Inciting anxiety about the looming war -the disinformation narratives about the possible Taiwan Strait crisis during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election

Inciting anxiety about the looming war -the disinformation narratives about the possible Taiwan Strait crisis during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election

By Wei-Ping Li, Ph.D.

(This article is part of an analysis series of disinformation trends during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election.)

As the cross-strait relationship between Taiwan and China has deteriorated over the past years, disinformation about probable military conflict across the strait has become more prevalent in the 2024 presidential election. With out-of-context or even fabricated rumors, disinformation creators and propellers exploit the worries among the Taiwanese and try to undermine people’s confidence in the government and the military.

These disinformation pieces tackle the theme of “inciting anxiety about the war (恐戰)" from various angles. A general picture has emerged from these pieces disseminated through different periods in 2023. The disinformation creators attempt to paint a picture to contrast a robust Chinese military with a weak Taiwanese counterpart. According to this image, the United States is incapable of protecting Taiwan and may even sacrifice Taiwan if necessary. Furthermore, the pieces distort facts to suggest that the United States has failed to fulfill its promise of weapons sales or aid. In addition to emphasizing the military gap, the disinformation creators use current international events, such as the ongoing war in Gaza, to remind audiences of the dire consequences of war, sending the message that avoiding war with China is the best option for the Taiwanese. 

🔎 Categories of narratives

We examined disinformation pieces on the topic “the anxiety about the war” that had been fact-checked by the Taiwan FactCheck Center from January to mid-November and identified several categories of the disinformation narratives: 

1). The Taiwanese government has started drafting citizens, even older people, to prepare for the war; 

2). The Taiwanese military is too weak to combat against the Chinese military; 

3). The Chinese military is strong 

4). The U.S. cannot protect Taiwan and will even abandon Taiwan; 

5) The U.S. did not keep its promise of military aid to Taiwan; 

6). The war is terrible, and Taiwanese people should avoid a war with China; 

7). High-ranking Taiwanese politicians and Taiwanese citizens are fleeing Taiwan. 

These disinformation pieces about “war anxiety” are not new. We have identified similar narratives in 2022, during which the fearmongering pieces of “witnessing a conflict between Taiwan and China” or “Taiwanese military is dragging citizens into the combat” were circulated on Facebook and LINE for a while. The claim that the U.S. will destroy important assets of Taiwan, such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), has also spread as YouTube videos subtitled in simplified Chinese and shared on social media platforms in 2022. 

In 2023, a pivotal year before the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election, when the outcome may affect Taiwan’s relations with China and the U.S., the disinformation trend focusing on the coming conflict between China and Taiwan intensifies. Similar disinformation aimed at instilling fear has surfaced whenever critical local or international events occur.

🔎 Disinformation narratives about “the formidable Chinese military” 

For example, when President Tsai Ing-wen met with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California, causing China to launch military drills around Taiwan in April 2023, disinformation pieces appeared in a Taiwanese online forum PTT as well as on social media such as Weibo, TikTok, Facebook, and LINE, claiming that missiles launched by China had flown over Taiwan’s airspace. These claims criticized that the Taiwanese military was “still sleeping” and ignorant of the situation. 

While emphasizing the Chinese military’s capabilities and criticizing Taiwan’s inability to defend itself, these disinformation articles also attempted to portray the U.S. military as untrustworthy. A Facebook post said that when the Chinese aircraft carrier entered Taiwan's east water, the U.S. quickly ordered the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier to pull out to Japan “at full speed.” The narrator included a link to, an Australian news website, with the text: "Slap! The U.S. abandoned Taiwan again and fled itself." In fact, the Australian website just claimed that the Chinese and U.S. forces were “squaring off in the Philippine Sea,” with no mention of the U.S. retreat in the news piece. The image accompanying the text was also taken from a personal comment posted by a Twitter user.

A close-up of a computer screenDescription automatically generated
A screenshot of a Facebook post wrongly claimed that the American USS Nimitz aircraft carrier was commanded to retreat to Japan “at full speed” when a Chinese counterpart was moving in the waters east of Taiwan.  

🔎 Disinformation narratives claiming that the youth and the old will be sent to the battlefield

Another war-anxiety disinformation narrative standing out in 2023 was the rumor that the Taiwanese government expanded the scope of the military draft. The military conscription disinformation pieces surged at a time when there was a growing call for preparation for civil defense in Taiwanese society, and the Taiwanese Defense Ministry proposed to amend the law “All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act [全民防衛動員準備法].” 

According to the draft of the revision that the Defense Ministry publicized in February 2023, Article 16 requires the government to plan how to mobilize civilians, including members of substitute military service, to ensure that the country has proper preparation in peacetime and adequate resources during a national emergency. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education discussed maintaining a list of Taiwanese students older than 16 for emergency preparation. Some major Taiwanese media outlets then inflated these proposals, claiming that the government planned to force young people to manufacture weapons or even deploy students to fight. On social media, there were also false and exaggerated reports that students would be drafted into the military.

For instance, identical posts spread on social media, asserting that “the All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act means the military can enter the school to drag students away and force them to serve the military. Even teachers don’t have the right to stop them.” But the fact is, the proposed Article 16 made no changes to the enlistment of students. Even the plan discussed in the Ministry of Education does not include sending students to battle. As a matter of fact, the rule for engaging the youth in the emergency preparation plan has been in the All-Out Defense Mobilization Law and other related laws for many years. No regulations in Taiwan would allow the government or the military to draft students from the campus, either.

A screenshot of a computerDescription automatically generated
A screenshot of a Facebook post claiming that “The All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act means the military can enter the school to drag students away and force them to serve the military. Even teachers don’t have the right to stop them.”

However, in the following months, similar rumors would appear whenever there were discussions of strengthening civil defense. In May 2023, another wave of disinformation arose again. One of the threads showed an image of a Taipei City government notification suggesting that an 80-year-old citizen had been called for a civil defense drill. “What is this?” remarked the narrator of social media posts. “Is this for war preparations? An 80-year-old man must participate in the civil defense drill!” Later that month, another piece of misinformation was spread based on the “old man has to fight in the war” story, claiming that “in addition to requiring the elderly to serve, the decommissioned age for reserve force members is increased.”

Another similar piece of disinformation claimed that the government might enlist security guards working for private companies. Notably, this disinformation stemmed from a mainstream media source. A news outlet initially broke the “scoop” that the Criminal Investigation Bureau had asked associations of private security guards to survey their members’ military histories. The news article’s title questioned whether it was an indication that security personnel would be obliged to fight in the conflict. Later, multiple media sources followed and published similarly unsettling headlines; Facebook posts further highlighted the incorrect information, stating, "The 300,000 security guards will go to the battlefield, too," without further details.   

🔎 Disinformation narratives that described the American weapons sold to Taiwan as “useless” or “dangerous”

During 2022 and 2023, the U.S. government approved arms sales and military aid programs to Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, disinformation creators exploited these sales to taint the relationship between Taiwan and the U.S., with a particular emphasis that the weapons sold to Taiwan were dangerous or useless. 

One disinformation piece appeared in January 2023 after the U.S. announced the sale of the Volcano anti-tank mine-laying systems to Taiwan in December 2022. Disinformation was spread on social media, contending that the mine-laying system is difficult to detect and remove. The disinformation further claimed that the sale would only benefit politicians and Americans. This post contained several errors, including the type of mine-layering system. 

Another piece of disinformation aimed at the arms sales said that the arms or fighter jets the Americans sold to Taiwan were still under the remote control of the U.S. and would not function unless the U.S. gave permission. Besides, the jet could not fly, and the missiles were locked away in Guam. 

Disinformation pieces that criticized arms sales or compared the “strong Chinese military” with “the fleeing American navy” and the “sleeping Taiwanese military” also attempted to convey the message that the US was taking advantage of Taiwan’s need for protection and weapon supplies. Furthermore, it presented the United States as a paper tiger that may desert Taiwan at a critical moment.

🔎 Mainstream media played a role in inciting the fear

The skepticism toward the U.S. and the incitement of fear of the war came not from the obscure posts disseminated on social media platforms. Sometimes, Taiwanese politicians and media unfamiliar with the international media ecosystem are the primary disinformation creators and amplifiers. For instance, an unfounded tweet posted to X in February, asserting that American President Joe Biden said he had a plan to destroy Taiwan, was shared by a Taiwanese politician and extensively covered by Taiwanese news outlets without providing any context or verification. This tweet was actually from an American media host, Garland Nixon, who worked for Russian-owned media. Garland later said this tweet was only meant to be satire. However, Taiwanese and even Chinese news websites have treated this tweet as fact and further covered it as evidence that the U.S. would betray Taiwan. 

🔎 Disinformation narratives that showed the misery of war

As we have pointed out in our previous analysis of the disinformation about the Israel-Hamas war, disinformation creators also took advantage of international crises to inflame people’s anxiety about the war. Propagandists have used fake images of the battlefields and human suffering to convince the Taiwanese to avoid conflicts with China. 

🔎 Conclusion

In this analysis, we summarized disinformation narratives from 2023 that aimed to fuel anxiety about the war. These disinformation pieces did reveal several trends. For example, the military drills often offered opportunities for disinformation creators to forge images of a strong Chinese military, a weak Taiwan counterpart, and paper tiger Americans. The discussion about civil defense in Taiwanese society could be used to scare Taiwanese that “people are going to the battlefield,” and international events would be exploited to showcase the cruelty of the war and make people even more frightened about the looming conflict across the Taiwan Strait. Being familiar with the patterns would be helpful for citizens to identify disinformation and keep calm when facing the deluge of rumors.

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.
Editor: Hui-An Ho