[TFC Disinfo Detector] Foreign Forgeries – an analysis of disinformation tactics leveraging Taiwan’s diplomatic events
[TFC Disinfo Detector] Foreign Forgeries – an analysis of disinformation tactics leveraging Taiwan’s diplomatic events
Image: Taiwan's Vice President William Lai Ching-te deplanes at Silvio Pettirossi airport in Luque, Paraguay, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/ Top image)
As the 2024 presidential election in Taiwan approaches, relations between Taiwan and other countries have become a target of foreign and domestic disinformation operations. Unsurprisingly, the recent state visit to Paraguay by Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-de ( referred to as William Lai by international news media), who is also a presidential candidate in the 2024 race, has sparked a new round of disinformation attacks. Examining the recent disinformation pieces and problematic information circulated during major diplomatic events in the previous year reveals the disinformation strategies and dissemination paths, such as forging documents in foreign languages and posting messages in international online forums to increase the credibility of the disinformation.
Mr. Lai attended the inauguration of Paraguay President Santiago Peña Palacios in August 2023. On route to and back from Paraguay, Mr. Lai also made stops at New York and San Francisco. While Paraguay is one of the 13 countries with which Taiwan has official relations, Taiwan and the United States only have unofficial diplomatic ties. However, Taiwan has been one of the important allies of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of commercial, economic, and military cooperation for decades. Due to the intensifying military threats from China and the forthcoming Taiwanese presidential election in January 2024, Mr. Lai’s visit to Paraguay and his “transit” through the U.S. received a lot of attention from the international community – as well as attacks from information manipulators.
Similar disinformation campaigns were detected during Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to Central America this March when she stopped over in New York to accept the Global Leadership Award from the Hudson Institute, a U.S.-based think tank. In August 2022, when the then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to Taiwan, which was marked as an extraordinary visit by the highest-ranking American official over the past 25 years, disinformation perpetrators also unleashed claims and falsified evidence to frame the diplomatic breakthrough as “money diplomacy.”
Narratives: Framing the diplomatic events as “money diplomacy” that wastes money and ignores the hardship Taiwanese citizens face.
Over the past decades, Taiwan has attempted to strengthen diplomatic ties with the international community. However, diplomatic breakthroughs are usually followed by political criticisms that call the events into doubt. China, on the other hand, sees Taiwan’s diplomatic actions as an indication of independence. In reaction to Taiwan’s important diplomatic events, China has consistently conducted military drills near the island as a warning and retaliation.
Domestic doubts about Taiwan’s diplomatic activities often focus on how much the Taiwanese government has spent on foreign aid. Critics view the economic aid as a form of “money diplomacy” and argue that the money should be spent on Taiwanese citizens’ welfare. A few weeks prior to Mr. Lai’s visit to Paraguay, Taiwanese society just experienced a heated debate on social justice and the need for more affordable housing. The information manipulators thus took advantage of Mr. Lai's visit to Paraguay and linked it to the existing skepticism of “money diplomacy” and the latest debate on social justice.
In one of the posts, the narrators stated that Paraguay had continued to request substantial sums of money from Taiwan while also attempting to establish a deeper relationship with the Chinese technology corporation Huawei. After saying that the college Mr. Lai visited in Paraguay on his trip was a “shell school,” the narrators further accused the vice president of turning a blind eye to Taiwan's decaying infrastructure while spending money in Paraguay.
Another false claim stated that during his state visit, Mr. Lai signed a memo to provide 320 million U.S. dollars to aid the social housing project in Paraguay. The narrators also included an “ official memo” and a photo of the alleged “beautiful house of the social housing project” with cheerful people posing in front of the house. At the end of the post, the narrators petitioned Mr. Lai to return “the right of residence” to the Taiwanese.
Similarly, narratives denouncing Taiwan’s diplomacy activities as “money diplomacy” also surfaced during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and President Tsai Ing-wen’s stop at New York. During Pelosi’s visit, a widespread narrative chastised the Taiwanese government for squandering taxpayers’ money by inviting Pelosi and incurring China’s military drills, which, the narrators commented, would irritate China and undermine the peace across the Taiwan Strait.
As for President Tsai’s March stop in New York, the disinformation perpetrator asserted the Hudson award received by President Tsai was purchased by the Taiwanese government. Again, “a waste of money” was the central theme of this narrative.
Disinformation Tactics: Fake documents and distorted framing
People may have different opinions on whether or not these diplomatic trips and cooperations are beneficial. What makes these pieces problematic, however, is their use of forged or irrelevant evidence to back up their assertions.
The above pieces employed the same tactics – first, the manipulators claimed to have found documents, some from leaked sources and others from governments’ websites. However, the Taiwan FactCheck Center has found that most of the “documents of evidence” were either fabricated or irrelevant to the events in issue. Second, the disinformation makers put remarks beside the problematic documents, seeking to incite the audience’s anger.
For example, in the disinformation piece asserting that Mr. Lai agreed to fund Paraguay’s social housing project, the narrators posted a “memo” in the Spanish language, claiming to be signed by representatives from Taiwan and Paraguay during Mr. Lai’s state visit. However, as the Taiwan FactCheck Center found, this “memo” was a fake document altered from an earlier official memo on cooperation between Taiwan and Paraguay. The disinformation actors changed multiple details, such as the signing dates (from December 17, 2018 to August 15, 2023), the collaboration term (from 2018-2023 to 2023-2028), the number of funds (from 150 million to 320 million), and replaced the names of signatory parties.
Image: The fake document (left) appeared online was actually altered from an earlier Taiwan-Paraguay official memo (right) dating back to 2018. TFC has identified several alterations, including changes in the year, amounts, and timeframes, all of which have been manipulated from the 2018 document. (TFC)
In the disinformation piece of Pelosi’s “arranged visit” to Taiwan and President Tsai’s acceptance of the “vanity award,” the malicious actors also used forged documents in English to support the disinformation. The Taiwan FactCheck Center identified multiple grammatical errors or incorrect words and formatting in these documents. The fake document in the Pelosi case also used a forged signature of the lobbying firm’s CEO copied from a public document that can be accessed online. The trace of counterfeit was so evident because the malicious actor replicated not only the signature but also the tiny stains near the signature.
In another case, the actors used irrelevant or indirectly related documents to back up their vague comments to sway public opinions. The disinformation creators provided several seemingly true documents in the case alleging that Taiwan gave in to Paraguay’s money demands, although one of the documents was actually a record of the Paraguayan government’s reception of the credentials from the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand, and another was about an education project between Mexico and Huawei.
An intriguing aspect about these fake or unrelated documents was that they were all written in foreign languages, yet some of the glaring grammatical flaws signaled their falsity. Nevertheless, these documents could still be disinformation actors’ effective baits to win the trust of audiences who lack the skills or time to investigate the information.
Disinformation route: From the “online exposé” to the local politicians’ social media posts and overseas Chinese language websites
One characteristic shared by these pieces is that they were all posted to online forums or social media as an exposé to audiences. In the Taiwanese media ecosystem, it is not uncommon for journalists to use so-called “exposé” rumors from online forums or social media as news sources, amplifying the questionable information without verifying the facts. In a number of instances, disinformation creators initially posted falsehoods in online forums, which were subsequently reported as “breaking news” by mainstream media outlets and disseminated as factual information.
For example, the pieces about Pelosi’s visit and Paraguay’s social housing contract with Taiwan were both posted to PTT, the most popular Reddit-like online Bulletin Board System in Taiwan. In the latter case, a similar message also surfaced around the same time on another popular online forum Mobile 01.
Aside from the local Taiwanese internet communities, social media X (formerly known as Twitter) has emerged as a source of disinformation concerning Taiwanese diplomatic relations. The rumor about President Tsai’s Hudson Institute “vanity award” was posted in English to X by a new account, as was the problematic information about Mr. Lai’s visit to Paraguay as money diplomacy.
What makes the path of Mr. Lai’s visit rumor notable is its original source. A post on the “leaked documents” as proof of the massive aid from Taiwan to Paraguay first appeared on an antisemitism-themed board in the imageboard community Endchan. Later, the new X account quoted the Endchan post, claiming “the darknet exposed the inside story of how [the Taiwanese] government solidified the diplomatic relation.” Stories in the Taiwanese online forum Baoliao Commune (爆料公社“Exposé Community” in English translation. It is famous for exposing sensational gossip or self-claimed leaked news) and a Hong Kong news website soon quoted the X post. Meanwhile, a Taiwanese politician boosted the X post on Facebook, asserting he had received the information about Mr. Lai being duped and wasting money in Paraguay.
The distribution paths of the problematic information in these cases are specifically worth attention. It demonstrates how problematic information involving both international relations and domestic politics could be created in foreign languages and then “imported” to influence domestic public opinions. As we can see from the examples above, some of the rumors were first spread in English, subsequently translated into Chinese, and propagated into the domestic cyber sphere in Taiwan or other regions using the Chinese language. The disinformation operators skillfully exploited people’s unfamiliarity with other languages and the foreign media environment. These foreign “exposés” pique people’s interests while simultaneously increasing language barriers to verification.
These strategies and the transnational spread of disinformation pose a challenge to fact-checking. However, the problematic information can be stopped if fact-checkers can identify and debunk the problematic information when the message is still lurking in less-noticed online spaces. In the meantime, journalists in the mainstream media should also be on the lookout for obscure documents claimed to be “leaked” sources. A global network that monitors the spread of harmful information could also play a crucial role in the fight against disinformation.
Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at Taiwan FactCheck Center.
Summer Chen, Chief Editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center, and Pei-Huang Chen, fact-checker of Taiwan FactCheck Center, also contributed to this analysis.