When foreign disinformation comes to town – How disinformation about the Israel-Hamas war has evolved in Taiwan
When foreign disinformation comes to town – How disinformation about the Israel-Hamas war has evolved in Taiwan
Over the past few weeks, the amount of disinformation about the Israel-Hamas war and the speed of its spread have shocked professional fact-checkers. In a short period of time, disinformation relevant to the war has also crept into the Taiwanese information ecosystem, swaying audiences’ worldviews.
In the problematic messages dispersed in Taiwan, information creators took advantage of people’s unfamiliarity with the history of a faraway land and their desire to make sense of the ongoing situation quickly. While providing oversimplified or incorrect accounts, malicious actors also linked the war to local Taiwanese events, attempting to stir up public dissatisfaction with Taiwanese politicians and sowing seeds of distrust toward the United States, which plays an important role in Taiwan-China relations.
It didn’t take long before the flood of disinformation about the Israel-Hamas war reached social media platforms frequented by Taiwanese in their daily lives. The Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023. Within the same day, images of conflict zones and information illustrating the history of Israeli-Palestinian disputes surged on LINE, TikTok, and Facebook.
Some of the messages relayed news reports by the Taiwanese mainstream media, but many pieces in Taiwan were directly shared from Chinese social media platforms, such as Weibo, Douyin , and Kuaishou. Quite a few of the information pieces were video clips that have already been circulated widely in the international community. Manipulators embedded these videos with short texts in simplified Chinese, a sign indicating the information probably originated from China. Still, some of the pieces were texts written in traditional Chinese, which is commonly used in Taiwan. Among these problematic information pieces, claims about scenes of the battlefield, the suffering of Palestinian civilians, the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how other countries reacted to the war have been most prevalent.
One type of disinformation that has caught the attention of Taiwanese audiences is the scene on the battlefield. While reporters of international mainstream media have had difficulties entering Gaza to cover what has transpired in the region, a large amount of footage has been flowing on social media, including the platforms used by Taiwanese and Chinese, asserting to be the first-hand witness of the war. One of the purposes of the message was to feed into audiences’ urge to know; however, the persons who posted the messages, particularly those written in traditional Chinese, also intended to convey a lesson about the terror of war and stress the importance of avoiding a war with China.
For instance, a Facebook account posted a video of soldiers killing civilians along with a comment inviting viewers to a rally in Taipei to “promote peace across the Taiwan Strait.” The comment read: “During the Israel-Hamas conflict, people had nowhere to flee... Everyone will suffer if conflict breaks out. The people’s hope is for peace across the Taiwan Strait. Let us advocate for peace across the Strait." The video (which was blank due to Facebook's content moderation policy) was also shown with a poster advertising the rally sponsored by a newly formed political party whose stated goal is to “boost cross-strait peace.”
Nevertheless, this was not the first time that fact-checkers debunked this video. The same video, which was originally a recording of the 2013 massacre of Tadamon in Syria, was also altered as disinformation propagated during the Russia-Ukraine war. The same clip was deployed again in the current Israel-Hamas war, spreading on LINE and Facebook and then exploited by Facebook users.
Screenshot of the Facebook falsely linking a video of the 2013 massacre of Tadamon in Syria to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict and advertising a political rally. The post read: “During the Israel-Hamas conflict, people had nowhere to flee... Everyone will suffer if conflict breaks out. The people’s hope is for peace across the Taiwan Strait. Let us advocate for peace across the Strait."
Information manipulators also used another disinformation piece widely disseminated in the global community to cast doubt on the patriotism of presidential candidate Lai Ching-te in the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election. The material used in the disinformation was a picture that falsely asserted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife were sending their son to join the current conflict. The narrator asserted that while the Israeli prime minister sent his son to the battlefield, Lai sent his sons to study in the U.S. Again, information creators exploited the picture presented in a false context to shape public opinions related to Taiwanese politics.
Screenshot of a picture falsely asserting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sending their son to join the current conflict, to cast doubt on the patriotism of the presidential candidate Lai Ching-te.
In the above cases, the malicious actors took advantage of existing disinformation that had been shared worldwide during the war and added comments relevant to Taiwanese local politics. However, two weeks after the war broke out, the Taiwan Factcheck Center identified disinformation pieces targeting the Taiwanese government, which were completely fabricated snapshots of webpages of the government and an international media outlet. These posts were posted by the same Facebook account and claimed that Taiwan would provide military aid to Israel.
One of the posts included a falsified screenshot from the webpage of the Taiwanese president’s office, stating that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced to provide 200 million U.S. dollars to assist Israel. Another post showed a screenshot of an article from the news website Radio France Internationale. The fake article claimed, according to a “news report by the Washington Post,” that a leaked document from U.S. intelligence revealed that President Tsai had ordered to produce and send 40,000 rockets to Israel secretly. The images in these screenshots looked like they were from legitimate websites. Although a careful comparison of the writing styles gave away clues of falsity, they can still deceive individuals who did not scrutinize the images. The fabricated screenshots and fake article “quotes” from international media also show that the disinformation creators’ techniques had evolved from capitalizing on existing disinformation to crafting fake pieces more sophisticatedly.
Screenshot of the fabricated webpage of the Taiwanese president’s office, stating that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced to provide 200 million U.S. dollars to assist Israel.
Screenshot of a fabricated news piece of Radio France Internationale. The fake article claimed, according to a “news report by the Washington Post,” that a leaked document from U.S. intelligence revealed that President Tsai had ordered to produce and send 40,000 rockets to Israel secretly.
Some of the problematic information circulated in Taiwan over the past few weeks was also intended to incite animosity and skepticism toward the U.S. This sort of message includes three common themes: the U.S. military was weak; the U.S. had no allies and could not garner support from other countries; and the United States was the origin of the conflicts between Israel and Palestine.
The information pieces were mostly produced as videos and first circulated around Douyin, TikTok, or YouTube channels operated by pro-China Hong Kong media. One of the common formats was a host explaining to audiences about the Israel-Hamas war or the history prior to the conflict. Some videos displayed scenes of difficult living conditions in Gaza, embedded with the title “The truth that the Taiwanese do not know—see what Israel and the U.S. have done.”
Screenshot of a TikTok video displaying scenes of difficult living conditions in Gaza, embedded with the title “The truth that the Taiwanese do not know—see what Israel and the U.S. have done.”
Some of the pieces were utterly fake. For example, a video with subtitles in simplified Chinese claimed that the U.S. Army Special Forces tried to rescue hostages in Gaza, but the forces were all tortured and killed. Moreover, the host in the video asserted that Putin’s office has vowed to send troops to the Middle East if the U.S. escalates the war. The video claimed, “The end of the U.S. is near.” The message has been shared on LINE and Facebook but has also been debunked by the Taiwan FactCheck Center.
But in addition to the above disinformation that was apparently false, other information pieces, especially those concerning the history of the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, imposed greater challenges to fact-checking.
The main reason is that this kind of information that seems to provide background knowledge in a quick video or short written text often mixes with oversimplified historical accounts and opinions. This kind of information tends to present black-and-white narratives by omitting details and urging audiences to make a quick moral judgment.
In most videos, the narrator blamed the United States for helping to develop militant groups in the Middle East, including Hamas, and conveyed the lesson that the U.S. was the very origin of the chaos in the world. To prove the argument, the video also presented clips, such as the speech of American politician Hillary Clinton, that echoed the narrator’s points. Indeed, the clips and some facts mentioned in the videos were true, but the videos also glossed over a lot of details to facilitate the narrator’s conclusion. While individual pieces of information contained in the videos might be correct, the broader picture composed of these cherry-picked information pieces is not complete and is even misleading.
Screenshot of a short video mixing with oversimplified historical accounts and opinions to claim that United States helped to develop Hamas, and conveying the lesson that the U.S. was the very origin of the chaos in the world.
Unfortunately, videos containing dubious narratives have been shared on LINE and Facebook. The spread of information showed that Taiwanese audiences were eager to understand the war and its relevant history. However, the urgent need to know and the scarcity of reliable information have created an information gap, which propagandists or information manipulators exploit to shape narratives and influence public opinion in a very different geopolitical context. As we can see from the example of these videos, they quenched audiences’ thirst for information with shallow, sometimes twisted, information that easily incites anger and causes distress.
The Israel-Hamas conflict is not the first occasion where we see the emergence of information gaps. They will again appear when the next impactful world event happens—people will look for information about situations on the ground and historical background knowledge; manipulators will step in to fill the void. For fact-checkers whose main task focuses on verifying the authenticity of information, bridging the information gap seems to be another large-scale battle. It will also take a broader media ecosystem and collaboration among more communities to address the problem.
Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.
🔗Shayan Sardarizadeh on X. (n.d.). X (Formerly Twitter). https://twitter.com/Shayan86/status/1711107942538170514
🔗Folkenflik, D. (2023, October 24). News outlets backtrack on Gaza blast after relying on Hamas as key source. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/10/24/1208075395/israel-gaza-hospital-strike-media-nyt-apology
🔗Taiwan FactCheck Center. (2022, May 16). 【錯誤】網傳影片「烏軍亞速營殺害平民！並嫁禍給俄羅斯」？([False] The online video said, “The Ukrainian Azov Assault Brigade killed civilians and put the blame on Russia”?). https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/7500
🔗Taiwan FactCheck Center. (2023, October 16). 【錯誤】網傳影片「以巴戰爭，可憐百姓無處可逃」？([False] The online video said, “In the Israel-Palestine War, poor citizens had nowhere to flee”?). https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/9760
🔗Taiwan FactCheck Center. (2023, October 18). 【錯誤】網傳圖片「以色列總理送兒子上戰場」？([False] The online video said, “The Israeli Prime Minister sent his son to the battlefield?”). https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/9782
🔗Taiwan FactCheck Center. (2023, October 25).【錯誤】網傳影片「美軍特種部隊在加薩強行解救人質行動徹底失敗，特戰隊員誤入陷阱全掛了」？([False] The online video said, “U.S. Special Forces’ operation to rescue the hostages in Gaza completely failed. The special forces members fell into a trap and died?”). https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/9811
🔗Taiwan FactCheck Center. (2023, October 26). 【錯誤】網傳總統府官網截圖「台灣提供以色列2億美元軍事援助」([False] A screenshot of the official website of the Presidential Office said, “Taiwan provides Israel with US$200 million in military aid?”). https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/9824
 TikTok and Douyin are owned by the same Chinese company, ByteDance, and have similar user interfaces. However, Douyin can only be downloaded in China. Users living outside of China will only find TikTok in the App Store or Play Store. Taiwanese users can only download TikTok.