[TFC Disinfo Detector] A brief review of disinformation spread during elections in Taiwan, 2020-2022 (Part II)

[TFC Disinfo Detector] A brief review of disinformation spread during elections in Taiwan, 2020-2022 (Part II)

Image: People walk past the candidate's campaign flag in Taipei, Taiwan, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. Taiwan held local elections on November 26, 2022. (Top Image)

By Wei-Ping Li, PhD

We examined important trends and types of disinformation pieces in the first part of our investigation of the spread of disinformation during Taiwanese elections over the past three years. In the second half of this analysis, we will investigate more closely the narratives in the following disinformation themes: vote rigging, government policies, national defense, and skepticism toward the United States.  

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Figure 1 Percentages of disinformation themes in the 2020 Taiwanese presidential election, 2021 Taiwanese referendum, and 2022 Taiwanese local elections

🔎 The disinformation narratives of vote rigging

As Figure 1 shows, vote rigging was the most prevalent disinformation theme during the past three elections. Common narratives included incorrect information about voting procedures, false allegations of counting frauds, and candidates’ bribery and vote-buying (see Figure 2). A few pieces also wrongly claimed that the ruling party would suppress speech related to the election because of the anti-infiltration law passed in 2019, which aimed to counter influence from countries such as China. Some even spread the conspiracy theory that the anti-infiltration law would become a tool for the government to overturn the 2020 presidential election result if the result favored the then-opposition party presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, who advocated for a closer tie between China and Taiwan.

Figure 2 Count of subthemes of Vote Rigging narratives

The disinformation about vote rigging had spread on social media earlier before election day. Some pieces provided erroneous information to make voting appear troublesome enough to discourage voters. For example, messages falsely claimed that Taiwanese citizens who lived overseas for a long time should meet additional requirements to be qualified to vote. Moreover, numerous pieces attempted to stir people’s distrust of the voting process and seed doubts about voting results. They claimed, for example, that the ballots and ballot boxes had been tampered with. During the last three elections, similar elements of these themes resurfaced in the form of texts or manipulated videos.

The disinformation about the rigged voting procedures was even more rampant after the election day. In addition to fabricated claims that the ballots could contain invisible ink, ballot boxes were designed with suspicious openings for secret votes, or a vote-counting machine was installed with a backdoor program, another even more prevailing narrative was that “the total number of votes did not match.” This type of disinformation played the game of numbers, suggesting that the number of ballots or the vote counts were altered to favor the ruling party or President Tsai Ing-wen. But the truth was that these disinformation pieces misused data or distorted information about the process of counting electoral votes. 

🔎 The disinformation narratives attacking the government’s policies

The second common category of disinformation narratives in the last three Taiwanese elections was false information about the current government’s policies, particularly those concerning gender, education, and social welfare (see Figure 3). This disinformation was usually directed at Taiwanese individuals who worried about the decline of traditional social values, the quality of education, and social welfare policies for retirees.

Figure 3 Count of subthemes of government's policies narratives

It was intriguing to note how, amid a wide range of domestic topics, gender issues, such as gender identity and equality, had become a major target for disinformation during the elections. Although Taiwan has legalized same-sex marriage since 2019, and Taiwanese society has relatively high support for both same-sex marriage and gender equality, there was still disagreement about gender agendas during election years, which created opportunities for manipulators to incite anger among those who questioned the current gender policy’s direction. These disinformation pieces frequently employed unsettling visuals and provocative language to incite fear and wrath.

For example, one of the disinformation pieces repeatedly seen in the elections falsely claimed that the Taiwanese government funded the Taiwan LGBT+ Pride, the largest pride parade in Asia. The posts circulated in LINE and Facebook posted images of participants dressing in costumes and commented: “Can we still support this political party, which spent 30 million Taiwanese dollars to invite homosexuals from all over the world to march in Taipei and harm our next generation? Can you accept that?” In fact, the Taiwanese government and the ruling Democratic Progress Party (DPP) never sponsored the parade. 

In some cases, the problematic messages connected gender with education issues. One piece used an unrelated event and concluded that the Ministry of Education encouraged kids as young as 12 years old to have transgender surgery. With provocative texts attached to the disinformation, such as “How could the Ministry of Education do this?” this kind of false information blasted that the government undermined traditional values. Other examples of “deteriorating education” also included “the government has relaxed the regulations of possessing drugs at the campus” and “the government has used textbooks that teach cursed words,” etc. 

The disinformation about social welfare was more specifically aimed at retirees from the military and government or retired schoolteachers. These groups used to enjoy high pension interest rates promised by the government but have received less now due to pension regulations revised years ago. Many disinformation pieces targeting these retirees claimed that the current government had wasted money on pointless projects. Moreover, the false information pieces said that the military, government, and school retirees received pensions that were even less than the aid to the homeless. Other disinformation spread invented events about the government’s new measures that would deprive retirees of their pension benefits. The creators of the messages seemed to know so well about the old grudges held among some members of the retiree group that they crafted messages with this theme repeatedly in each election to arouse discontent.

🔎 The disinformation narratives stoke fear about war and skepticism toward the U.S.

As we pointed out in the first part of the analysis, disinformation about Taiwan’s national defense and skepticism toward the U.S. among Taiwanese were rare during the 2020 presidential election. However, the year 2022 saw an increase in disinformation that diminished confidence in Taiwan’s national defense capability and incited resentment against the U.S. (see Figure 4). One reason national issues such as national defense and international relations became a spotlight in the local election could be that months ago, before the local election, then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and triggered military drills conducted by China surrounding Taiwan. 

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Figure 4 Trends of disinformation during elections in 2020, 20201, and 2022 (The y-axis is the percentage of categories in each year).

The disinformation about national defense conveyed the message that “the war is coming” in light of intensified Chinese military drills and a potential war. They claimed that some conflict in the air between Taiwan and China was witnessed or that the Taiwanese government was actively preparing for the war, such as there would soon be a military draft or the military was doing urban combat training. 

One disinformation piece circulated on social media posted an image in which soldiers were transporting fighting vehicles through narrow city alleyways. The text read, “A good government deposits wealth among its people, while a bad government deposits artillery among the people…it lets people all die together!” Another message used the same image with a different text: “Was that the military technique the U.S. military instructed the Tsai government to do? Can people still live in the house nearby?” 

Indeed, these were falsely construed messages. The original occasion of the image was a festival in which the military displayed a cannon in the exhibition. Nevertheless, manipulators exploited the image to show that the war was so close to daily life and implied that the U.S. played a role. 

Some of the messages tried to suggest that interference from the U.S. impacted not only military matters but also the everyday lives of ordinary people. Rather than focusing on the doubts about whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan once China invaded Taiwan, the disinformation during this period tried to inflame anti-American sentiment, telling the lie that Americans would take away resources and benefits belonging to the Taiwanese. 

One example was the unfounded claim that the DPP government was going to sign a contract with the American government, allowing American veterans living in Asia to enjoy the same health benefits as Taiwanese veterans. Another vein of anti-U.S. disinformation claimed that the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 [1] would not require the U.S. to help Taiwan fight against the Chinese Liberation Army. Moreover, according to the Act, the American government could transfer the ownership of Taiwanese properties or send Taiwanese talents to the U.S. Additionally, a video about Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a spotlight in the US-China-Taiwan relationship, also emerged from YouTube and then flew to social media, asserting that U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen said the U.S. would destroy TSMC if necessary.

🔎 Conclusion

To conclude, we’ve identified several trends in disinformation narratives in the past election and referendum:

  1. In the category of vote rigging, the disinformation attack started way earlier, before election day. They targeted the integrity of voting procedures and made false assertions about ballots and boxes. After the election, the disinformation turned to questioning the vote-counting process and spreading incorrect information about fake votes.

  2. Regarding disinformation about government policies preceding the elections, information manipulators focused on policies regarding gender, education, and social welfare. The groups the disinformation tried to influence were people who held more conservative views on gender issues, concerned parents, former government employees and teachers, or veterans.

  3. Disinformation aimed at inciting worries about the conflict with China or resentment toward the U.S. surged in 2022. These false information pieces stirred fear in Taiwanese people by fabricating scenes of conflicts or signs that the war would happen in neighborhoods. Information manipulators also spread false claims that the U.S. would not help Taiwan. Furthermore, the U.S. would exploit or even destroy Taiwan’s resources.   

The above disinformation trends during the elections and referendum in 2020-2022 were references for later important events. They could serve as a guide for predicting potential genres and themes of disinformation that may emerge in the future. Records also indicate that some old disinformation pieces would return with updated elements. Certainly, disinformation with new narratives and techniques will always pose significant challenges to society, but learning from past trends can help prepare us to meet new ones.  

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center. 

[1] The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, but it never became a law. Some provisions of the Act were included and passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023.