This post is an update to our Presidential Election 2020 Scene Setter published August 26, 2019.
Update (12/13/19 3:00pm): a few hours after we published this blog post, Facebook took down 118 fan pages, 99 groups, and 51 accounts for inauthentic activity and rules violations. The story is developing , but as reported in the press the issue appears to have been inauthentic behavior designed to artificially inflate the popularity of content in certain communities, rather than foreign influence. The Page names were not officially released, but it appears that one of the largest pro-Han Kuo-Yu groups, 2020韓國瑜總統後援會（總會）, is now down. This Group was one of dozens of extremely active political fan communities that we had examined, noting coordinated posting, regular "overperformance" of content in CrowdTangle, and Page manager overlap with other pro-KMT communities beginning in early November. This takedown illustrates the complex spectrum from coordinated activism to coordinated inauthentic activity, whether domestic or foreign. We will post more about these Pages, including behavioral and content observations, early next week.
The Taiwanese presidential and legislative elections are now one month away, and the SIO team has been following emerging narratives. The candidates in serious contention are Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-Wen and Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu. Currently, Tsai holds a 20-35 point lead over Han depending on the poll. According to experts who are following the election closely, this past month was a turning point in the election where Tsai Ing-Wen looks now to be in good shape to win reelection and the odds for the DPP holding onto the majority in the LY appear better as the election nears. Political and economic factors such as the connection the Taiwanese feel towards the Hong Kong protestors, Tsai’s firmer stance towards the PRC, and a healthy economy have all played in Tsai’s favor. Additionally, despite previous concerns about online influence operations by Beijing to boost Han Kuo-yu during his 2018 mayoral campaign, and calls from the government to be wary of PRC interference, we have not yet observed coordinated inauthentic behavior supportive of either candidate in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, in this period two notable polarizing stories have dominated election coverage recently, which the competing candidates and their supporters are framing in a way that discredits their opponents. First, confessions of a PRC-run disinformation campaign in the November 2018 election, made by an alleged PRC operative who recently defected to Australia, has excited pro-DPP fans as proof of the PRC’s meddling on behalf of the KMT party. On the other side, new information has surfaced from a year-old disinformation campaign surrounding the crisis of Taiwanese tourists trapped at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan due to a typhoon and is being leveraged by the KMT as proof that the DPP has a green “net army” (green being the color of the DPP). Combined, these stories have introduced public confusion about what can and cannot be believed leading into the elections.
The story of an alleged Chinese defector broke on Saturday, November 23rd in Australian media outlets. In what was billed as a world exclusive interview with 60-Minutes Australia, Wang “William” Liqiang, reported disinformation efforts he managed on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In interviews, Wang recounts working for a senior intelligence operative at China Innovation Investment Limited – an alleged cover organization for PRC intelligence agencies and Communist Party officials, he claims. While at this company, Wang worked to thwart democracy movements in Hong Kong by collecting intelligence on pro-independence activists. He recruited mainland students, “influenced them with patriotism,” and sent the students to collect personal data on pro-independence student activists. This data was then made public, putting the targeted students’ family members at risk.
In addition to these claims, Wang also professed to have meddled in the August 2018 elections in Taiwan. The Financial Times reported on Wang’s allegations that CCP-backed operatives created 200,000 fake social media accounts and 20 internet companies to attack the DPP through operations online. Wang also claimed that RMB 1.5 billion was given to Taiwanese media companies to promote Han Kuo-yu’s campaign for Kaohsiung mayor.
Within Taiwan, Wang’s accounts of cyber espionage were the subject of media coverage as well as extensive social media activity. Taiwan’s four primary daily newspapers - The China Times, United Daily News, Liberty Times News, and Apple Daily - covered the story, though in somewhat different ways.
China Times and United Daily News - outlets considered friendly towards the PRC and more blue (KMT) leaning respectively - commonly described the story as a “spy farce.” The publications worked to discredit Wang and his claims, reporting that his accounts were “highly suspect” and suggested he was a “mediocre spy.” PRC state media such as China Daily and Global Times shared similar rhetoric, with the China Daily writing an editorial titled “Australia's spy stories defy belief.”
By contrast, Apple Daily uses more neutral language to describe the developing controversy. They reported, for example, that while some details are difficult to confirm, Western diplomats are taking Wang’s claims seriously. In a more recent article on December 7th, the Liberty Times News shared a similar story, citing people in the US intelligence community, such as PRC expert Nicholas Eftimiads, who believe Wang’s claims.
Partisan Facebook Page and Group conversations are also sharply divided in their perceptions of the “disillusioned spy.” Our team tracked the themes and stories that have received heightened attention as each party shared the side of the narrative most favorable to them.
A search for Wang’s name (王立強) across a subset of public pro-DPP Fan Pages on Facebook shows that popular posts have focused on:
Across a subset of public pro-Han Kuo-yu Pages, narratives have focused on:
On Twitter, the Epoch Times played a prominent role in circulating coverage of Wang, taking a stance in their articles defending his claims from attempts of PRC-state media to discredit him. The US-based publication was founded “in response to communist repression and censorship in China.” In the United States, the American-based publication prides itself on presenting an alternative to mainstream media coverage. Through additional regional offices in China and Japan, Epoch Times spread Wang’s story through the hashtag, “#王立強” (“#WangLiqiang”).
The network of how the hashtag #王立強 spread on Twitter. The account @epochtimes_jp was retweeted by many accounts. Image created using Hoaxy.
Less than two weeks after the story of Wang’s defection, another disinformation-related story broke - an unexpected update to a debunked fake news story which circulated in early September, 2018. Last year, the Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan flooded due to a typhoon and an evacuation was needed for travelers flying through the airport. On September 6th, PRC state media reported that Taiwanese travelers had to identify as Chinese in order to be allowed on the bus that was used during the rescue efforts, among them “32 Taiwan compatriots” a China Times article wrote. On the same day, a thread about the evacuation was created on a popular Taiwanese online forum, Professional Technology Temple (PTT), and users posted links to the PRC media articles. Newspapers in Taiwan and Hong Kong picked up the story, reusing quotes in a Global Times article from alleged witnesses. These news articles were later proved to be false, as witnesses came forward to state that this had not actually occurred. An investigation found that the IP address of the creator of the Kansai airport thread and the accounts posting fake news stories were traced to Beijing, and so the operation was assessed to be a PRC influence operation.
At the same time the fake news stories were being shared, another PTT account with the username “idcc” posted scornful messages criticizing the Taiwanese consulate for failing to protect its own citizens. On December 2nd the story resurfaced: posts attacking the consulate were attributed to Tsai Fu-min, who Taiwanese media described as an “internet troll” paid by DPP-linked figure Slow Yang (楊蕙如). Though Yang denies the charges, she was indicted by the police. The DPP is trying to distance itself from her, stating that she was not acting on the orders of anyone in the party.
In another layer to the intense feelings and misinformation around the evacuation from Kansai airport, a week after the flooding, the director, Su Chii-cherng (蘇啓誠), in charge of the Taiwan representative office in Osaka and the target of the PTT criticism, committed suicide a week after the flood. Taiwanese media outlets reported that in the director’s suicide note, he cited the humiliation of being criticized online. Our team cannot independently verify these claims and have found articles citing other reasons for taking his life.
The new development linking Yang to the story raises questions about the previous attribution to Beijing. Moreover, the story has stirred a lot of interest among the pro-KMT Facebook Pages, who are using the story to discredit the DPP. One common theme is comments and posts demanding to know where Yang received her money to fund the “net army.” Some posts state that it’s ironic that DPP is accusing the PRC of being involved in the Taiwanese election when they have a “green net army.”
The fervency of this story is not just among voters but also leveraged by Han Kuo-yu, who posted about the arrest of Yang and the tragic death of the Osaka consultant director. In his post, Han Kuo-yu criticizes the DPP’s place in the story, calling the party “cold blooded.” In their own response, on December 2nd, the DPP issued a statement on Facebook that Yang’s case has nothing to do with the DPP and condemned the KMT for “deliberately linking this matter to the DPP.”
The story still continues: in Taipei on Deceber 6th, a group of KMT legislators and city counselors attempted to confront the Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu ((吳釗燮), over the suicide of the Osaka consulate director. The Taipei Times and other news outlets reported that, blocked by police, the legislators used what the DPP accused as “excessive violence” against the officers. The paper then reported that two of the KMT legislators ended up going to the emergency room, where Han Kuo-yu visited them. Han’s visit initiated another controversy, the headline of the article quoting the Taipei mayor saying, “hospitals are no place for politics.”
While we have seen Tsai Ing-Wen’s numbers rise by 2 percent and Han Kuo-yu’s numbers drop by 6 percent the week after the news of Wang’s story broke, we can’t make the claim that these stories are impacting the average swing voter. Rather, what seems to be more likely is that these narratives reinforced the entrenchment of these online groups committed to either the DPP or the KMT.
That said, there are three narratives to watch over the next few weeks. The first is the ongoing attempt by the KMT to discredit DPP support as being the product of a cyber army. If the KMT has low expectations of winning the presidency, this narrative could allow them to attribute a Tsai Ing-Wen victory to unfair means.
A second story to watch just broke yesterday on December 11th: the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) detained 10 individuals accused of enabling more than 10,000 “tourists” over the past three years to bypass official background checks when entering Taiwan. Included in this list are individuals known to investigators as being involved with the United Front, a popular front of political parties led by the CCP. The person allegedly running the operation, Hung Chin-lin (洪慶淋),is a former KMT county-level official, though he has not worked for the party for more than ten years.
The third thing to watch are the Legislative Yuan elections. The legislative elections are of interest to entities in Beijing looking to influence Taiwanese politics, and if the presidency is no longer in reach, that interest may increase. The DPP currently holds 68 of the 113 seats in Taiwan’s unicameral parliament (holding an 11 seat edge). Until recently, analysts and the Taiwanese media expected there to be more struggle for the DPP to win a majority as it had done in 2016. However, currently, with the polls showing an expansive gap favoring Tsai, some experts believe that the DPP could possibly add more to its majority.
We thank Dr. Kharis Templeman for providing helpful feedback and background information on this post.