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Chinese cybergroup behind Kaohsiung Mayor's win uncovered

A Chinese cybergroup behind Facebook page that boosted Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu's rise revealed

Fang, Chen, and Chi. (Screenshots from LinkedIn)

Fang, Chen, and Chi. (Screenshots from LinkedIn)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- After months of suspicions and accusations that China had manipulated social media to engineer Han Kuo-yu's (韓國瑜) meteoric rise to fame and victory in the Kaohsiung mayoral race last year, a Foreign Policy (FP) report has revealed at least one of the Facebook pages instrumental in his win, including the group's Chinese administrators.

In a report released on Wednesday (June 26), the author analyses the origins of one of many "Han fan" Facebook pages that mysteriously and suddenly appeared when Han began his run for mayor of Kaohsiung. The page, titled "Han Kuo-yu Fans for Victory! Holding up a Blue Sky!" (韓國瑜粉絲後援團 必勝!撐起一片藍天) was created on April 10, just one day after Han announced his candidacy for the mayoral race.

For Han, who was relatively unknown before the race, Facebook would prove to be a key tool in building his base of support as 19 million of Taiwan's population of 23.5 million people are glued to the monopolistic social media platform. Soon, this particular community page became one of the largest unofficial Han fan pages on Facebook with members 61,000 by election day; the site currently has nearly 90,000 members.

Chinese cybergroup behind Kaohsiung Mayor's win uncovered
Screenshot of Han fan Facebook page circa December 2018.

According to the report, users aided Han's cause by posting "talking points, memes, and very often fake news attacking Han’s opponent Chen, the DPP government, and anyone who said a bad word about Han." The group soon became a launch pad to disperse weaponized fake news to message apps such as LINE and communities within them.

During the campaign, Han's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rival Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) denounced the fake news campaigns being disseminated on Han's behalf and alleged that one influencer could be linked to an "overseas IP address." Beyond an individual user, the report alleges that in the case of the Han fan page, there was a "professional cybergroup from China" behind its creation.

The report found that the first three administrators of the page had the usernames "Fang Jianzhu," "Yun Chi," and "Chen Geng," which the author traced to LinkedIn profiles listing all three as employees of the Chinese tech and social media giant Tencent.

Chinese cybergroup behind Kaohsiung Mayor's win uncovered
(Screenshots of Facebook accounts and corresponding LinkedIn profiles)

All three claimed to be graduates of Peking University and two used the identical cookie-cutter description of having "worked in public relations for many foreign companies" (在多家外企做过公关). A search of this phrase on LinkedIn revealed 249 accounts with the identical text, all of which showed dated graduation photos from Peking University and listed themselves as Tencent employees.

To make the accounts more suspicious, many used the same photo but different names and often had few if any actual LinkedIn connections. All the employees of Tencent, the company behind China's tightly censored WeChat app had names written in Spartan simplified characters, unlike the classical traditional Chinese characters used by Taiwanese.

After monitoring the accounts since December, the author of the report writes that all three Facebook profiles have been inactive since election day, Nov. 24, 2018. The reins to the page have apparently since been handed over to six administrators with accounts listed as being in places such as Changhua, Hong Kong, and Kaohsiung.

Chinese cybergroup behind Kaohsiung Mayor's win uncovered
Fang Jianzhu. (Screenshot from LinkedIn)

One social media expert surnamed Chu told FP that because LinkedIn is very rarely used in Taiwan, the team behind the Facebook page was likely based in China. LinkedIn has become a notorious hunting ground for Chinese spies to lay traps to lure gullible foreign nationals, often Westerners, to leak secrets or unwittingly become agents for China.

An assistant professor at National Chung Cheng University and an expert on the Chinese military, Ying-Yu Lin, told FP that the cybergroup behind the Facebook page could be affiliated with the Strategic Support Force (SSF) of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). If this proves to be the case, it could be the first instance in which the new cyberforce has attempted to interfere in a foreign election.

However, a psychological operations officer going by the pseudonym "Lieutenant Ho," who serves with Political Warfare Bureau under Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, told FP that it is more like a private group of individuals hired by a Chinese company. Nevertheless, Ho said that the Chinese government could still be the organization "pulling the strings" behind the scenes.

Chinese cybergroup behind Kaohsiung Mayor's win uncovered
Chen Geng. (Screenshot from LinkedIn)

Ho said that China has attempted to manipulate Taiwanese social media in the past. He said that he and his colleagues have identified "a number of Facebook and content farms" that are designed to mimic Taiwanese ones but were found to have been run by the Chinese Communist Party’s Publicity Department.

One thing that all of the experts FP spoke to agreed on was that there were many such Facebook communities as well as numerous other "groups, pages, content farms, and platforms" that were exploited by the Communist Chinese government to propel Han to power. As Han vies for the KMT nomination for the 2020 presidential race, Taiwan can be assured of an even more concerted effort by Beijing to place its candidate in the Presidential Office Building.

Chinese cybergroup behind Kaohsiung Mayor's win uncovered
Chi Yun. (Screenshot from LinkedIn)