Disinformation campaigns part of Chinese military exercises targeting Taiwan

Disinformation campaigns part of Chinese military exercises targeting Taiwan

China’s live-fire military exercises launched after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historical visit targeting Taiwan were accompanied by cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan late on August 2 after days of public speculation on the Taiwan stop amid her Asia tour. The historical visit, however, was met with strong opposition from China, announcing that military exercises were to be held around Taiwan starting on August 4, a day after Speaker Pelosi left the island for Seoul.

The military exercises had been carried out along with cyberattacks, hacking the government websites and convenient store branches’ digital signage to display anti-Nancy Pelosi statements.

The disinformation campaigns were no less intense, the most conspicuous of which were directly issued by the Chinese official agencies to forge the image of Taiwan being closely threatened and under siege.

Timeline of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and the aftermath

A photo released by the Chinese PLA debunked

The Taiwan FactCheck Center released a fact-checking report on August 9, debunking a photo released on August 6 by the Eastern Theater Command of China’s PLA on its Weibo account, showing a PLA member looks through binoculars during the military exercises as Taiwan's frigate Lan Yang is seen at the rear and Hualien’s Heping Power Plant in the further background.

 A veteran photographer said that for the three main physical objects - the PLA soldier, the frigate, and the power plant - to appear in the same photo as they are, a “super telephoto lens” has to be used, but in order for the size of the soldier to appear as it is in the photo, the photo shooter has to stand extremely far in the back, which is physically unlikely considering the length of the warship deck.

Leön Hung, another professional photographer, said the edges of the images of the Taiwanese frigate and the PLA member in the photo are “too clean.” Also, the Taiwanese frigate in the photo is “too big” proportionally if we place the frigate, which is about 30m above the water, in true proportion with the Central Mountain Range in the back, according to an earth scientist.

The image released was a compressed one, another veteran military photographer said, adding that it did not make sense for the Xinhua News Agency to release a photo with such low resolution to the press, considering that it was for propaganda.

Many signs indicate the photo is altered, according to experts from different fields. For one, the resolution contrast between the soldier and the frigate suggests that these two images have been photoshopped together. 

Doctored photo released by Chinese official media circulated by international press

Despite its low resolution, many reputable international media outlets had unknowingly used the photo for their reports as it was provided by the Associated Press, with some wrongly citing the AP as the source, while the photo was actually provided to the AP on August 5 by the Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese official state media.

The AP on August 11 issued an announcement to its media clients cautioning that the authenticity of the photo has been called into question, but adding that it does not have access to source files to confirm the authenticity of the photo. The AP has since added a note to the file photo saying that some media outlets have questioned the authenticity of the photo.

Later self-claimed “evidence” and other footage also disproved

A Chinese civilian satellite company posted a satellite image it took on its Weibo account in the hope of shoring up the credibility of the above-mentioned PLA photo. The company claimed the Chinese destroyer Nanjing, the warship reportedly on which the PLA member took the photo, could be seen in the satellite image. 

The TFC has since issued another fact-checking report debunking the claim. Using SunCalc, an application that calculates sun positions and phases, the TFC pointed out that while the satellite image posted was taken at 6 pm, the shadow cast in the PLA photo was not congruent with the reported 6-pm sun position.

An earth scientist likewise noted that the sunlight caught in the PLA photo was “top light,” entailing that the photo was taken between 9 am and 3 pm.

A satellite image purported to prove the authenticity of the controversial photo of the Chinese soldier observing a Taiwanese frigate near the Taiwanese coastline. However, the sun movement on August 5 didn't corroborate the claim. 

There were other images and video footage from unknown sources that were being disseminated via social platforms such as Weibo and Facebook and have since been invalidated by the TFC. A footage, for example, claimed to have spotted a missile flying over the sky in Yilan, while in fact the trajectory of a flying missile cannot be seen from land, and the electricity pole appearing in the video, according to Taipower, does not belong to Taiwan.

The TFC has debunked a string of disinformation about the Chinese military exercises during the days of the live-fire drills, showing that China was simultaneously working on its disinformation campaign to intimidate the Taiwanese people. Media literacy and the ability to discern what is true from what is false online is more vital than ever amid the rising aggression from the authoritarian state.

A man stands in front of a screen showing a CCTV news broadcast, featuring a map of locations around Taiwan where Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) will conduct military exercises and training activities including live-fire drills, at a shopping center in Beijing, China, August 3, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter