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China's 'troll factory' targeting Taiwan with disinformation prior to election

China's '50 Cent Army' is dumping disinformation on Taiwanese social media in buildup to Nov. 24 elections

YouTube screenshot.

YouTube screenshot.

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- A local media outlet reported yesterday (Nov. 5) that China has its own "troll factory," which specializes in training its media and setting up accounts on Weibo, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, PTT, and other social media platforms to launch "cognitive space combat" (認知空間作戰) and interfere with Taiwan's Nov. 24 elections.

Liberty Times yesterday reported that in late 2015, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) set up a "PLA Strategic Support Force," whose tasks include intelligence, technical reconnaissance, cyber attack-and-defense, etc. According to a source familiar with the situation, the PLA has about 300,000 cyber-savvy soldiers serving in this unit, while over 2 million are believed to be members of the "50 Cent Army" (五毛黨), i.e., Netizens paid a nominal fee to make comments on social media sites in favor of Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

China has long regarded Taiwan as a test ground for its cyber warfare techniques, with an average of 100,000 cyber attacks reported per month in 2017 alone, according ot the National Security Bureau. A source in the National Security Bureau told Liberty Times that the "troll factory" behind Russia's cyber Navy had successfully influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and that China has now established its own version of a troll factory.

The National Security Bureau's system has found that China has a fixed mode of operation to spread false news in Taiwan, focusing on cross-strait relations, military defense, and policy implementation by the Tsai administration, among other issues. Chinese state-run media outlets such as the Global Times, Straits Today, and Taihai Net first publish fake news on these topics, then China's cyber soldiers and 50 Cent Army spew out the disinformation through Facebook, LINE, YouTube, and the popular Taiwanese bulletin board Professional Technology Temple (PTT).

According to the National Security Bureau source, many videos targeting Taiwan have been created in simplified Chinese characters and appeared on YouTube recently, with account names such as Jianghu Baixiaosheng (江湖百晓生)and Touhao Zhanjiang (头号战将), both of which have nearly 30,000 followers. After inspecting the content, the source said that they are mostly from Global Times, with the main targets being Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and American President Donald Trump.

The National Security Bureau source said that Jianghu Baixiaosheng has posted 939 videos since its creation on YouTube earlier this year, making it obvious that there is some kind of organization behind it. An example would be a video titled "China's Unification is at this Moment" (中國統一就在當下), which has gained over 400,000 views since it was uploaded to the YouTube channel for Jianghu Baixiaosheng on July 1 of this year.

In addition, a video titled "When the PLA launches an attack, Taiwan compatriots can apply for identity cards" (解放軍發動進攻,台灣同胞就可辦理身分證) has gained over 100, 000 views on the same YouTube channel since July 10 of this year. These videos have since been shared to Facebook groups in Taiwan; the ultimate impact of which on the election is yet to be seen.

The source said China's ultimate goal is to lay the groundwork for the victory of a pro-China regime in Taiwan upon arrival of the 2020 elections, when cyber attacks are expected to reach a fever pitch.