Comprehensive research for unbiased results

China's influence on Taiwan's media and society is greater than that of any other country. This is shown by the Doublethink Lab Index, which takes into account information from various countries around the world. It is done to assess the impact of China's strategies.

“This index is also known as the China Index. We try to collect information from different countries. Currently, data from 82 countries have been received.

These countries are assessed in a variety of areas. A total of 99 questions have been developed to help anticipate the real impact in each area,” says Dr. Shen, Vice President of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights. Dr. Shen focuses on disinformation and local breaches of privacy.

The chairperson of the Doublethink Lab says that the index covers a wide range of areas: military, economic, domestic politics, media.

Social networks help to spread disinformation

Professor Shen reveals that in this study, Taiwan topped the list in the media field. This means that Taiwan's media is influenced by China in many ways.

“First of all, there are many links between China and Taiwan. There are a number of journalists working here who are under pressure from China – in fact, they are being told to publish certain reports in line with Chinese propaganda. This has intensified especially since 2013,” he says.

The chairperson of the East Asian civil society organisation also mentions that the current situation is also caused by social networks, which are heavily used by people in Taiwan. According to him, China has “penetrated” platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok. It is relatively easy to disseminate propaganda through these channels. Especially now that it is possible to use fake accounts to spread disinformation about the Taiwanese government. Anti-US messages are also circulating.

“Although Facebook has tried to block fake accounts that operate in this way, this kind of information is being passed on in Youtube videos. So disinformation continues to spread. Last year, Google was asked for the removal of more than 10,000 channels coming from China, but now the same content is being distributed through the TikTok platform,” he says.

According to him, this is exactly how disinformation is spread in Taiwan.

Russian and Chinese ways to spread disinformation

The professor also compares the disinformation tools used by Russia and China. He says that the main similarity between the two countries is that they both disseminate negative information against the US and NATO.

“The messages from these countries suggest that the democratic models that exist in Western countries are not working. This is the main similarity between the two countries. However, the methods used by China and Russia to spread disinformation are different”, Dr. Shen points out.

According to the professor, Russia has a limited budget for such operations. Therefore, the country needs to be sure that the information it conveys reaches the target groups of people. Russia needs to guarantee the success of every operation.

“China's budget for information-related operations is much higher. The country has even set up several departments that are responsible for various disinformation campaigns. The people who work in these departments compete with each other. For this reason, the messages from different Chinese offices may not be the same,” he says.

However, he is sure that China doesn't care that these messages are different. Even one successful information attack out of a thousand targeting Taiwan is important to them.

“So, when it comes to centralisation and decentralisation of disinformation campaigns, it is enough to say that the tactics of Russia and China are different,” says the chairperson of the civil society organisation.

Spreading false information is often successful

What narrative is Chinese disinformation trying to create? How does it affect the society? The professor says that most of the messages he comes across are anti-US, but not always.

“For example, earlier this year, China's cyber-army spread messages about the extremely high crime rate in Taiwan. However, the truth is that the crime rate in Taiwan is quite low. But facing the conspiracy theories about high crime rates, the government cannot claim that crime is quite low and people shouldn't believe false information,” says Dr. Shen.

According to him, such a statement by the government is impossible, because if something were to happen after it, the media would immediately pour criticism on the Government and people would no longer trust it.

“However, although this is just a disinformation campaign carried out by China, it is effective. When information about the high crime rate in Taiwan is spread, it can be assumed that the police do not arrest criminals. It could also be interpreted as meaning that the police do not arrest criminals because they collaborate with them and the mafia. Why to collaborate with the mafia? Because such is the government”, explains the professor.

He argues that this sends the message that everyone is a criminal: the police and the government. People easily fall for such conspiracy theories. Sometimes such stories lead to distrust. The creators of such theories, according to the professor, know their job very well and do it in a professional way.

The most successful examples of Chinese disinformation

There are plenty of ways to spread disinformation. However, some are more successful than others. Dr. Shen says that one of the most common false messages in Taiwan was circulating for several years. It alleged that the Taiwanese government had deliberately allowed the COVID-19 virus to infect the population.

“This was an attempt to say that the government was deliberately allowing the virus to spread, thereby ensuring that people would be forced to be vaccinated. This was done to make money from vaccine companies. Although it was a conspiracy theory, it worked pretty well”, he says.

The professor says that even those who support the government believe such conspiracy theories. This is because China is capable of providing a huge amount of disinformation.

“One such situation happened in May 2021. At the time, China set up eight Youtube channels spreading various conspiracy theories against the Taiwanese government. Various disinformation about coronavirus and vaccines was disseminated to the public. All eight channels were active for just three months and then Google removed them,” he says.

However, despite their short existence, these channels were viewed as many as 30 million times. Thus, disinformation achieved its goal.

Ways to tackle disinformation

According to Dr. Shen, the chairperson of the East Asian civil society organisation, the Taiwanese government has set up a team whose main objective is to tackle disinformation.

“The people in this team are capable to uncover those who spread fake news. Specific messages are dealt with in just a few hours. However, in this case, it is only revealed that a message is false. As for conspiracy theories, there is nothing the government can do. This is the reason why they (the conspiracy theories – ed.) “settle” in the minds of citizens”, he says.

According to him, there are many NGOs that are looking for ways to tackle disinformation. The main goal of such organisations is to identify the sources of disinformation, sometimes even to report that it is China that spreads disinformation.

“All these organisations are not formally linked to the government, they even keep their distance from it. This is how these social groups want to win the trust of Taiwanese citizens. They want to show that they are not working together with the government. If they did otherwise, people would criticise these organisations and accuse them of being propagandists,” says the professor.

He argues that it is by behaving in this way that social groups are able to achieve positive results. One of the most popular groups of this type uses a bot designed for private chat apps. It can be used to pass on any message received that raises suspicions.

“Using AI technology, service providers can find out if that message has already been sent before. Even if AI does not provide an answer, a particular person can be contacted to help investigate the message. As many as 400,000 registered cases in Taiwan show that people are using this service”, says Dr. Shen.

He is convinced that this is how civil society fights disinformation and sometimes succeeds. However, there are also people who do not care about the problem of disinformation and the threat posed by China.

TikTok is a platform that helps collect personal data

The Chinese-built TikTok platform has been labelled dangerous by several governments. However, Professor Shen says that the disinformation content on the channel is not particularly dangerous. What is worse is that people reveal a lot of information about themselves on this platform.

“I think TikTok could be a big threat, but not in Taiwan. The network is mainly used by people under 15. They are not yet eligible to vote. Therefore, there is no noticeable influence, for example, on the elections”, he says.

However, he argues, it should not only be about theories and disinformation. TikTok is a useful tool for collecting personal information. It makes it easy to find out what websites a person visits and to pinpoint their location. Specific personal data can be used to determine whether a person belongs to a target group. He says the collection of private information can be a threat to any society.