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CHINESE COVID-19 MISINFORMATION IN TAIWAN

Lindsay Hendershott, Tiberius Hernandez, PACOM

Week of Monday, July 5, 2021


COVID-19 Cases in Taiwan[1]


Since the first half of 2021, Taiwan has been experiencing an increase in misinformation that intends to generate doubt about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in what many observers, including Taiwanese and American officials, believe to be a Chinese attempt to sow dissent in the country. As Taiwan is beginning to ramp up its vaccination efforts in the first half of 2021, false content claiming unfounded dangers with the COVID-19 vaccines has been spreading online in Taiwanese Facebook groups as well as messaging apps such as LINE. Given the accounts posting these false narratives as well as the suspicious wording of the content, Taiwanese officials believe that it is almost certain that China is behind the effort to raise doubts about vaccination.[2] The Taiwanese government has identified this problem and has already taken steps to discredit some false posts, but there has been limited success. Despite current Taiwanese governmental efforts, the scale of this misinformation campaign and the already sensational state of Taiwanese media poses substantial challenges for the country. Should the misinformation continue, it is highly likely that Taiwan will continue to experience COVID-19 outbreaks. Despite the Taiwanese governmental efforts to ramp up vaccination efforts, this misinformation is likely to spark socio-political unrest on the island, which China could exploit to gain leverage and even get closer to achieving reunification.


The main approach China has been utilizing to sow false narratives is through the use of various social media platforms, such as Facebook and LINE, a popular messaging app in Taiwan.[3] On Facebook, users are able to scroll through feeds of content generated by the algorithms that predict what the user will find engaging, although this could easily lead to the spread of misinformation because the spectacular headlines usually attract clicks. It appears that China is weaponizing this functionality by creating purposefully attention-grabbing headlines that coax users into reading and sharing the content out of intrigue. While LINE only operates as a platform for messaging, it works in a similar way to Facebook to spread fake news because both platforms have the capability to send content to friends and family. From deep fakes of the Taiwanese legislators to memes starring Shiba Inu dogs, online content featuring false information about the risks of vaccination has posed a significant danger and challenge to Taiwan. The primary risk presented by this situation is that Taiwanese citizens will refuse to get vaccinated, in which case it is highly likely that COVID-19 cases will continue to rise in the country. The already lower than ideal percentage of vaccinated citizens will create an environment where a singular carrier will be able to infect multiple unvaccinated individuals, who in turn will spread the disease to others. New variants of COVID-19 could be introduced into Taiwan, which would only exacerbate the issue, as new strains of the virus will more easily move through a population consisting of fewer vaccinated individuals.


The strategic decision to employ social media to proliferate misinformation was most likely derived from the several advantages of the platforms. The most significant advantage is anonymity. Due to the large amounts of social media accounts that exist, it is exceedingly easy to set up accounts that use false identities. These accounts are set up en masse, the termination of a singular account, whilst preventing an individual from amplifying false information does little to nothing when trying to stop the spread of misinformation. Further, a social media approach to misinformation provides the additional advantage that, if executed correctly, allows users to spread your message for you. Taiwan already has experienced a concerning example of this with a deep fake video of Taiwanese legislator Tsai Pi-ru telling viewers to take hot baths to kill COVID-19 (along with other faulty medical advice) being shared thousands of times before the government was able to officially condemn the video as fake.[4] This occurred in spite of an active campaign by several social media platforms to more closely regulate fake news on their websites, illustrating just how effective social media can be at spreading untrue content.


It seems that the false narratives begin on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Then, the information begins spreading through private chat applications such as LINE. It is also common for information to be spread on social media through impersonation accounts that pretend to be news outlets or government officials.[5] Social media is utilized as the first tool to introduce new misinformation because it is easily shareable and has the potential to reach large portions of the population by becoming “viral.” By utilizing impersonating accounts, Chinese misinformation can trick users into believing content is legitimate, leading many not to check the content’s validity. Misinformation then spreads through virtual word of mouth, further validating Chinese false narratives through one’s personal “friends” community online. In addition to social media, Misinformation is being perpetuated in Taiwan through mainstream media. Although misinformation starts small, usually being passed through private messaging groups or online forums, it travels through online channels and finds its way to major Taiwanese media outlets. This demonstrates that although Chinese sources are manipulating the public and perpetuating false narratives, the Taiwanese media industry is also complicit in the spread of fictitious information. Without strict fact-checking policies within the public and private media system, it is likely that Chinese sources can utilize fear-mongering tactics to take control of the industry and legitimize unvetted information. After the media covers these stories, misinformation spreads, like social media, through personal relationships, further giving the stories credence through local validation.


The social media strategy of China also needs to be considered as a part of an even bigger strategy against Taiwan in the COVID-19 era. In the first round of market deals following the debut of different vaccinations, Taiwan struggled to close deals with pharmaceutical companies in order to get doses, and Taiwan alleged that China had interfered with deals that would have provided vaccinations to Taiwan sooner.[6] Given the multiple vaccine deals that had reportedly fallen through due to Chinese influence, it seems that China had a vested interest in ensuring Taiwan did not gain access to vaccines for as long as possible, with the most likely intent being to create instability in Taiwan. The above examples of Chinese misinformation on social media actually predate the most recent vaccine deal Taiwan was able to strike with pharmaceutical companies, indicating that the Chinese preemptively began an operation to sow doubt about the vaccines. When qualified by this temporal analysis, the current target proliferation of Chinese misinformation in Taiwanese social media appears to be the next step in a grander plan to continue to hinder the effectiveness of Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to generate political and social instability in the country.


In the worst case scenario, the Chinese misinformation campaign could translate into serious outbreaks that the government would be unable to contain. Should this occur, a high level of mistrust in the effectiveness of the government would begin to be a popular sentiment in the larger population. It is likely that if this distrust was created, Chinese and pro-Chinese figures in the nation would begin to mount a political campaign to achieve electoral success as a means of getting rid of the perceived ineffective government, creating the perfect circumstances for a new, possibly pro-China administration. This would be unlikely, however, given the lack of democratically popular parties with this platform. While the public opinion of the current Tsai administration does not suggest that the current government is wildly unpopular, a surge in COVID-19 cases could change this sentiment. Therefore, if the goal of discouraging Taiwanese citizens from getting vaccinated were to be realized, this reality could persuade the Taiwanese to elect a different administration in a regular or snap future election. This series of events has the unlikely, yet tangible, potential to pave the way for the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China should the new Taiwanese government be under the influence of China. If this proved to be successful, this maneuver would realize the stated ambitions of the CCP and further solidify China’s hold as a superpower in the region. Moreover, there is also the remote but still non-negligible scenario that further outbreaks in Taiwan could serve as China’s justification to launch a “humanitarian effort” in Taiwan that is really a veiled attempt at getting security assets into the nation to gain a strategic advantage in the struggle for reunification.


It appears that the effectiveness of Chinese misinformation is actually magnified by the media climate in Taiwan. According to Reporters Without Borders, Taiwan is rated as having the second most free press in Asia. However, because of the lack of regulation, the media in the country is actually “dominated by sensationalism and the pursuit of profit.”[7] Given this sensationalist nature of Taiwanese reporting, it is very easy for questionable content to be passed off as legitimate news, or at the very least as having been created by domestic sources, making it possible for foreign actors to initiate influence campaigns in the digital realm. The large amount of Chinese misinformation sharing on messaging channels such as LINE confirms that the eye-catching headlines of Chinese content farms - operations where large numbers of people are paid to produce and post false information - are not being flagged as potentially false. Misleading headlines are actually being identified as important and/or interesting by Taiwanese citizens and are subsequently being shared. While it is true that Taiwanese academia has identified a lack of media literacy in the country and has begun initiatives to educate high schoolers on how to better assess what they see on the news, the long term nature of these reforms are very unlikely to stop the sharing of misinformation in the status quo due to the fact that media literacy takes time to learn, but the spread of fake information is occurring now.[8] If the Taiwanese government does not find a way to effectively and quickly mitigate or discredit the Chinese misinformation currently being shared, it is highly likely that the misinformation campaign will be successful in persuading citizens to not be immunized, a scenario that presents a greater risk of further outbreaks. In addition to the potential casualties such outbreaks could cause, it is likely that Taiwan would face economic losses as its workforce becomes unable to work due to illness, and the tourism industry would slow as people avoid a country still being ravaged by the pandemic. Taiwan is a key exporter of semiconductors for electronics, so in the case of increased outbreaks, it is likely that this supply line would shut down or be severely disrupted. This would dramatically reduce the availability of semiconductors and subsequently raise the price of the good at a time when supply is already strained globally.


Due to the success of Taiwan’s policies combating COVID-19 from Spring 2020 to early May 2021, a majority of Taiwanese people felt that Taiwan was more unified in early May of 2021 than prior to the pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, the “percentage who think Taiwan is now more unified than before the coronavirus outbreak” is 68%.[9] This percentage stands out among the results of the countries polled in the study as a majority of people across the globe believe that COVID-19 and the government reaction to the virus has divided the public. Although feelings of unity had initially increased in Taiwan during the pandemic, since mid-May 2021 this sentiment of trust has dwindled among the general public as Taiwan has been hit by its first major COVID-19 outbreak.[10] Although this new outbreak has influenced citizen’s opinions regarding the government’s policies, leading many to believe that state policies are ineffective, since the end of May 2021, COVID-19 cases in the region have declined steadily (see image below). Despite this downward trend in cases, the initial spike in cases has left the Taiwanese public suspicious of government initiatives. This distrust is likely the reason that many have begun searching for answers and information regarding COVID-19 from external sources such as social media. The vulnerability of the Taiwanese population to becoming indoctrinated through misinformation online due to fear from the COVID-19 outbreak in May 2021 was the perfect opportunity for Chinese perpetrators to spread damaging misinformation. Although the Chinese misinformation campaign has been in full swing since the pandemic started in early 2020, it has only started to affect public opinion in the past few months.[11] Without this initial spike in cases in May 2021 that many may blame on a lack of government preparedness and actions, misinformation would have been more difficult to spread. This shift towards looking for information from non-governmental sources not only showcases the Taiwanese population’s likely panic in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak, but also exemplifies an extreme shift from sentiments of unity to a lack of trust of the Taiwanese government.


New Cases and deaths: Coronavirus disease: Taiwan[12]


The untruthful stories that are being perpetrated by Chinese sources, including the Chinese media and state, most recently have revolved around vaccine distribution, effectiveness, and side effects. Taiwan was having trouble obtaining COVID-19 vaccines in May 2021, although efforts had been made to purchase Western vaccines.[13] During this time, disinformation spread about the incompetence of the Taiwanese government, claiming that Taiwanese citizens were receiving vaccinations in China. This story not only perpetuated a distrust of Taiwan’s government but also pushed the narrative that the Chinese vaccine was more effective than the few AstraZeneca vaccines available at the time. This story was likely created to piggyback off of international concerns regarding the possible negative side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine, placing the Chinese vaccine in a more favorable light. In addition, after the Taiwanese vaccine program began to roll out more effectively with more supplies, misinformation spread perpetuating the notion that COVID-19 vaccines could be lethal for older people. The Chinese are likely focusing on vaccines because the subject is naturally divisive. It is likely the goal of the Chinese government to divide the Taiwanese public and sow seeds of distrust in regard to the Taiwanese government in order to create a more stable image of China.


Since the Chinese government claims Taiwan is a part of China, creating discontent in relation to Taiwan’s current government would be beneficial to indoctrinating the Taiwanese public. Poll results from May 2020 showcase that although the majority of Taiwanese citizens would like to distance the country from China, preferring the United States as an ally, a significant portion of the population still feels connected to China.[14] Although this is not the majority of the population, It is possible that this misinformation, when spread through effective tactics, could cause these citizens who feel more connected to China to become more comfortable with Chinese governmental authority. If this is the case, the Taiwanese public could start to feel more connected to an overarching Chinese identity than a sovereign Taiwanese ideal.


On the other hand, the United States is increasing its support for Taiwan as vaccine donations have increased significantly since June 2021, following the COVID-19 outbreak.[15] This new influx of vaccines may be extremely beneficial in creating more trust toward the Western power, as the donation exemplifies a stronger relationship between the United States and Taiwan. New vaccines that have less of a problematic history with the international media, i.e. Pfizer and Moderna, could help assist in forging new positive associations with the vaccine process. In addition, if the Taiwanese people start receiving vaccinations in a more widespread manner, civilians may start to lose their skepticism regarding COVID-19 vaccines. As has been showcased through the Chinese misinformation campaign, personal and familiar approval from people within different communities can hugely alter a person’s perception. Positive local recommendations and experiences with the vaccination process would greatly influence and help communities open up to preventative pandemic health measures. This would very likely assist in de-legitimizing the Chinese misinformation campaign.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]COVID-19 Outbreak Cases in Taiwan” by Night Lantern, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Taiwan’s unity cracks under Chinese disinformation onslaught, The Financial Times, June 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/f22f1011-0630-462a-a21e-83bae4523da7

[3] Ibid

[4] Fake news alert: Taiwan fights disinformation as COVID surges, Al-Jazeera, May 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/28/disinformation-goes-viral-as-taiwan-battles-new-covid-surge

[5] Fake news alert: Taiwan fights disinformation as COVID surges, Al Jazeera, May 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/28/disinformation-goes-viral-as-taiwan-battles-new-covid-surge

[6] Taiwan, feuding with China, gets vaccines from Japan, Associated Press, June 2021, https://apnews.com/article/europe-china-taiwan-business-japan-0c31ddf65eaa81ac101f592ec5697c37

[7] Taiwan’s unity cracks under Chinese disinformation onslaught, JThe Financial Times, une 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/f22f1011-0630-462a-a21e-83bae4523da7

[8] EDITORIAL: Media literacy more vital than ever, The Taipei Times, July 2021, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2021/07/03/2003760202

[9] People in Advanced Economies Say Their Society Is More Divided Than Before Pandemic, Pew Research Center, June 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/06/23/people-in-advanced-economies-say-their-society-is-more-divided-than-before-pandemic/

[10] Taiwan’s unity cracks under Chinese disinformation onslaught, The Financial Times, June 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/f22f1011-0630-462a-a21e-83bae4523da7

[11] Taiwan’s unity cracks under Chinese disinformation onslaught, The Financial Times, June 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/f22f1011-0630-462a-a21e-83bae4523da7

[12]COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University” by The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University licensed under Public Domain

[13] Vaccine Victim-Blaming Taiwan Feeds into Pan-Blue Talking Points, Chinese Disinformation, New Bloom, May 2021, https://newbloommag.net/2021/05/24/tsai-vaccine-access/

[14] In Taiwan, Views of Mainland China Mostly Negative, Pew Research Center, May 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/05/12/in-taiwan-views-of-mainland-china-mostly-negative/

[15] The US triples its vaccine donations to Taiwan as the island battles an outbreak, CNN, June 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/19/asia/taiwan-us-vaccine-donations-intl-hnk/index.html


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