There is only one day left before Taiwan heads to the polls, and researchers, election integrity teams at tech platforms, and press are following the dynamics closely. On January 1st, Taiwan entered into its ten day polling black-out period, a time during which there is a strict ban on agencies and individuals sharing, or citing, any public survey related to a candidate or the election overall. The day before the blackout period took effect, popular polls continued to show incumbent President Tsai Ing-Wen leading with a high margin.
A snapshot of The New Lens presidential poll shows Tsai Ing-wen with a clear majority over her opponents.
Since the blackout period began, two stories have appeared in news coverage and social chatter, sparking rumors, misinformation, and sustaining already-present concerns about disinformation and election meddling. The first story is an update to the saga of the disillusioned People’s Republic of China (PRC) spy (covered by SIO here), Wang Liqiang, who defected to Australia in November of 2019 and claimed that he had run disinformation campaigns targeting Taiwan, specifically to support Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu; emerging information seems to implicate Taiwanese politicians and figures in a scandalous silencing attempt. The second story originates in the city of Kaohsiung, where misinformation about a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) parade is competing on social media against the fact-check that debunks the rumor.
On January 8, 2020, The Age, the Australian paper that broke the story of a self-proclaimed Chinese spy-turned-defector, reported that Australian intelligence agencies had learned of threats to the lives of Wang Liqiang and his family if he did not recant his story. The threats demanded that Wang record a video stating that he had been bribed by the DPP of Taiwan to make false claims about spying -- or he would be sent back to the PRC and killed. The Age article names two individuals behind the threats: a PRC-based businessman known as Mr. Sun, and the current deputy secretary of the KMT, Alex Tsai. These accusations have sparked a response in both media and social channels. Much as the original story was leveraged by the DPP and KMT to reinforce support for their own party and denounce the machinations of the other, the media and social media responses to the latest developments are split along party lines, either supporting Wang’s credibility or discarding the allegations entirely as a “spy farce.”
The story has had a significant impact. After months of deliberation and opposition from some KMT legislators, the Taiwanese legislature passed the Anti-Infiltration act,(反滲透法) on December 31st, 2019, which aims to curb PRC influence in Taiwan’s politics. While this was not the first time legislation of this type was considered, according to a Reuters report DPP lawmakers pointed to Wang Liqiang’s allegations to explain increased urgency for passage of the bill.
Hours after the new details surrounding Wang’s story re-surfaced, more pro-KMT news outlets such as United Daily News asserted Wang’s claims were still not credible. In one article, Wang’s story was referred to as “too outrageous”, with insinuations that he always appeared in the media at sensitive times. Another UDN article responded to the allegations by decrying “black hands” (a Chinese language term referring to evil-doers) were behind the allegations and condemning the DPP for creating the scandal to slander the KMT.
More ‘green-leaning’ (pro-DPP) news outlets like Liberty Times News, however, reposted the issues raised in Australian media, stating that KMT politician Alex Tsai had demanded that Wang claim he was bribed and his actions were instigated by DPP. In the PRC, state media outlets such as Global Times have continued to discredit Wang’s claims by denying his identity as a spy and portraying him as a swindler, writing that the West has been “hyping” up allegations of PRC efforts to meddle in the Taiwanese elections and citing Wang’s story as an example.
Global Times coverage of the Taiwan election, meanwhile, has remained largely focused on general discussions about Taiwan’s preparation for its upcoming election, vaguely alluding to “accusations of mainland meddling and influence of Hong Kong’s social unrest,” and stating that PRC mainland officials and analysts believe that unification “of the motherland” is “an inevitable trend regardless of who wins.”
When the disillusioned spy story initially broke in November, the SIO team began to track a number of channels and videos on YouTube discrediting Wang Liqiang as a liar; these videos were widely shared across pro-KMT Pages on Facebook.
In one video shared across various Han Kuo-yu supporter groups (79,131 views on YouTube and 21,400 interactions on Facebook), the speaker discredited both Australian media (“They have no responsibility, Mainland sources include the Public Security Bureau and court. Who has credibility?”) and Wang (“Is he a scammer?”) whilst stating that Han’s popularity is purely organic (“Are millions of people brainwashed?”). Several top comments on this video on both YouTube and Facebook are written in simplified characters from accounts that list the PRC as their location. Other observers of the Taiwan election have noted highly polarizing viral YouTube activity as well; a recent piece by the New York Times discussed similar YouTube accounts that shared content aimed to “inflame and divide.”
Most recently, the New Party (politically close to the KMT) live-streamed a KMT press conference discussing Wang Liqiang on YouTube and Facebook. During the livestream, live chat was deactivated, but before it was, several commentators decried the “1450” (alleged DPP cyber army, which Han Kuo-yu supporter call “1450”) for “being at work”. Many comments were written in simplified characters, which are used in the PRC Mainland but not in Taiwan.
Comments in the YouTube Live Chat (Top chat replay) allege the 1450 is attacking the comment section, e.g. 1450上班了 (“1450 is at work”); several comments are written using simplified characters.
KMT- and DPP-support groups also disseminated content relating to the disillusioned spy story. Within the KMT groups, various users shared articles (almost exclusively from China Times) commenting that the DPP was accusing other parties of being misleading despite being the most misleading party itself. Within pro Han Kuo-yu fan pages, posts about Wang’s new claims were accompanied by articles from China Times. One article that appeared in several pro-KMT groups claimed that Tsai Ing-wen government was actually behind Wang’s story, and that a DPP legislator, Chiou I-jen (邱義仁), went to Australia to visit Wang and give him money. After the circulation of these articles, however, KMT politician Alex Tsai goes back on his claim that Chiou I-jen pressured Wang to falsify his story.
The Age article, though shared by several pro-DPP pages, did not appear to be shared in any of the public pro Han Kuo-yu Pages or Groups. DPP supporters ridiculed the KMT for alleging that the DPP was behind the disillusioned spy story.
A post taken from the DPP-supporter page, 只是堵藍 (“Just block blue”) which ridiculed the KMT for making allegations against the DPP that they were behind the disillusioned spy story. The text on the picture claims an irony behind the KMT’s assertion that the DPP will surely do something wrong before the election, as The Age broke the news that KMT’s Alex Tsai supposedly directed Wang Liqiang to create false recordings framing the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen.
A DPP-supporter page 我是台灣人。台灣是咱的國家 (I am Taiwanese, Taiwan is our country) shared a post commenting “Hahaha look at you Alex Tsai, want to frame the DPP and as a result this gets turned upside down.”
On December 21st, two major parades took place in Kaohsiung. The first, referred to in the media as 罷韓、(“Stop Han”), or the “1221 Wecare Taiwan Parade” took place in the southern part of the city and was a mix of Tsai Ing-Wen supporters as well as civil society organizations such as Wecare Kaohsiung, Step on the Red Media, and Support Hong Kong (translated). The Stop Han parade was framed as a march to ‘reclaim’ the city of Kaohsiung from current mayor and KMT presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu. The second parade, 挺韓 (“Support Han”), consisting of Han Kuo-yu supporters, took place in the northern part of Kaohsiung. The parades generated heated conversations on social media, as rumors about attendance - and then messages to rectify those rumors - spread across partisan fan communities, including Facebook Pages and Groups. This case provides us with an interesting opportunity to see not only how misinformation spreads on Facebook, but how the fact-check traversed the community as well.
One of the false rumors circulating about the parades claimed that the Democratic Progressive Party had used a fake photo of their parade to make turnout look greater than it was. Eight Han Kuo-yu fan Pages each posted the same message discrediting the photo, disparaging it as a fabrication, within two minutes of each other (some mere seconds apart). The posts were individually created and used verbatim text; they were not Shares of the same post originating on one page. This close posting timeline may suggest that Pages or admins coordinated to spread the allegation.
An example of the image and text shared within two minutes across eight Han Kuo-yu Facebook pages. The text is translated to read, What road is there in kaohsiung and traffic lights are so dense? The dpp even fake pictures of the parade. (translated).
The Taiwan Fact Checking Center, a Taiwanese nonprofit aimed at fighting disinformation, verified that the photograph was in fact real. The Center both geolocated the image to the street in Kaohsiung, and interviewed the photographer, who provided the Center the original photo on his camera. The article debunking the rumor was shared on Facebook by the Fact Checking Center and by other outlets such as Wecare高雄.
Table 1: Engagement and Reach of both the fake and fact-checked Stories on Facebook.
The table above conservatively documents how both the rumor and the fact-check about the parade image played out on Facebook. We examined the reach of the fake parade picture by searching for key terms that describe the image, and snippets of text from the post, across public Facebook Groups and Pages. Then we located the factcheck - first posted to the Taiwan FactChecker Center’s website - and searched for shares and reposts of the correction in public Groups and Pages.
The fact check received three times the number of shares as the posts alleging that the image was fake, and received more interactions (comments, Likes) in aggregate. Interestingly, the Taiwan Fact Checking Center assessment was shared into two pro-Han Kuo-yu Groups. Most of the comments on the pro-Han Kuo-yu shares of the factcheck post, however, continued to contest the validity of the image (and credibility of the Center).
An example of the fact-checked article being dismissed in a pro-Han Kuo-yu group.
In the post detailing the fact-check on Taiwan Fact-Checking Center’s own Facebook Page, the Facebook comments are primarily positive; many appear to be DPP supporters who believe that the fact-check reinforces their message that the Han Kuo-yu camp is dishonest and can’t be trusted. Some of the comments mock Han Kuo-yu supporters or Han Kuo-yu himself. One commenter mocked the need for the fact-check in the first place, saying “Korean fans have no common sense and no knowledge, only know that they often watch Zhongtian TV. No wonder they have been making jokes.”
Although the crowd-size and photo-veracity debates seem trivial compared to more pressing issues in the election, the stories are emblematic of the misinformation and rumors actively circulating ahead of Saturday’s election.
According to the Central Election Commision, the blackout period ends at 4pm on Saturday January 11, 2020. Experts following the race closely have predicted that Tsai Ing-Wen will be re-elected, which portends a reassessment of the PRC’s strategy towards Taiwan. Although the presidential election looks to be decided, there are still toss-up races in the Legislative Yuan that observers are closely monitoring, such as those in New Taipei and Taoyuan.
As all eyes watch for the results to come in on Saturday, the government of Taiwan and organizations such as the Taiwan Fact Checking Center are on the lookout for disinformation. Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan, who has been leading efforts to combat false information, has worked to keep Taiwan informed about the challenges of influence operations as people head to the polls tomorrow: “We understand that the people who are sowing discord are also building a community, that they are also learning from each other’s playbooks,” Tang said in a recent New York Times article “There are new innovations happening literally every day.”
We thank Dr. Kharis Templeman for providing helpful feedback and background information on this post.
This post has been updated on 4/29/20 with a correction that the same message was shared across eight, not seven or nine Facebook Pages.