Chinese Influence Operations Evolve in Campaigns Targeting Taiwanese Elections, Hong Kong Protests

April 29, 2020 • Insikt Group®

China

Insikt Group

Editor’s Note: The following post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.

Recorded Future analyzed data from the Recorded Future® Platform, social media sites, local and regional news sites, academic studies, information security reporting, and other open sources (OSINT) for updates on Chinese state-sponsored influence operations targeting the 2020 Taiwanese presidential elections and Hong Kong protests. This report covers topics and information from September 21, 2019 through March 20, 2020 and will be of most value to government departments, geopolitical scholars and researchers, and all users of social media.

Executive Summary

As outlined by previous Insikt Group research, Chinese influence operations often aim to present a positive, benign, and cooperative image of China to foreign audiences. However, we have discovered that there is a more aggressive and coercive side of Chinese influence operations when it comes to the targeting of Taiwan and Hong Kong, regions that China has long viewed as domestic territory.

This research focuses on emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that Chinese state-affiliated or state-friendly actors have deployed in campaigns targeting the 2020 Taiwan presidential election and the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. In the context of Taiwan, we observed Chinese state-affiliated activities stealthily targeting every segment of the influence operations lifecycle, from production and amplification to dissemination. With respect to the 2019 Hong Kong protests, we observed new attack methods, infrastructure, and grassroot groups being deployed in nontraditional ways to defend and promote Chinese nationalistic propaganda and state interests.

Key Judgments

  • We assess that content farms will continue to play a leading role in enabling mainland Chinese disinformation efforts targeting Taiwan.
  • Taiwan’s unique efforts to discover, identify, and counter Chinese state-sponsored influence operations will likely force Chinese influencers to innovate and use more covert operational TTPs. We believe that these new tactics will likely include recruitment of overseas Chinese nationals, co-option of Taiwanese content farms and social media influencers, use of cover organizations, procurement of aged social media accounts, and more.
  • We assess that Chinese influence operators will likely employ artificial intelligence (AI) and bulk social media management software to ease the propagation of weaponized content at scale, especially on closed messaging platforms such as LINE or WhatsApp. Western social media platforms will also be likely targets for such automated campaigns during sensitive periods such as elections and global events, on issues that are relevant to China’s national image and state interests.
  • We judge that China will seek to identify local collaborators in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or those with policy or political views sympathetic to China, such as public figures, politicians, and marketing firms, to obfuscate China as the information source and increase its perceived authenticity.
  • We assess that new TTPs used to target Hong Kong protesters — crowd-sourced doxxing of anti-government protesters and social media “rallies” to support Chinese state interests — are likely to become regularly deployed tools in Chinese domestic and overseas influence operations.
  • We assess that the Chinese government is likely to start leveraging the existing patriotism and capabilities of online grassroot groups to promote and defend state interests abroad through explicit direction and implicit nudging.

Background

Taiwan and Hong Kong have long been geopolitical flashpoints for the mainland Chinese government, which has struggled to build and maintain a legitimate standing with the people of these two special-status “regions,” both of which Beijing views as its sovereign territory and key elements of overall domestic stability.

From a tactical standpoint, the mainland Chinese government views both Taiwan and Hong Kong as domestic information space. As a result, it is not unusual to observe active Chinese intelligence and influence tactics in use that have not been traditionally employed in other foreign spaces.

In this research, Insikt Group focuses on new TTPs that have been used to target the most important political events in Taiwan and Hong Kong this past year — namely, the 2020 Taiwan presidential elections, which were held on January 11, 2020, and the series of large-scale Hong Kong protests that started in June 2019 in reaction to the 2019 Hong Kong Extradition Bill. The data sets we used were from September 21, 2019 through March 20, 2020 for the Hong Kong protests, and from October 1, 2019 through January 22, 2020 for the Taiwanese elections.

Taiwan’s 2020 Presidential Elections

Recorded Future observed a spike in references to “disinformation,” “fake news,” and “influence operations” in the context of Taiwan between October 2019 and January 2020. In the first half of January alone, our analysts observed 1,223 references, compared with the 775 references observed in December 2019, with peak volume immediately following the Taiwanese presidential elections on January 11, 2020, in which incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen successfully won a second term.

Despite the conclusion of the 2020 Taiwanese election cycle and the subsequent drop in references to disinformation campaigns and fake news targeting Taiwan, Recorded Future assesses it is highly likely that Chinese influence operations aimed at dividing Taiwanese society and promoting pro-China narratives and political candidates persist. Beijing has adopted this approach toward Taiwan since President Tsai of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)1 first unseated the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party) in 2016.

However, it is important to note that different parties in Taiwan also engage in online campaigns to sway public opinion to their respective interests, some of which are aligned with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests and employ similar TTPs. This convergence in interests, policy goals, and TTPs occasionally presents difficulties in distinguishing between Chinese (mainland) interference activity and Taiwanese political activity. We distinguish between the two types of activities to the best of our knowledge in the following analysis.

Covert Influence

This section describes TTPs used by Chinese covert influence operators to target Taiwanese users across Facebook, the popular messaging app LINE, and YouTube. We also assess the role and impact of Chinese content farms in the disinformation supply chain targeting Taiwan, and highlight associated TTPs:

  • Content Farms: Publishing fake news stories in English, AI-generated content, and China-friendly Taiwanese content farms
  • Facebook: Employment of PR firms for Facebook influence operations, recruitment of Taiwanese influencers, and the use of Chinese software for monitoring and batch posting
  • LINE: Use of Chinese software for monitoring and batch posting
  • YouTube: Use of Chinese influencers to shape narratives on Taiwanese affairs, and the recruitment of Taiwanese YouTube influencers

Content Farms

Chinese and Taiwanese content farms2 have become one of the biggest sources for misleading, intentionally biased, and false content in Taiwan. According to the database of Taiwanese fact-checking website MyGoPen (which translates to “don’t lie” in Taiwanese), at least 60% of false or misleading information forwarded to the site are from foreign sources, the majority of which are from mainland China. Oftentimes, Taiwanese content farms also source content from Chinese sources, including Chinese content farms, Weibo posts, WeChat posts, and Chinese state media or state-affiliated platforms.

Aside from common tactics to generate internet traffic from Taiwanese users, such as crafting sensational titles for news articles copied from local news outlets, Taiwanese researcher Puma Shen has observed an evolution of tactics, with Chinese operators creating English-language content farms. In these content farms, English articles are first translated to written simplified Chinese and then to traditional Chinese (the official written characters of Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than the simplified Chinese characters used by mainland Chinese) before being disseminated to Taiwanese users. We believe this evolution is likely for the purpose of deceiving the growing pool of Taiwanese internet users who have learned to verify news sources.

While we have not observed instances of content from English-language content farms being disseminated to Western audiences, we assess that such infrastructure and English-language content creation capabilities could be leveraged to target Western audiences.

Another emerging tactic used by both Chinese and Taiwanese content farms is the use of AI to generate massive volumes of content. In a May 2019 report on how to combat disinformation, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council — the agency responsible for China policy — speculated that China had been using AI technology in influence operations targeting Taiwan. This speculation was corroborated by Taiwanese online marketer and renowned public opinion manipulator Peng Kuan Chin (彭冠今). Peng created a “Content Farm Automatic Collection System” that crawls the internet for Chinese articles and posts and reorganizes the words and sentences into new text, generating thousands of articles per day. Peng’s software is modeled on automation software he saw in China, which he believes no one else outside the mainland has.

Additionally, while Recorded Future has not observed evidence of Chinese manipulation of Taiwanese content farms, we assess that operators of popular Taiwanese content farms are likely to be seen as valuable assets for Chinese influence operations. One example is Lin Cheng Kuo (林正國), the owner and active contributor to one of Taiwan’s most popular content farms, Mission (密訊).3 Mission is one of the most shared sources on Facebook Taiwan (zh-tw.facebook[.]com), at times surpassing major local news outlets. Investigative news outlet The Reporter recently revealed that Lin Cheng Kuo is an active member of Taiwan’s New Party, which supports unification with Mainland China. Additionally, he has been photographed attending events held by China’s provincial-level state-owned news station Hai Xia Dao Bao (海峡导报), alongside Chinese media personalities. We assess that, because popular Taiwanese content farms are so vital to spreading information to the Taiwanese public, owners and operators are likely to be seen as potential assets for Chinese influence operators.

Facebook

Social media penetration in Taiwan is the highest in Asia, with 89% of the population using social media at least once per day. Facebook is one of the most popular social media outlets in Taiwan, with 89% of Taiwanese internet users reported to use the platform. Facebook has become a prime target for Chinese influence operations in Taiwan, probably because of its wide reach and product stickiness. According to Taiwanese researcher Puma Shen, many content farms have relied on Facebook “fan” pages to spread disinformation. However, many of these pages were banned or deleted in 2019, so content farmers have resorted to employing freelance individuals in Malaysia, or other overseas Chinese nationals, to disseminate the content farm’s misleading content across Facebook. We assess that this trend toward employing more covert means of disseminating disinformation via local third parties on Facebook will accelerate as Facebook tightens enforcement of its content policies.

In the first half of 2019, multiple owners of popular Taiwanese Facebook fan pages disclosed screenshots of strangers attempting to purchase their fan pages. While speculation is rife on social and traditional media that the purchasers are mainland Chinese citizens, these attempts have not been directly attributed to Chinese nationals. However, according to the testimony of the owner of a Taiwanese online marketing firm that specializes in PTT4 influence campaigns, other marketing firms in the industry are conducting Facebook influence campaigns on behalf of the CCP, mostly through disseminating images and short commentaries criticizing the current administration.

Additionally, we have identified Chinese provincial governments recruiting “mainland-friendly, pro-unification” Taiwanese influencers through Facebook posts, with the aim of “training a group of Taiwanese influencers with distinct political affiliations.” The listings are often posted on behalf of the Chinese government agencies by Taiwanese locals, with one listing offering a base salary of ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 RMB (approximately $730 to $1,460 USD).

Facebook Post

Facebook post recruiting Taiwanese influencers for the Sichuan government. (Source: HK01)

LINE

LINE is the most popular messaging app in Taiwan, with 21 million users (about 90% of Taiwan’s population). According to research revealed by LINE in October 2019, Taiwanese users are unique in their love of using the “share” feature, which allows users to forward text, image, or video messages to other users and message groups within LINE. The share feature is used approximately a hundred million times per month by Taiwanese users, which is 40% of the total “shares” globally. This feature operates similarly to the “share” feature in WhatsApp, which is widely used by Indian nationals and has facilitated the mass dissemination of disinformation in India. We assess that the speed and breadth of sharing on LINE may render Taiwanese users particularly susceptible to Chinese influence operations.

Chinese operators may also benefit from social media management technologies, including a Chinese-developed software called “Cross-Border Cloud/Mass Management System” (跨境云/群控系统), which allows users to batch manage thousands of social media accounts at once (including Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, WhatsApp, LINE, QQ, and TikTok). The software allows users to breach the Great Firewall, change their IP addresses, batch create and translate posts (including converting written simplified Chinese content to traditional Chinese), batch manage groups, batch “like” and “share” posts, and more.

At this time, links between this software and mainland Chinese influence operations targeting Taiwan remain speculative and unsubstantiated; however, we believe that these technologies are likely currently being employed. That is because these technologies can ease the spread of weaponized content at scale, especially on closed messaging platforms such as LINE, where Taiwanese users frequently reshare content.

WhatsApp Screenshot

Screenshot of the cross-border cloud/mass management system UI for WhatsApp. (Source: Facebook)

YouTube

YouTube is also one of the most popular social media platforms in Taiwan, with 90% of Taiwanese internet users using the platform and 70% of those users visiting every day.

Researchers have observed that Chinese influence activity on YouTube has increased in 2019. 10 YouTube channels were created between August and October 2019 that all focused on attacking the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen. These researchers believe that some of the channels, which have more than 10,000 subscribers, are likely content farms run by Chinese nationals.

One example is the YouTube channel “Xida speaks on Taiwan at the foot of Yushan” (Yushan is the tallest mountain in Taiwan), which features China National Radio journalist and show host Zhang Xida (张希达). On the channel, Zhang attempts to speak Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent and comments on Taiwanese politics, mostly attacking the country’s ruling DPP administration. China National Radio is the national radio station of China, and is under the purview of the Central Publicity Department of the CCP and the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. The videos on the channel feature subtitles and graphics in traditional Chinese characters, which we assess is because the channel is highly likely to be targeting a Taiwanese audience. 15 videos were posted between August 23 and October 18, 2019, although the channel itself was created on August 3, 2014. At the time of this writing, the channel had 638,000 subscribers.

YouTube Video

Xida’s video titled “U.S. Interference of Taiwanese Elections — TAIPEI Act.” (Source: YouTube)

Influence operations researcher Puma Shen has also observed advertisements listed by organizations affiliated with the United Front Work Department of the CCP (the agency responsible for coordinating influence operations to neutralize opposition to the CCP) recruiting Taiwanese YouTube influencers.

While none of these observed activities have been attributed directly to the CCP, Recorded Future assesses that we will see more Chinese and Taiwanese channels on YouTube promoting issues and political stances that are in the Chinese national interest in the few years leading up to the next Taiwanese presidential election.

Overt Influence

Between October 1, 2019 and January 22, 2020, Recorded Future observed 801 references to Taiwan, “Tsai Ing-wen,” and “Han Kuo-yu” (the KMT presidential candidate) from the social media accounts of Chinese state-owned and state-affiliated media. Consistent with the roles of state media as mouthpieces of the CCP, messaging from these accounts falls into several major themes that are aligned with China’s overall “carrot and stick” strategy towards Taiwan: criticism of the DPP administration and their policies, threats to deter Taiwanese independence or any deviation from the “One China” policy, and promotion of economic and cultural opportunities that come with closer cross-strait ties.

In terms of emerging trends in overt influence by state media, we believe that two factors will be key in the coming years: first, the increased targeting of the younger generation of Taiwanese internet users, and second, the state media’s leveraging and amplification of false or biased content from social media and content farms.

Increased Targeting of Taiwanese Youth

Recorded Future observed a steady rise of references to Taiwanese “youth” and “young people” from the same set of accounts over the past five years, with a spike in references in the past year, peaking right before the January 2020 Taiwan elections. Most references centered around career opportunities and testimonies offered by young Taiwanese that have found success in mainland China.

Immediately following the January 2020 re-election of President Tsai, PRC state media Xinhua News Agency published a statement on social media made by Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang, stating that “[…] young people on both sides of the strait should communicate more and more. We will never give up on the Taiwanese young people. We will continue to introduce a series of policies through continuous exchanges. The measures will create conditions for cross-strait youth to increase mutual understanding, improve the correct understanding of cross-strait relations, and promote a more objective and correct understanding of the mainland.”

While these posts account for a small subset of the posts mentioning Taiwan, we assess that this may indicate that the Chinese state has realized the deciding role that the younger generation of Taiwanese voters is increasingly playing in public opinion and elections.

Recorded Future Timeline

References to Taiwan’s “youth” or “young people” by Chinese state-affiliated Twitter accounts. (Source: Recorded Future)

Outlook

Our research here examining recent Chinese state-run influence operations reveals that Chinese operational TTPs, targets, and methodologies continue to evolve.

We assess that these campaigns demonstrate that Chinese influence operators are willing to adopt more aggressive tactics that exploit weaknesses in targeted societies or manipulate patriotic sentiments of their own people.

In particular, Chinese influence operations targeting Hong Kong and Taiwan have been able to outmaneuver counter-disinformation efforts in Taiwan and effectively exploit gaps in the terms of service of several social media platforms. The Chinese state also makes use of patriotic individuals and grassroot groups who are both proactive and passionate about their cause, and possess advanced technical and organizing capabilities to execute and sustain influence operations over long periods of time. Another key theme that has surfaced in both the Taiwan and Hong Kong case studies is the role that Chinese state media organizations play in creating, amplifying, and supporting various influence operations that might otherwise not be directly linked to the state.

We expect more of these resources and tactics to be deployed in overseas influence operations on social media platforms over the course of the next year. In particular, automated content creation and dissemination in local languages are likely to be used in targeting foreign audiences for Chinese state interests, especially during sensitive times such as elections and global events. An ongoing example during the current COVID-19 pandemic is the use of botnets to promote Chinese-friendly content in Serbia.

Editor’s Note: This post was an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.

Footnotes

1The DPP is one of two major political parties in Taiwan, and has been traditionally associated with promoting human rights, anti-communism, a distinct Taiwanese identity, and Taiwan’s sovereignty.

2We make a distinction between Chinese-originated and Taiwanese-originated content farms. Either may propagate material in simplified or traditional Chinese, or in any number of dialects, so the key factor in our determination is who the owners and/or operators are.

3 The original Mission domain was mission-tw[.]com, but it has frequently changed domains to circumvent Facebook filters since being tagged as a content farm and banned from Facebook’s News Feed in October 2019.

4 PTT is the largest terminal-based bulletin board system (BBS) based in Taiwan.

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