content originating out of China. As other western observers have noted, Chinese citizens are passionate about the Taiwan issue and could be acting independently as individuals or spurred through Internet group forums, thus obfuscating any government directives and actions by the fifty-cent army.

 

It does appear, however, that Chinese Internet users have found a way to post on PTT—and with inadvertently dire outcomes. In the wake of Typhoon Jebi in September 2018, thousands of travelers were stranded at Osaka’s Kansai International Airport after a tanker crashed into the bridge connecting the airport to the mainland. Reports began to circulate on PTT that the region’s Chinese consulate had managed to dispatch buses to the airport to rescue its citizens, allowing Taiwanese on board only if they declared that they self-identified as Chinese. Such claims, seemingly substantiated by photos of these buses, were then widely disseminated by Taiwanese media and led to a public outcry of the assumed incompetence of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), or Taiwan’s de-facto consulate, in Osaka. During the fallout, the director of TECO Osaka committed suicide.

 

In the aftermath, claims that the Chinese consulate had sent buses to the airport were dispelled, with Japanese authorities indicating that they had redirected consulate-chartered buses to a transit terminal to await passengers—and it was these buses that were featured in the photos. Sleuthing by Taiwanese PTT users has deduced that the rumors originated out of China, tracing the IP address of the original post to Beijing.

 

Official Chinese media has continued playing into the narrative that it aided Taiwanese in Osaka. Reporting out of the Mainland has also focused on criticizing the Tsai administration and its representative to Japan, Frank Hsieh, for mismanaging the situation and being unable to support its citizens abroad. The incident shows not only the susceptibility of PTT to be co-opted, but also the very real effects of disinformation and vulnerabilities in Taiwan’s media, which played a role in  amplifying falsehoods by perpetuating feedback loops.

 

Numerous other examples abound—all with a common thread of criticizing the DPP. This is seen in the spread of disinformation on social media during the very public and contentious debate on pensions reform, which saw untrue claims that the DPP government would enforce unnecessarily strict restrictions on pensioners. Another example includes widely shared posts that falsely accused Tsai of being unsympathetic and disengaged from Tainan flood victims by remaining on an armored military vehicle and refusing to set foot in subsiding flood waters. All in all, these schemes out of China align with the broader approach Beijing has adopted towards Taiwan since Tsai came to power to discredit her administration and to portray the DPP as ill-equipped to govern.

 

Risks and Stakes

 

Since 2016, China’s has escalated its disinformation campaign against Taiwan to an unprecedented level. A former National Security Bureau (NSB) official indicated that taking steps to counteract these campaigns through the implementation of the “Xun’an Project” (訊安專案)—a controversial directive that calls for the NSB  to monitor Facebook posts–would have been unheard of for any of the four previous administrations. More recently, Taiwan’s national defense think tank has pointed to vulnerabilities beyond Facebook and stressed the importance of addressing threats to other social media platforms, such as PTT and mobile messenger LINE.  

 

As commentary out of China has noted, the DPP is more adroit at using social media than the KMT. By that same token, parties such as the New Power Party (时代力量) that grew out of the youth-led Sunflower Movement—which itself mobilized and gained momentum through social media—is just as, if not more, susceptible to any disinformation campaign out of China. This reality is compounded by studies that indicate that the 2018 election will largely be determined by the youth vote, the demographic most active on social media. Beijing is all too aware. Chinese scholars have written analytical pieces on the disillusionment of the youth with the current administration, particularly with the lack of job prospects, and may thus be turning away from the DPP. Consequently, the parties that are the most vulnerable lay in the pan-green camp—which holds views and advances policies that the CCP opposes.

 

Numerous stakes are at play for Taiwan this November, with tight elections in the critical cities of Kaohsiung and Taichung. In addition, this year’s nine-in-one elections will coincide with a vote on a referendum that aims to lower the threshold of amending the Republic of China constitution, which would allow independence advocates an easier path to pursuing their objectives. While these endeavors are likely to fall short, public support would leave the Tsai administration hard-pressed to square its cross-Strait policies with an increasingly Taiwan-centric populace.  

 

In addition, if the KMT were to gain more seats in the local elections, particularly at the city and municipal levels, more opportunities would arise for the party to demonstrate its ability to govern ahead of the 2020 presidential and legislative elections. This would create more opportunities for China to assist in these endeavors, much as it has done since 2016 in rewarding KMT-held districts with economic packages and engagements with Chinese officials.

 

Alternatively, if pan-blue candidates flounder, officials in Beijing are likely to  re-scope its approach to better align with realities on the ground and place greater emphasis on an existing campaign that targets a diverse set of groups in Taiwan, to include youth, aborigines, and labor groups. Accordingly, it will be important to watch what additional safeguards the Taiwan government, as well as the political parties themselves, put in place in order to prevent the further spread of disinformation ahead of November’s elections.

 

Finally, China oftentimes uses Taiwan as a testing ground for tactics that it then uses against other countries. Elections in 2016 brought to the fore vulnerabilities within democratic systems, with media platforms and societal fissures readily exploited, and it would not require a stretch of the imagination to see Beijing utilize the strategies it deploys against Taiwan beyond the island and against other countries.

[1] For more information, see White Wolf’s 2016 interview with the Global Times on his role as a “political volunteer (政治义工)” and how he envisions social and public welfare as a channel to political public warfare.

 

[2] Specifically, the article referred to a strategy of using “Twitter for external [audiences], Facebook for internal [audiences]. [推特主外,脸谱主内]”

 

[3] The “fifty-cent army” (五毛党) is a group of as many as 2 million individuals hired by the Chinese government to post pro-CCP content online in order to promote party views and narratives, as well as to divert or scope discussions so that content on media forums are consistent with the party line. For more, see:  https://gking.harvard.edu/files/gking/files/how_the_chinese_government_fabricates_social_media_posts_for_strategic_distraction_not_engaged_argument.pdf

 

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