May 24, 2021 - World

Report: Beijing flooded Taiwan with coronavirus disinformation

People wearing face masks walk past Taipei 101, a landmark in Taipei, amid a surge of locally acquired cases of Covid-19

People wearing face masks walk past Taipei 101, a landmark in Taipei. Photo credit: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Chinese government-backed disinformation flooded Taiwan in 2020, amplifying discord prior to Taiwan's elections and spreading COVID-19-related disinformation aimed at delegitimizing Taiwan's democratic government and improving Beijing's image, a new report finds.

Why it matters: The Chinese government has developed a sophisticated set of disinformation tools that it is deploying inside liberal democracies. Beijing's information operations in Taiwan follow a set pattern also deployed elsewhere, suggesting other governments might emulate Taiwan's largely successful response.

What's happening: In a report published on May 24 called "Deafening Whispers," researchers with the DoubleThink Lab in Taipei found that posts containing false or misleading information about the coronavirus and Taiwan's 2020 elections were widespread and could be traced back to coordinated activity by the Chinese party-state.

  • Broadly speaking, the messaging promoted by Beijing-linked actors suggested that democracy had failed in Taiwan, while using false coronavirus claims in an attempt to disrupt political processes and degrade social trust.

Details: The researchers analyzed thousands of posts to determine their origin, purpose, effect, audience, and how the disinformation was disseminated. They categorized Beijing's efforts into four types of "attack modes:"

  • Propaganda mode: Distorted information broadcasted by news outlets, either Chinese state media or news outlets that have received hidden financial or other incentives to repackage China's propaganda as legitimate news
  • Pink mode: Mobilizing Chinese nationalists online to post and amplify disinformation
  • Content farm mode: Using websites that aggregate low-quality, high-engagement articles to amplify and spread disinformation, often through Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms
  • Collaboration mode: Working closely with real online influencers in the target country to get them to share the desired messages through their platforms

What they're saying: "Taiwan has been flagged as a testing ground for the PRC's worldwide propaganda and information warfare," the report authors write.

  • "China's information operations are profoundly effective in the wars over culture, values, and governance" in Taiwan, the authors wrote, "sowing division in Taiwanese society, pushing groups into echo chambers, and attacking fundamental democratic values."

What's next: The DoubleThink Lab researchers propose several regulatory actions that governments can take to counter Chinese government disinformation.

  • Source control regulations which limit financial transactions between businesses and media, ensuring less financial incentive to promote disinformation at the behest of certain actors
  • Platform regulations that require removal of certain kinds of harmful content or posting notices providing transparency about certain content
  • Regulations of core political processes, such as donation disclosures and forbidding foreign participation in elections
  • Content-based speech regulations to criminalize the dissemination of disinformation that directly affects public health
  • Media laws, including restrictions on foreign ownership of media outlets and strengthened ethics requirements
  • Transparency legislation, such as mandatory lobbying disclosures like those required by the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act

The bottom line: "Methods to study information operations need to evolve with their increasing sophistication," Puma Shen, one of the report's authors, told Axios.

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