Banking on structural weaknesses in today’s media, Beijing has succeeded in broadcasting a false narrative about Taiwan, often on a global scale.
Chinese media and the state apparatus appear to have joined hands to intensify a campaign of propaganda and disinformation targeting Taiwan, with fabrication, half-truths and comments taken out of context aimed at sowing confusion across the democratic nation and undermining its image abroad.
Although there is nothing particularly new about disinformation campaigns — in fact the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long used this as a tool in and outside China — their utility tends to increase in times of conflict or when a party is not getting what it wants from an ideological opponent, as is currently the case in the Taiwan Strait.
Disinformation is a key component of political or psychological warfare activity that seeks to weaken the enemy by undermining trust and cohesion across society. Although disinformation can be broadcast using various channels (think tanks, academic conferences, social forums and so on), mass media are the principal means of diffusion and the practice thrives in societies where journalism is either hampered by authoritarian censorship or, even in more open societies, a poor track record of fact-checking.
One of the main targets of Chinese disinformation are the Taiwanese themselves. The goal is to sow confusion; weaken trust in the nation’s democratic institutions and leadership; exacerbate divisions between political parties, within civil society and among Chinese dissidents; and raise suspicions of treasonous intent toward retired generals and defense officials — all with the ultimate goal of breaking morale and impairing people’s immunity to Beijing’s propaganda on unification. Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against military attack often has been the subject of such disinformation campaigns. This occurred earlier this week with a controversial interview in the CCP mouthpiece Global Times with former deputy minister of national defense Lin Chong-pin in which Lin, among other things, paints a very grim (and rather out-of-character) picture of Taiwan’s ability to withstand a military attack, while seeming to speak positively about the prospects of “peaceful unification,” Chinese Newspeak for coerced annexation. Another recent example was a photograph circulated in Chinese media and on the Chinese air force’s Sina Weibo microblog in December 2016 purporting to show a PLAAF H-6K bomber flying near Taiwan’s Yushan. Taiwan’s defense ministry denied this was true, but one can justifiably ask how many people worldwide will have seen that denial.
Another worrying trend is the growing body of evidence suggesting that pro-Beijing elements have been infiltrating civil society, including Chinese dissident groups, a development that could have a serious impact on the credibility of the information we obtain from such organizations and individuals.
China furthermore knows it can count on media it does not even control to intensify its signalling. What it banks on is circular reporting, or the growing tendency in media, traditional and “new,” to aggregate, repost, or repackage news published elsewhere. In many cases — particularly in Taiwan — the original publication that broke a news story is not even mentioned or hyperlinked, thus giving a false sense of corroboration, as if a piece of information had come from two, or several, sources, when in reality it originated from one outlet. Unfortunately, editorial pressures are such that journalists will be reprimanded if they fail to cover something that is reported by their competitors; and so much is asked of beat reporters that quite often they simply do not have the time, let alone the incentive from their superiors, to corroborate, fact-check, or contact additional sources. As a result, information that was false to begin with can take a life of its own and become a new “meme.” Subsequent corrections cannot undo the initial damage caused by mass disinformation. Lin, the former deputy defense minister, now claims that the Global Times expunged many of his comments from his interview. Fair enough, but given its terrible reputation and the high likelihood that his remarks would be misrepresented or used for propagandistic aims, he should have known better than to grant an interview with them in the first place.
In many cases — particularly in Taiwan — the original publication that broke a news story is not even mentioned or hyperlinked, thus giving a false sense of corroboration, as if a piece of information had come from two, or several, sources, when in reality it originated from one outlet.
The same applies to Taiwanese officials, serving or retired, granting interviews to the Hong Kong-based China Review News, which is believed to have close ties to the China Association for Promotion of Chinese Culture (CAPCC). As Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao observed in a groundbreaking report on Chinese propaganda efforts, the CAPCC is the principal “platform for cross-Strait political warfare operations.” And yet China Review News reporters operate in Taiwan, attend conferences, have contact with officials, and they take a lot of pictures. A lot of the material the collect is assumed to be intended for internal government reference, or neibu, by the CCP.
Of course when it comes to making sure that pro-Beijing disinformation enters Taiwan’s bloodstream, China knows it can always rely on its ally the China Times. Moreover, a recent explosion in the number of online “new media,” many of them with obscure backers, has compounded the credibility gap by adding noise to the news stream and possibly increasing false corroboration.
The disinformation campaign also increasingly relies on pro-Beijing publications in Hong Kong, which as for investment may provide a veneer of legitimacy. Just this week, Ta Kung Pao took comments by Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang in Taipei completely out of context to sow alarm and discredit the Tsai administration. Commenting on what security measures would be implemented should someone attempt to crash a large vehicle into the Presidential Office, as occurred on Jan. 25, 2014, Huang said that if it were deemed that lives were endangered by such an act, armed military police guarding the building would be given the green light to open fire on the assailant(s). Instead, the Ta Kung Pao article, relying on information initially manipulated in social media, headlined its article as the Tsai government “fearing the people” and ordering military police to shoot protesters, including those who have recently mobilized in opposition to proposed changes to the pension system. (Huang commented on the incident in a Facebook post here.) Hong Kong media, including the self-same Ta Kung Pao, were also notorious earlier this month for mischaracterizing the incidents surrounding a visit to Taiwan by four Hong Kong activists and very much toeing Beijing’s line on the increasingly vocal civil society in the former British colony.
Incidentally, signs of a new wave of disinformation against Taiwan emerged soon after Taiwan became the center of attention globally, due largely to president elect Donald Trump’s 10-minute telephone conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2, as well as subsequent remarks by Mr. Trump, who will be inaugurated tomorrow, on the “one China” policy. Logically, Beijing would seek to exploit the unusual attention that is being paid to Taiwan internationally by flooding the media with information that erodes Taiwan’s case and prestige. Such efforts are facilitated by the circular news phenomenon in Taiwan described above and the fact that most international media do not have a presence in Taiwan and therefore often rely on reports in mainstream Taiwanese (or Chinese, including the dreaded Global Times) media for their information. The more entrepreneurial journalists, many of whom are based in Beijing, will make the extra effort to contact people in Taiwan to get feedback, but sadly those are in the minority.
The other casualties of intensifying Chinese disinformation efforts are the government agencies, NGOs, and individuals who must spend a lot of time and energy mitigating the reputational damage that can be caused by the false information. The more finite resources they must dedicate to countering such efforts, the less they have at their disposal to do the actual work of running the country or fulfilling their mandates as agencies, NGOs, or individuals. With the recent announcement by Beijing of further investment — in the billions of dollars — to strengthen its global media footprint, the challenge of countering disinformation is about to become even more daunting. While Taiwan cannot possibly hope to counter all that disinformation on a symmetrical basis, it could accomplish a lot by educating its people and its allies abroad, including foreign media, about those practices. As China ramps up its efforts globally, we all have to inoculate ourselves against fake news and be more critical of the information we receive.