Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Combatting and Defeating Chinese Propaganda and Disinformation: A Case Study of Taiwan’s 2020 Elections

| July 2020

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Executive Summary

In its 2020 presidential and legislative elections, Taiwan combatted and defeated Chinese propaganda and disinformation through a whole-of-society approach, one in which the government became better at debunking fake news and raising awareness of these attacks; civil society became more alert and created non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to detect, debunk, and block fake news online; and companies such as Facebook and LINE (similar to WhatsApp) became faster at finding and removing fake accounts and disinformation. 

Using Taiwan’s most recent elections as an example to elucidate the nature of Chinese propaganda and disinformation, this report identifies China’s motives, tactics, and actors in its foreign information warfare. Similar to Russia’s, China’s motives are to destabilize democracy and weaken governance in a target country by sowing doubts and chaos in its society, undermining its self-confidence, and increasing polarization and disunity. Its tactics include the following: 1) worsen existing social, political, economic, and generational divides; 2) exploit weaknesses in the informational system; 3) financially control and absorb traditional media; 4) employ its cyber army; 5) obfuscate the attack source through technological, commercial, and legal means; and 6) make the attacks partisan so that one side will at worst not condemn it and at best magnify the effects of its attacks. Its actors are the Chinese Cyberspace Administration, Central Propaganda Department, United Front Department, People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, 50-Cent Party (cyber army) and its content farms, and provinces, as well as agents from the target country employed by the Chinese government.

With a fuller understanding of Chinese propaganda and disinformation operations, the US government can better protect America at home (when it comes to election interference) and abroad (in terms of Chinese operations in other countries against the US) and fight against the Chinese Communist Party’s narratives and values around the world. The Taiwanese government was successful against these operations because it increased public communication, improved its credibility with Taiwanese society, partnered with other sectors, and reacted swiftly and uniformly. Drawing on its success, the author suggests the policy recommendations below for the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) (charged with combating foreign propaganda and disinformation) to begin that work. They are ordered by the level of importance (least [1] to most [12]) and implementation ease (easiest [1] to hardest [12]).

1. Create a database of propaganda and disinformation experts from around the world and track their research findings.

2. Cooperate with the State Department’s special envoy on countering China’s UN influence to understand and combat Chinese efforts to use propaganda and disinformation to reshape international norms and values.

3. Draw from the Taiwanese government’s debunking strategy to create a State Department standard operating procedure (SOP) for responding to foreign propaganda and disinformation.

4. Conduct "combatting foreign propaganda and disinformation" workshops with Public Affairs Bureau officers so they can react quickly and efficiently when attacks occur.

5. Require each diplomatic mission to submit an SOP for responding to propaganda and disinformation against the US in its host country for the GEC’s approval.

6. Add monitoring and reporting on Chinese propaganda and disinformation operations globally to the State Department’s regional China watchers’ portfolio.

7. Add monitoring and reporting on propaganda and disinformation against the US in the host country to the portfolio of each mission’s information officer.

8. Host a conference that brings together relevant civil societies, businesses, NGOs, and government agencies worldwide to brainstorm ways to combat propaganda and disinformation and exchange best practices.

9. Host a high-level conference or ministerial on propaganda and disinformation to highlight the issue’s severity and find ways for America and its allies and partners to jointly address this problem.

10. Contract NGOs and businesses to monitor propaganda and disinformation against the US in each country through US diplomatic missions.

11. Work with intelligence agencies (e.g. the National Security Agency, the Treasury Department’s Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Office, and the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Bureau) to identify which entities are launching these attacks against the US and its allies and partners.

12. Work with the US Treasury Department and other State Department sanctions bureaus to sanction these entities (see point 11) so that they cannot hire local agents in target countries to create and amplify their propaganda and disinformation.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Huang, Aaron. “Combatting and Defeating Chinese Propaganda and Disinformation: A Case Study of Taiwan’s 2020 Elections.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2020.

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