IFTF: Detecting Digital Fingerprints: Tracing Chinese Disinformation in Taiwan

Institute for The Future, Graphika, International Republican Institute reveal foreign and domestic information operations attempted to undermine democratic processes and push Beijing-friendly narratives.

Aug 25, 2020—Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab, Graphika, and International Republican Institute issued a joint report revealing the tactics and strategy behind an information operation directed at Taiwanese democratic processes. The report, Detecting Digital Fingerprints: Tracing Chinese Disinformation in Taiwan, uncovered a series of campaigns by CCP-linked and domestic actors targetIng Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election and its response to COVID-19 with narratives crafted to advance Beijing-strategic interests. Key findings include the discovery of new campaign tactics such as the use of Malaysian content farms, coordinated cross-platform campaigns and attempts to instigate U.S. participation.

“The Taiwanese presidential election was a seminal moment for Beijing’s strategic political interests” said Melanie Smith, Head of Analysis, Graphika. “However, the emergence of information operations around COVID-19 makes it abundantly clear that disinformation in Taiwan is a persistent threat, not limited to election cycles.”

The report also indicates resilience to disinformation in Taiwanese society and political culture. “Taiwan is a model of successful mobilization against false information through its use of innovative civil society groups, as well as strong and consistent communication between government and the tech industry,” said Nick Monaco, Director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at Institute for the Future.

“The Chinese disinformation apparatus is evolving, and we are learning more about how its use is strategic to geopolitical priorities,” said Amy Studdart, Senior Advisor for Digital Democracy at the International Republican Institute. “This report should provide a model by which other nations can understand the threat of disinformation on their democractic processes.”

Read the full report here. >>
Read the key findings here. >>

Key Findings from the Report

Finding 1
Disinformation related to COVID-19 was used to discredit the Taiwanese government and had links to mainland China. Mainland Chinese accounts pushed COVID-19 disinformation targeting Taiwan on Facebook and Twitter. These accounts revealed their Chinese origin by overlap with previous Chinese netizen-led disinformation campaigns targeting Taiwan and a poor grasp of linguistic differences between Taiwanese and Chinese Mandarin.

Finding 2
Disinformation was targeted at undermining democratic actors writ large, not just the election, and increased in the months immediately following the election. In addition to foreign campaigns focused on COVID-19, a network of domestic Taiwanese accounts drove a cross-platform campaign falsely alleging Tsai Ing-wen’s Ph.D. dissertation was fake. These inauthentic Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts promoted a petition to the U.S. government to investigate her Ph.D.’s authenticity. These posts often included instructions and links to YouTube videos instructing Chinese speakers not fluent in English how to navigate signing a petition on petitions.whitehouse.gov.

Finding 3
Content farms8 in Malaysia promoted Han Kuo-yu, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate for president, and criticized Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate and incumbent president. This network of content farms coordinated production and distribution of these stories in the lead up to the election. Often the stories displayed links to mainland China through Chinese vocabulary choices, similarities with content from attributed Chinese government information operations, running stories copied from PRC state-owned media outlets, or by running disinformation attributed to the Chinese government. After the election, this network
promoted several false stories alleging that COVID-19 originated in the U.S.

Finding 4
Disinformation frequently targeted the voting process and Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) before the election. The Taiwan FactCheck Center catalogued several examples of disinformation on LINE and Facebook that targeted central aspects of Taiwan’s democratic process, including the voting process and the CEC, some of which alleged CIA intervention to swing the result. At least one of these stories displayed signs of mainland Chinese authorship through vocabulary choice.

Finding 5
One presidential candidate’s Facebook page appeared to benefit from false inflation, gaining a suspicious and abrupt increase in Facebook followers one month before the election. James Soong, a third-party candidate for president, gained nearly 500,000 Facebook followers in a period of days the month before Taiwan’s election. Soong received the highest rise in followers out of all 268 official candidate and party Facebook pages we observed in the month leading up to the election. This represented a 356% increase in followers and occurred over a span of about 72 hours. Soong’s suspicious gain of nearly half a million followers over four days is unlikely to be organic and warrants further investigation.

Finding 6
Disinformation was a cross-platform problem during the election. We observed disinformation on six social media platforms—Facebook, Instagram, LINE, PTT, Twitter, and YouTube—and on dozens of domains. Far from being limited to one platform, disinformation was present on all social media platforms studied.

Finding 7
Taiwan’s domestic digital marketing industry plays a large role in political disinformation on the island. The industry is primarily commercially motivated.

Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab (DigIntel) is a social scientific research entity conducting work on the most pressing issues at the intersection of technology and society. They examine how new technologies and media can be used to both benefit and challenge democratic communication. Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. For over 50 years, businesses, governments, and social impact organizations have depended upon IFTF global forecasts, custom research, and foresight training to navigate complex change and develop world-ready strategies. IFTF methodologies and toolsets yield coherent views of transformative possibilities across all sectors that together support a more sustainable future. Institute for the Future is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, California. For more, visit iftf.org and follow us on Twitter @iftf.

Graphika is the network analysis firm that empowers Fortune 500s, Silicon Valley, human rights organizations and universities to navigate the cybersocial terrain. With rigorous methodology, Graphika maps the formation of communities and the flow of influence and information within large-scale social networks. Organizations rely on Graphika to analyze the global disinformation landscape, protect against coordinated and inauthentic online activity, and understand how to effectively reach audiences through social marketing channels. Founded in 2013 by John Kelly, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of network analysis, Graphika is a trusted source for governing bodies around the globe and social platforms on matters of foreign information operations, and disinformation and misinformation around events with worldwide impact such as COVID-19 and global election interference. For more, visit graphika.com and @Graphika_NYC.

ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL REPUBLICAN INSTITUTE<br/>A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the International Republican Institute (IRI) advances freedom and democracy worldwide by helping political parties to become more responsive, strengthening transparent and accountable governance, and working to increase the role of marginalized groups in the political process – including women and youth. More information is available at www.iri.org.

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