Using ‘content farms’ and other means, Chinese elements are suspected of generating much of the disinformation that has been circulating concerning the Tsai administrations’ pension reform plans. They have also helped mobilize protesters. J. Michael Cole looks into this worrying interference in Taiwan’s democracy.
Taiwan’s national security apparatus on Monday confirmed that a recent wave of increasingly virulent protests against President Tsai Ing-wen’s pension reform efforts have been influenced by China.
According to government information, Chinese elements (presumably agencies involved in political warfare) have played a role in mobilizing protesters and spreading disinformation about pension reform via electronic media. Various web sites, as well as the LINE instant communication tool, have been used to disseminate “fake news” about the government’s plans. The national security apparatus has confirmed that the information originated in China.
Besides domestic online platforms, China has also been using microblogging sites in China, as well as WeChat and popular “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) such as COCO01.net to spread disinformation and interfere with government policy back in Taiwan.
Content farms are platforms that pay large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of content that is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. While such platforms were initially designed to generate advertising revenue, groups and regimes have quickly realized the potential of content farms to manipulate public perceptions. Using techniques that have been tried and tested by authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, “repeater stations” — online and traditional media that willingly take part in “fake news” efforts or that fail to properly corroborate information — are then relied upon to broadcast the disinformation to a wider audience.
On several occasions, anti-independence slogans were chanted at the protests against pension reform, which also suggests that the movement has been co-opted by the Chinese side.
Over the past six months, members of Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) have also been identified at various protest sites. Chang, who in an interview with foreign media in 2014 confirmed that he works closely with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), led members of his organization at an anti-pension reform protest outside the Legislative Yuan in April. Since 2013, the CUPP has also been involved in activities targeting independence activists and members of civil society in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chang is also a former head of the Bamboo Union, a major crime syndicate in Taiwan with roots in China.
Physical violence is also a m.o. of those organizations, and the protests against pension reform have often led to violent clashes, resulting in injuries. Other organizations with a history of violence, such as the deep-blue Blue Sky Alliance, have also participated in the protests.
Worryingly, protest organizers appear to have insiders in Tsai’s security apparatus — retired members of the police and national security apparatus ostensibly still have good contacts within the active force — and on several occasions have been able to obtain details about her daily schedule and itinerary. The groups have threatened to shadow President Tsai and Vice President C. J. Chen and thus could compromise the leadership’s personal security. Last week organizers also threatened to disrupt the upcoming Universiade in Taipei.
Taiwanese authorities have been closely monitoring the developments and have implemented measures to counter the disinformation.
Top photo: Members of the China Unification Promotion Party protest outside DPP headquarters in 2015 (J. Michael Cole).