/Awash in Disinformation Before Vote, Taiwan Points Finger at China

Awash in Disinformation Before Vote, Taiwan Points Finger at China


TAIPEI, Taiwan — At first look, the bespectacled YouTuber railing towards Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, simply looks as if a involved citizen making an enchantment to his fellow Taiwanese.

He speaks Taiwanese-accented Mandarin, with the occasional phrase in Taiwanese dialect. His captions are written with the normal Chinese characters used in Taiwan, not the simplified ones used in China. With outrage in his voice, he accuses Ms. Tsai of promoting out “our beloved land of Taiwan” to Japan and the United States.

The man, Zhang Xida, doesn’t say in his movies whom he works for. But different web sites and movies make it clear: He is a number for China National Radio, the Beijing-run broadcaster.

As Taiwan gears up for a significant election this week, officers and researchers fear that China is experimenting with social media manipulation to sway the vote. Doing so can be straightforward, they worry, in the island’s rowdy democracy, the place the information cycle is quick and voters are already awash in false or extremely partisan info.

So many rumors and falsehoods circulate on Taiwanese social media that it can be hard to tell whether they originate in Taiwan or in China, and whether they are the work of private provocateurs or of state agents.

Puma Shen, an assistant professor at National Taipei University who studies Chinese influence efforts, does not believe that disinformation from China is always guided by some central authority as it spreads around the internet.

“It’s not an order from Beijing,” Mr. Shen said. Much of the activity seems to be scattered groups of troublemakers, paid or not, who feed off one another’s trolling. “People are enthusiastic about doing this kind of stuff there in China,” he said.

In December, Taiwan’s justice ministry warned about a fake government notice saying Taiwan was deporting protesters who had fled Hong Kong. The hoax first appeared on the Chinese social platform Weibo, the ministry said, before spreading to a Chinese nationalist Facebook group.

Sometimes, Chinese trolls amplify rumors already floating around in Taiwan, Mr. Shen said. He is also on the lookout for Taiwanese social media accounts that may be bought or supported by Chinese operatives.

Ahead of midterm elections in 2018, his team had been monitoring several YouTube channels that discussed Taiwanese politics. The day after voting ended, the channels disappeared.

After Yu Hsin-Hsien was elected to the City Council that year in Taoyuan, a city near Taipei, mysterious strangers began inquiring about buying his Facebook page, which had around 280,000 followers. Mr. Yu, 30, immediately suspected China.

His suspicions grew after he demanded an extravagantly high price and the buyers accepted. Mr. Yu, who represents Ms. Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party, did not sell.

Mr. Peng, a former television anchor, once supported Ms. Tsai. He was proud that Taiwan elected a female president. Now he says he is not being paid by anyone, including China, to crusade against her.

He is not worried about being smeared as fake news.

“Let news and fake news compete against each other,” Mr. Peng said. “I trust that most people aren’t so stupid. Everybody eventually figures it out.”

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting. Wang Yiwei contributed research from Beijing.



Source link Nytimes.com

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