Democratic Taiwan Battling Disinformation From China Ahead of Elections

china-kuomintang-taiwan-press-conference-taipei-nov2-2018.jpg Members of the opposition Kuomintang hold a press conference criticizing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party government for monitoring comments on social media platforms, in Taipei, Nov. 2, 2018.

Authorities on the democratic island of Taiwan say they are battling an influx of disinformation from sources backed by the Chinese Communist Party, ahead of local elections later this month, and even the 2020 presidential election.

A national security source said last week that China has mobilized some 300,000 cyber operatives to target the island's internet users ahead of the November 24 local elections, Taiwan media reported.

Chinese operatives are spreading disinformation through social media, including Weibo, Facebook and YouTube, as well as targeting its mainstream print and broadcast media, reports said.

The Nov. 24 local elections are being used as a testing ground for Beijing's plan to influence the 2020 presidential election in its favor, they said.

Taiwan's national security director Peng Sheng-chu told lawmakers earlier this month that his agency is now monitoring comments on social media platforms including Facebook, and that one of the key topics monitored was President Tsai Ing-wen.

The revelation has already prompted a storm of mockery from opposition Kuomintang (KMT) supporters, who have likened Tsai to "You Know Who" in the fantasy series Harry Potter.

But Peng said security services aren't interested in monitoring individuals' identities or location.

Meanwhile, President Tsai said via her Facebook page that the agency needs to make a response to the disinformation campaign.

"Our national security agency ... needs to make a necessary response to the threat posed by disinformation from overseas sources, in a bid to interfere in our internal affairs and interfere with the effective functioning of our nation's democracy and rule of law," Tsai wrote.

"In the face of this new era of pluralism, the national security agencies of democratic countries around the world are doing the same thing."

She said Taiwan would do everything in its power to defend its democratic values. But she said the island's government isn't about to return to the authoritarian rule of the past.

"There are all kinds of public messages every day on my Facebook page, including encouragement, criticism and free discussion of topics of public interest," the statement said.

"All are welcome, regardless of whether they are our own nationals, internet users from around the world, or our friends on the other side of the Great Firewall," it said, in a reference to the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship that limits what China's more than 700 million internet users can do or see online.

"The people of Taiwan have worked hard to achieve these results of freedom and democracy ... and all of their basic rights are guaranteed by the constitution," Tsai wrote. "No-one has the right to interfere with public opinion on Facebook, and this will not be monitored ... my government doesn't violate the freedoms of its nationals."

Campaign of disinformation

Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.

KMT lawmaker Tseng Ming-tsung had earlier warned that government monitoring of social media comments would have a chilling effect on free speech.

"I feel that it is unreasonable for [the authorities] to use Facebook to investigate people," Tseng said. "This violates the basic rights of citizens."

Lawmakers have also hit out at recent reports that the authorities have been meeting informally with internet service providers to ensure that they will hand over data if requested.

But ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmaker Hsu Chih-chieh said the national security agency is targeting a campaign of disinformation.

"The head of state shouldn't be immune to criticism, but you shouldn't create disinformation in order to criticize [her]," Hsu told reporters. "[For example], some people are saying that Taiwan wants to sell Taiping Island to the U.S., which is obvious disinformation."

National security chief David Lee has also said Taiwan wants to cooperate with other countries in addressing cyberattacks and disinformation that attempts to "undermine and subvert" Taiwan's democracy.

"Taiwan cannot address cybersecurity issues alone," Lee was quoted as saying in recent reports. "We are keen to work with like-minded countries to ensure that our democratic institutions are protected."

Veteran Taiwan journalist Antonio Chiang recently said he believes that the Chinese government is trying to subvert Taiwan's democracy in any way it can.

"The economic cooperation between Taiwan and mainland China is used by the Chinese government to undermine our democratic system," Chiang told reporters last month.

"The [Communist Party's] United Front uses various means, particularly now social engineering tools such as social media," he said.

Awaiting reunification

The Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, which has been administered officially by the 1911 Republic of China since the KMT fled to the island after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.

But Beijing sees the island as part of "One China" awaiting "reunification" and has put pressure on its diplomatic partners to isolate Taipei on the international stage.

Recent polls show that the majority of Taiwan's 23 million population identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and that there is broad popular support for continued self-rule. But Beijing has threatened to invade, should the island seek formal nationhood.

Reported by Chung Kuang-cheng for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wang Yun for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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