Taiwan elections fought online amid accusations of flagrant disinformation



A young girl holding a Taiwan flag.

Chris Stowers | AFP | Getty Images

TAIPEI — With elections just a few weeks away in Taiwan, political parties are scrutinizing digital activities of their rivals amid accusations of cyber armies spreading false information and allegations that China is interfering in the campaign.

In the lead-up to the January 11 polls, social media platform Facebook confirmed that it took down 118 pages and 99 groups in Taiwan on Friday that “artificially boost the popularity of their content.” Another 51 duplicate accounts used to manage these pages and groups were also removed.

“We routinely take action when we find violations of our Community Standards, including misrepresentation and inauthentic audience building,” said a Facebook spokesperson on email.

“We uncovered this activity as part of our ongoing proactive review of suspected inauthentic behavior on the platform, and as part of our work to protect the integrity of Taiwan’s elections on Facebook,” said the spokesperson, adding that the company will continue to monitor such activity and take action when found.

Facebook did not state which pages and accounts were removed but Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported Friday that some groups and fan pages of presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu from the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party were inaccessible.

In November, Facebook announced it was tightening policies related to political and election advertising in Taiwan.

While it does not appear that the pages Facebook took down were linked to any government, the move came on the back of heightened scrutiny about online campaigning and influence.

China-Taiwan relations

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province and has been increasingly aggressive in its rhetoric toward the island. China says it wants reunification with Taiwan.

Recently, President Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) proposed an anti-infiltration law to prevent foreign forces from intervening in Taiwan’s political system and elections, reported the Central News Agency.

Tsai told local media in a November interview that it was “very obvious” that China was intentionally influencing the elections, according to a CNBC translation of the interview in Mandarin. Tsai, who is seeking a second term, has seen her approval ratings surge.

The KMT, which is seen to be Beijing-friendly, had opposed the bill and spoke out on Friday against what they call “digital authoritarianism.” The KMT also raised concerns about privacy, excessive power and cyberbullying.

A poster of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and running mate William Lai from the Democratic Progressive Party in the backdrop, as volunteers prepare for the campaign at a center in Taipei on Dec. 13, 2019.

Huileng Tan for CNBC

The proposed law and the debate generated around it underscores the difficulties governments have in managing online information, particularly during politically sensitive seasons such as during elections.

Highlighting the party’s concerns, the KMT cited the case against DPP supporter Slow Yang, who was recently charged with spreading fake news that allegedly contributed to the suicide of a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan. The KMT had said it was proof the DPP has a “cyber army.”

It used to be that “God would decide who is good and bad in this world,” said KMT presidential candidate Han, according to a CNBC translation of his pre-recorded message played out during the press conference. “Now, the cyber army decides,” he added.

President Tsai’s spokesperson on Friday accused the KMT of having its own cyber army, and called on the party to address the issue.

Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University said recently in a blogpost that the “ongoing attempt by the KMT to discredit DPP support as being the product of a cyber army” is an issue to watch out for in the next few weeks.

“If the KMT has low expectations of winning the presidency, this narrative could allow them to attribute a Tsai Ing-Wen victory to unfair means,” it said.

The China factor

There have also been accusations that China has been interfering with Taiwan’s elections, with a Chinese spy in Australia recently confessing to helping the Chinese Communist Party in such efforts.

Relations between China and Taiwan ebb and flow depending on the current administration in Taipei. China prefers the KMT, which is seen to be Beijing-friendly and stresses economic ties with the mainland, from which KMT troops fled in 1949 after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War.

Campaign materials at the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party’s headquarters in Taipei. KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu is pictured with running mate Simon Chang.

Huileng Tan for CNBC

The Taiwan Affairs Office in China said DPP’s anti-infiltration bill “incites hostility across the Taiwan Strait” and serves to intimidate and restrict those who participate in such exchanges, according to CNBC’s translation of an online transcript of a regular press conference on Dec. 11 by spokeswoman Zhu Fenglian.

China has repeatedly denied influencing Taiwan’s elections but the polls are of strategic importance to the region.

“As part of the Chinese narrative, they don’t want to seem to be in any shape or form doing anything that could upset that election coming up,” said Steen Jakobsen, chief economist at Saxo Bank last week.

According to public opinion polls, Tsai has a double-digit lead over Han, although the KMT candidate has said on his social media accounts that the poll results were not accurate.

Tsai’s independence-leaning DPP lost several seats in local mayoral elections last year but her popularity started improving earlier this year after she took a jab at the lack of democracy and freedom in China, which President Xi Jinping addressed in his new year message.

Her approval ratings rose further after recent unrest in neighboring Hong Kong spurred Taiwanese concerns about China’s “one country, two systems” constitutional framework. Hong Kong was a former British colony that is now a special administrative region of China.


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