In the weeks leading up to Taiwan’s Jan. 13 presidential election, a 300-page ebook titled “The Secret History of Tsai Ing-wen” began to circulate on social media platforms and even email inboxes, containing scandalous–and false–allegations about the island’s president gaining power through sexual promiscuity.
“We wondered: “Why write a book? Who is going to buy it?” Tim Niven said, the researcher for Doublethink Lab in Taiwan, which tracks Chinese influence. “This is the social media age. The majority of people are now watching videos. Nobody’s reading a spammy book that someone spammed into their email.”
But Niven and other researchers soon started to see dozens of videos on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and other platforms featuring avatars generated using artificial intelligence–many of them acting as newscasters–reading out various sections of the book. The book had become “a script for generative AI videos.” Indeed, Niven said, “the book may very well have been generative AI itself.”
Doublethink’s investigation left them with “very high confidence” that the campaign was the handiwork of the Chinese Communist Party. Another prominent rumor the researchers identified as coming from the same network accused Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate from Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), of fathering an illegitimate child. Third, a third rumor claimed that Lai Bi-khim’s running mate Hsiao, who was the former Taiwanese envoy in Washington, had U.S. Citizenship and thus wasn’t eligible for office. (In truth, she gave up her U.S. citizenship in 2002.)
Other influence operations focused on more pocketbook issues, such as one sowing doubt over the safety of imported pork and eggs and one–which the Taiwanese foreign ministry attributed to China’s “cognitive warfare“–that promoted a racist backlash against reports of Taiwan bringing in thousands of migrant workers from India. Taiwan’s election commission also reported 25 cases to law enforcement of people spreading false rumors of vote-rigging.
China’s disinformation campaign against Taiwan has been ongoing for many years. It aims to undercut the democratic system of the island, promote pro-unification narratives and undermine the Taiwan-US relationship. According to experts and fact-checkers who spoke with Foreign Policy, Beijing focused its information war this time on local concerns and specifically targeted the DPP. Experts warn that China could use the same tactics in other countries, including the United States.
More than 50 countries will hold national elections this year, including several larger, messier democracies where China has a geopolitical ax to grind, such as India and Indonesia.
U.S. officials and intelligence agencies have warned that China is stepping up its efforts to interfere in elections around the world, employing the kinds of tactics that have previously been associated with Russia. Researchers have uncovered a massive network aimed at spreading disinformation and propaganda across more than 50 social media platforms, prompting many, including Google, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, to collectively take down thousands of accounts last year. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, linked the network–dubbed “Spamouflage”–to Chinese law enforcement agencies.
“I really look to Taiwan to show us where China’s going and what they’re doing,” said Adam King, the regional director for East Asia and the Pacific at the International Republican Institute. “If you look back to the pandemic in 2020, the Taiwanese were the ones sounding the alarm way before the rest of the world woke up, and I think it’s the same for disinformation.”
If Beijing’s goal was to get its preferred presidential candidate into office, it failed. Lai won the election with 40 percent of the vote, giving the DPP–which opposes China and advocates a closer partnership with the United States–an unprecedented third straight term in office. But Lai is the island’s first president since 2000 to get elected with only a plurality of the vote and the pro-China Kuomintang gained several seats in the legislature, leaving no party with a clear majority.
This “raises a possibility of contentious debates, similar to what is happening in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Mizumi Dussler, fellow of the German Marshall Fund of United States, who specializes in Taiwan research, said. “In such a divided environment, the risk of information warfare increases.”
China’s shift in disinformation tactics to rely more on local proxies also points to a “concerning” level of sophistication, according to Kenton Thibaut, a senior resident fellow for China at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Putting a thumb on the scale is one thing, but the latest disinformation tactics appear aimed at sowing discord and division more broadly.
” “In terms of an objective concrete to influence a tangible thing, like an election…yes, it failed,” Thibaut stated. “They’re in it for a longer victory, which is to erode Taiwan’s democracy, erode its ability to claim sovereignty on the international stage.”
Taiwan has proved resilient in large part because it has faced such a sustained yearslong onslaught of Chinese disinformation that the island’s citizens are more attuned to it than most. “The Taiwanese population has long been exposed to Chinese threats,” said Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Their effect has diminished over time, becoming almost background noise for society.”
Smaller states with less attention and lower defenses could be particularly vulnerable. Two days after Taiwan’s election, the Pacific island of Nauru, one of Taiwan’s few official diplomatic allies, announced that it was switching its allegiance to China. Two more of the remaining dozen tiny islands, Tuvalu and Palau, will be voting this year. “[China is] now going to focus heavily on peeling away the remaining diplomatic allies,” Thibaut said.
The U.S. elections in November are China’s most bright and shiny object. They present both opportunities and challenges. The country’s highly polarized political environment, and the wide range of issues it faces on a daily basis provide fertile grounds for misinformation. On the other hand, that also potentially makes it harder to craft convincing narratives across rich, poor, urban, suburban, and rural audiences who may or may not have a college education.
A tool that China has already shown it knows how to deploy in Taiwan could bridge that gap. “The way in which China is beginning to administer its tactics indicate an increasing use of generative AI tools that are more sophisticated at getting the nuance of communication in another language correct,” said Tim Harper, a senior policy analyst for democracy and elections at the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology. “We talk a lot about the ways that AI democratizes the ability to spread mis- and disinformation, but at the nation-state level, where actors are using extremely sophisticated techniques with high budgets, we’re also seeing that tools are becoming much more sophisticated at micro-targeting toward specific groups.”
China is borrowing from the playbook of a somewhat more familiar foe with a track record of interfering in U.S. elections, as Niven found in his analysis of posts on X (formerly Twitter) around Taiwan’s vote. “One account would be targeting Democrats, posting pro-Democrat content … and then it just switched to Chinese to attack Taiwan,” he said. The same thing happened with another account, but this time it was from American football. “This is a very Russian tactic.”
Thibaut says there’s a non-zero chance that the United States will have to contend with a double threat of Chinese and Russian interference come November. “They already are working together on certain influence operations–they have, for example, some shared infrastructure in different African countries where they work together to produce similar media,” she said. “There’s definitely cooperation at the narrative level.”
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