Only a month ago, Taiwan was feeling more at peace with itself than any other democratic developed nation. On the back of a 16-month-long success in keeping Covid-19 at bay, 68 per cent felt society was more united than before the pandemic, a rating topped only by Singapore, according to research published by the US pollster Pew last week.
That unity is cracking. Although there are no surveys that allow direct comparisons with the Pew data, Taiwan’s first domestic coronavirus outbreak has given rise to partisan strife, growing distrust of the government’s handling of the pandemic and fears fed by rumour-mongering.
Most western democracies have had to deal with internal frictions during the pandemic. In the US, some rebelled against lockdowns and in Germany, a vocal movement against vaccination has developed. But it is a riskier path for Taiwan — for China, which claims the country as part of its territory, stands ready to seize on divisions.
Global Times, the nationalist tabloid owned by the Communist party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, famously wrote in 2016 that China would seek to “Lebanonise Taiwan” to undermine stability.
Beijing’s weapon of choice has been disinformation. Experts have registered a sharp increase of Chinese information operations targeting Taiwan since the beginning of the pandemic last year, but following the recent start of increasing infections and deaths, those attacks have started to sting.
“Negative stories or fake news about vaccines have dominated the most-discussed topics we tracked over the past few weeks,” said Yu Chih-hao, co-director of Information Operations Research Group (IORG), a non-governmental group that tracks Chinese information manipulation aimed at Taiwan. The group identified a role of Chinese state media and other Chinese sources in either creating or spreading them (Beijing has usually labelled disinformation accusations as themselves “lies and disinformation”).
Late last month the dominant narrative was that the US, Taiwan’s unofficial protector, was “not selling Taipei a single vial of vaccine”. Earlier this month, Beijing claimed that tens of thousands of Taiwanese people were flocking to China to get vaccinated. Then Chinese media reported that Taipei was planning to give jabs to its diplomatic allies although it did not have enough to vaccinate its own population. Both claims have been denied by Taiwan’s government.
Most recently, after Taiwan’s vaccination campaign picked up speed, Chinese media spread stories of old people dying from the jab. Taiwan’s vaccination rates have since levelled off as many elderly have grown fearful of vaccination.
This has been amplified by Taiwanese media which have focused on elderly people dying after getting the Covid jab, drawing a causal link the health authorities say is unscientific.
Analysts say a key pattern through which Chinese disinformation in Taiwan spreads is that fake news or skewed narratives generated by Chinese trolls or content farms are passed on through Taiwanese private groups on the messaging app Line or the online discussion board PTT. That is how they find their way to mainstream Taiwanese media.
“Once a story gets magnified on TV, it seemingly gains legitimacy,” said Libby Lange, a former English speech writer and social media manager for president Tsai Ing-wen who now studies influence operations at Yale. “The current outbreak of disinformation in Taiwan is throwing in sharp relief the problem that journalistic rigour is perhaps not what it could be in the country. That could be very harmful in these times of heightened tension.”
Although the country has the second-freest press in Asia after South Korea, according to Reporters without Borders, RSF describes Taiwan’s media environment as polarised and “dominated by sensationalism and the pursuit of profit”.
Civil society groups are trying to improve media literacy. IORG is working on a book Yu hopes can be used to educate middle and high school students how to judge whether a piece of news is trustworthy. It can only be hoped that Taiwan has the time to wait for its next generation to develop immunity against Chinese disinformation trolls.