Beijing using 'agents' to spread disinformation on social media in Taiwan

China using local 'agents' to proliferate disinformation as Taiwan election nears: report

Pro-China rally in Taipei's Ximending.

Pro-China rally in Taipei's Ximending. (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- As the 2020 Taiwan general elections grow near, a report by a Taiwanese think tank states that China is using "agents" and intermediaries to spread disinformation online while using multiple layers to maintain plausible deniability.

In the final five months before Taiwan's 2020 election, China has actively deployed its cyber army to launch information warfare against Taiwan, according to a new report by the Ministry of National Defense's Institute for National Defense and Security Research. In the article in its monthly gazette, "Defense Situation Monthly," its author, assistant researcher Wu Yung-yen (吳永棪), asserts that China is using "agents" (代理人) and intermediaries (仲介機構) as channels for its information warfare campaign against Taiwan.

Wu compared the operational modes of information warfare between China and Russia in the monthly report on the national defense situation. Wu explained that Russia has spent a lot of resources and time to build trust in the U.S., but China can take advantage of the networks and organizations generated by its long-term "united front" campaigns and infiltration into Taiwan to launch new attacks with relative ease.

According to Wu's assessment, China has long infiltrated Taiwan's temple's, socialities, and borough and village chiefs. These grass-roots organizations have their own social media, fan pages, or LINE groups.

A network is established by the united front in cooperation with Chinese information warfare units. Information is filtered and censored by agents and then transmitted through the interpersonal network.

Because the language and words are the same, it can be easily converted from the simplified script used in China to the traditional characters seen in Taiwan, which make it very easy to disseminate the false information, even directly from WeChat. In addition to buying Facebook fan pages in Taiwan and recruiting netizens to join them, Wu pointed out that China can also outsource and employ local Taiwanese marketing companies or netizens.

In other words, China can pay for intermediaries in Taiwan to operate its clandestine information warfare campaigns. In fact, online marketing companies recruit social media members and editors to conduct public opinion analyses, at the cost of NT$30,000 per case, depending on the length and scope of their tasks.

Shen Pao-yang (沈伯陽), an assistant professor in the National Taiwan University Department of Criminology, says that he has interviewed people from several online marketing companies and that some people used Chinese funding to operate Facebook groups, reported the Liberty Times.

Shen said that he had interviewed the staff of several internet marketing companies over the course of six months and found that the "orders" they received were "outsourced layer by layer," reported the Liberty Times. Generally, the deals were packaged in three or four layers.

This layering technique makes it difficult for Taiwanese companies to actually know the true sources of the ads. However, the companies usually make inquiries privately, and the subcontractors will know whether there is a Chinese source backing the campaign.

Shen said that most of the businesses are small internet marketing companies with six or more employees. Some of them work in large companies, but some of them use their own off-duty time to earn "extra money," according to the report.

In the early days, this consisted of posts on the popular Taiwanese online forum PTT, but now they specialize in Facebook groups. Usually, one person runs multiple groups, transfers information from content farms, and disseminates fake news with a greater impact than Facebook fans.

According to Shen's investigation, although some of these orders for internet marketing companies were placed by Taiwanese companies, after comparing them with other campaigns, they closely mimic those of united front programs. Shen said that some campaigns can also be tied to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, but there is not yet sufficient evidence to point to direct involvement by the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The Mainland Affairs Council on Saturday (Aug. 3) emphasized that any communications with the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government, the PLA, private Chinese organizations, or individuals over political matters is a violation of the Article 33 of the Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area (台灣地區與大陸地區人民關係條例). Those who are found to have breached this act can face fines of between NT$100,000 and NT$500,000.