These are news stories you may have heard about:
- China sent buses to flooded Kansai Airport outside of Osaka to evacuate its stranded nationals after Super Typhoon Jebi, but Taiwan did not.
- President Tsai Ing-wen traveled in a military armored vehicle to avoid wading in the water when inspecting flood damage in southern Taiwan.
- Following major flooding in Taiwan in late August 2018, 2 million metric tons of pomelos were dumped in the Zengwen Reservoir as farmers saw their sweat come to nothing.
Those stories, all considered “fake news,” had elements of both fact and fiction and were actually difficult for reporters to get straight. To find the truth on the Tsai Ing-wen armored vehicle story, for example, they scoured the internet to separate fact from fiction.
The many fake news stories that have permeated Taiwan’s media have drawn the attention of the United States.
When the flowers of spring bloom, it usually means Taiwanese political figures are flocking to the U.S. One of them who quietly went to Washington visited the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC).
According to the U.S.’s 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the mission of the GEC is to coordinate efforts to “expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests,” especially Chinese and Russian and misinformation. The Taiwanese political figure who visited was invited to share how Taiwan has been attacked and adversely affected by disinformation.
A Global Warning: Taiwan on a War Footing
The V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) research project led by the University of Gothenburg produces the largest global dataset on democracy. In data released through V-Dem’s Digital Society Project, Taiwan was found to be exposed to misleading viewpoints or false information disseminated by foreign governments and their agents more often than any of the 179 countries surveyed.
The United States, which saw its 2016 presidential election influenced by Russian disinformation, was the 13th most affected country.
But fake news is not the only challenge drawing the attention of many countries. The growing war over information poses an even greater concern.
“Fake news is in fact a fake issue, or maybe one of a number of fake issues,” says Puma Shen, an assistant professor with National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Criminology. “In the information war, you only get fake news when you reach the final step. You have to have penetrated society to a certain degree before you can release fake news items.”
Unlike France, which passed a controversial law against the “manipulation of information” in November 2018, Taiwan has yet to devise legislation to protect the country against China’s systematic encroachment, leading many to wonder if it will become a battleground in the burgeoning information war.
“What worries me is that future models of manipulating public opinion will be even more sophisticated,” warns National Taiwan University Graduate Institute of Journalism professor Wang Tai-li. If fake opinions and fake news become more widespread and transmitted through more varied platforms, and people absorb disinformation from various channels and internalize it into their own political beliefs, it will undoubtedly affect Taiwan’s presidential election in 2020, Wang says.
Perhaps even more important, the use of freedom of speech to attack freedom of speech and influence the democratic society that Taiwan has worked so hard to develop has led to the proliferation of biased information and fake news, resulting in “echo chambers” that affect people’s understanding of issues.
“These developments will obviously hurt democracy,” Wang says. (Read: In the Era of ‘Red Infiltration’)
National Taipei University’s Shen contends that Taiwan has already been embroiled in an information war for a long time, with the battle for public opinion on social media now catching fire.
“Internet media has basically been weaponized. What were once platforms are now artillery,” Shen says.
And that war’s scope has widened and grown longer, with skirmishes occurring from major avenues to small alleys in battles lasting six to 12 hours that happen in rapid succession.
Manipulation of the internet has been a trend in Taiwan’s elections over the past four years. The trend began in 2014 when the Sunflower Student Movement propelled Ko Wen-je, a doctor at National Taiwan University Hospital, onto the political stage to become Taipei mayor. In 2016, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took control of the presidency and Taiwan’s Legislature to gain total power, and a “netizen” wave emerged.
Regular netizens were then divided into “volunteer armies” of supporters willing to defend specific political figures and “real internet armies” consisting of political public relations companies and marketing companies lured by money and the trading of favors. Then there are political party workers and advisors who form blue (pro-Kuomintang), green (pro-DPP) and white (independent camp linked to Ko Wen-je) camps loyal to their affiliations.
“The rise of emerging online media has generated a considerable amount of noise, and China has discovered the influence it has,” says Wu Hsun-hsiao, the former legal counsel to Taiwan’s most popular online forum PTT and now a consultant to the bulletin board system. As far back as 2015, a cavalcade of Chinese “50 cent” accounts was active on PTT.
“From their IP addresses, one could see they were all entering through dummy accounts,” Wu says. Such accounts are not uncommon, whether on PTT or Facebook.
Taiwan’s elections for local government offices completely changed the landscape, with both the blue and green political camps determined to gain “air supremacy.” Renowned blogger Gene Hong, who has been engaged in the internet world since 1989 and now works as a consultant to media and technology news site Cool3c.com, says these internet armies have become more sophisticated, and their latest tactic is the “saturation attack.”
Expanding Battlefield, Sharper Tactics
“Saturation attack” is a military term in which one side uses massive firepower to overwhelm the other side’s defenses, causing a complete collapse in its position.
“The internet is inherently an open system, but if you constantly post a piece of information, more times than a person can absorb and think about, the false information becomes a closed loop and is virtually invulnerable,” Hong says, creating a situation in which people’s impressions can be easily influenced and changed.
“The problem with internet armies isn’t just false accounts. The latest type of internet armies create a ‘narrowed’ pool of information,” Hong says, referring to the practice of making it appear there are many sources of information when in fact it is very one-sided.
These groups are now not only engaging in an opinion war, but an information war, using a wide range of platforms, from PTT, Facebook, Line and YouTube to mass media to propagate their message and quickly disseminate it from the internet.
Opinion wars have seen their scope steadily expand with the rapid advance in technological devices.
“Compared with four years ago, the models used by Facebook and social networks have changed and the way they’re applied is very different,” says Wang Li-jie, chief operating officer of Sola, a public opinion monitoring company that helped Taipei Mayor Ko with his online electoral campaign. (Read: Taipei Mayor-elect Ko Wen-je: Aspiring for a More Just Society)
Wang says Taiwan entered the video era in 2018, leading to a complete revolution in marketing and publicity strategies. Images and photographs were rapidly being converted into or replaced by videos, and the dependence on YouTube surged.
Semantic analysis has emerged as a tool for devising a campaign strategy. Soochow University School of Big Data Management associate professor Camille Hu observes that analysis of semantics related to different themes was already being done during Taiwan’s national elections in 2016 to understand voters’ true intentions, and the approach has since become more mature.
Every time any individual clicks on “Like” or “Share” on Facebook, it is recorded, and this interaction is turned into data that helps illuminate every person’s preferences and political leanings. At the same time, keywords and Facebook fan pages are used to analyze popularity and activity, which inform strategies that lead to recommendations for election campaigns.
Only by applying big data analytics and forecasting can one defend and attack as necessary.
The key is to “use volume to repel takeovers,” meaning in practice that as long as one’s overall following, whether good or bad, is number one, it is easier to withstand outside incursions.
“It’s like Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu. Right now, no matter what he says or whatever he posts on Facebook, the media will follow,” Wang says. “He has become ‘media’ in his own right.” (Read: Kaohsiung Mayor Spans US-China-Taiwan Situation)
Both the green and blue camps have created massive internet brigades to build the biggest possible internet following and popularity.
“In building an internet army, you need a certain rhythm and a direction,” says Lin Yi (pseudonym), a well-known operator within internet circles who has considerable experience in electoral campaigns. He has under him an idea team, a writing team and a tweet force.
“Articles have to be edgy and attention-grabbing enough and headlines have to be catchy enough to arouse people’s curiosity and get them to want to keep reading,” Lin says.
Content Farms the Big Battlegrounds
So-called content farms have been around in Taiwan for many years, but it was not until more recently that they moved into politics. Internet analytics site “Page Board” (專頁儀表板) calculated Taiwan’s 100 most influential fan pages and found 23 were fan pages of content farm websites.
Content farms are websites that directly use articles from other media or repackage them with sensational headlines to drive hits and leverage the higher traffic to get ads and revenue.
“[The results] suggest that many people believe content farms,” says Hong, who is also an engineer at Page Board.
Looking more closely at politically oriented fan pages, a group of pro-blue fan pages collectively dubbed the “blue flank” all rely almost exclusively on such content farms as “mission-tw.com,” “nooho.net” (meaning shout angrily), and “taidushashi” (meaning stupid Taiwan things).
In one 30-day period, of the 2,663 articles posted by the obviously pro-blue fan page “Blue Power,” 2,640, or 99 percent, came from mission-tw.com, and there are several other blue-oriented fan pages with about 75 percent of their content overlapping with “Blue Power,” such as the Facebook community the “Oppose Tsai Ing-wen Alliance.”
When you enter the mission-tw.com website, it appears initially to be a news site with such categories as “news,” “entertainment,” “pets,” and “living.” But looking more closely at the site, other than the “news” category, the others lack any content, and even its “news” simply cites articles from other media, especially the China-leaning “China Times” and “chinatimes.com,” along with United Daily News and ETtoday news. In addition, some of the “chinatimes.com” articles include some from PTT boards or Facebook fan pages.
“One day when I commented on Han Kuo-yu, the next day 466 negative stories on me appeared on the internet,” says Taoyuan City Councilor Wang Hao-yu and the head of the fan page “I Am a Zhongli Native” who has personally experienced the power of Taiwan’s content farms.
Most of the news items were posted through content farms and were discussed and quickly disseminated on Facebook. “I once estimated that this kind of website can have traffic as high as 500,000 people in a day.”
A CommonWealth reporter tried to contact the content farm mission-tw.com and was answered by a young man’s voice speaking with a Malaysian accent who identified himself as a 25-year-old surnamed Shen. But he refused to answer any other questions, such as where he graduated from or why he was operating a website.
The Rise of YouTube
The Line and YouTube platforms also had meteoric rises last year, emerging as important channels in the influence game.
Those platforms contributed to the stunning emergence of Han Kuo-yu, a relatively unknown member of the (blue) opposition Kuomintang (KMT) who was given no chance of victory when he decided to run for mayor in Kaohsiung in 2018. Instead, he burst on the scene to end the (green) Democratic Progressive Party’s 20-year stranglehold on the city in the November elections. His big margin of victory, just over 9 percentage points, or about 150,000 votes, was as surprising as the win itself.
“When he showed the guts to run in Kaohsiung, he was destined to win. I asserted three months before the election that he would win by 150,000 votes,” boasts Pan Heng-hsu, a key player in Han’s online media campaign.
He says Han’s way with words helped push his Line group to over 100,000 people soon after it was established, helping further the team’s determination to rely on an internet strategy to boost Han’s campaign.
Most people on Line groups coalesce around social issues or their daily lives, such as civil servant groups aligned against pension cuts, groups opposed to gay rights and same-sex marriage, or groups consisting of classmates or of military people of different ranks. As President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy reforms cut deeper, the blue camp was able to take hold of an expanding number of these closed loops.
With content farms and Facebook communities steadily generating content, YouTube has been exploited to further add fuel to the fire. To increase his exposure, Han appeared on several talk shows, “and because he comes across well, things he says on television can be re-used on the internet,” Pan says bluntly.
All of Han’s interviews were cut up and made into short videos, and TV stations, after editing footage for their own use, would hand it over to the blue camp for uploading on Facebook fan pages and Line. This created a viral marketing phenomenon, with videos quickly extending their reach exponentially.
In terms of both speed of dissemination and efficiency, Line rates more highly than Facebook, and YouTube’s importance is unquestioned.
“When Kaohsiung taxi drivers have free time or are waiting for fares, they all watch YouTube,” says internet operator Lin Yi, who argued that YouTube operations definitely affected the 2018 election campaigns.
According to YouTube’s algorithmic model, when a person watches a video, YouTube then recommends or automatically runs the video with the highest traffic, meaning that a video with 1 million views could actually attract organic traffic of 5 million hits.
In the perilous world of the information war, only the winners are king. After the painful experience of 2018 when it suffered an embarrassing defeat, the green camp decided on a fresh start, changing the style of Tsai’s Facebook page that has pushed its popularity steadily higher and increasingly invigorated green fan pages.
“To be honest, the March 6 legislative by-elections relied on [the green camp’s] flanks and volunteer armies,” says a DPP party worker, referring to two DPP victories in tightly contested districts in New Taipei and Tainan that were traditional green strongholds. “The flanks are far more effective than the DPP.”
These DPP internet groups, such as “justadullan” (just block blue) and “impolite_tw,” have flourished.
After cable TV station CTi News reported the story that 2 million metric of pomelos had been dumped, these groups mounted an all-out counterattack. “They have no burdens at all. They collected agricultural information and went on the offensive,” says the party worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said the internet now is basically about who can punch the hardest. “The big problem now is that echo chambers cannot be expanded. That’s really the key.”
With primaries for each party’s presidential nomination looming, the internet brigades are quietly stirring. The green fan clubs have begun to recruit troops for their volunteer armies.
Opening the Facebook fan page “justadullan,” one sees a white star with 12 rays of light against a blue background. It is covered with a prohibition sign, accompanied by the slogan, “Beat the Communists, Build the Country.” A slogan lower down reads: “Block the Blue Army, Welcome to a Private Chat.”
This fan page with 40,000 followers has made Kaohsiung Mayor Han its target since the November elections. In the DPP presidential primary battle between the incumbent President Tsai and challenger Lai Ching-te, who served as a premier under Tsai, the site clearly supports Tsai.
A reporter sent an inquiry to the fan page and received a Line group invitation to join a training session for new hands to the volunteer army.
After the reporter joined, the group’s manager arranged for new recruits to “attend class,” requiring them to watch two 10 minute teaching videos. The videos demonstrated step by step how to track news fan pages, leave comments and “likes,” and share news links with the Line group.
When the training was completed, a new invitation to the group was received, allowing you to “join the army.”
The news links posted by participants were generally aimed at solidifying support for Tsai Ing-wen rather than emphasizing attacks on opponents or creating fake news. The manager also reminded participants to “not engage in verbal battles with groups with different points of view.”
“Even though they are on the party’s flanks, they don’t take orders from the DPP,” says a person familiar with the site. Rather than using the term “army” to describe the community, that person prefers the term “enthusiastic supporters.” Similar communities follow their own paths but will also team up from time to time.
Time for 2020
The 2020 presidential election has already begun in earnest on the internet, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the public opinion battle between the blues, greens and whites never stopped.
Looking back, Taiwan’s democracy and freedom have been hard won. But now with the opinion war raging and constantly expanding, every whisper and rumor is turned into words and resources are deployed to spread fake news without limitations. These have become this new form of warfare’s sharpest weapons, doing damage not just to the enemy but also sacrificing Taiwan’s most precious values.
Complicating the problem is powerful China next door. With Beijing becoming highly proficient in online disinformation, how Taiwan handles fake news and the information war could very well be its biggest challenge in the future.
Translated by Luke Sabatier
Edited by Sharon Tseng