In August, as China captured the world’s attention with its large-scale military exercises off Taiwan, another offensive was taking place more subtly in the digital realm.
Across social media, fabricated stories claimed that China was evacuating its citizens from Taiwan and
missiles were targeting a local airport, just days after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had arrived on the island.
At the same time, messages appeared on hacked digital signage in 7-Eleven convenience stores throughout Taiwan that had been changed to read: “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!” At a train station in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, altered digital signs called Pelosi “an old witch.”
Hackers even brought down Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s official government website for around 20 minutes.
The cyber front to China’s offensive against Taiwan was in full swing.
“We are already at war,” Kitsch Yen-Fan, assistant director for the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council, told 60 Minutes. “This is a constant thing.”
Taiwan has ranked as the biggest target for foreign disinformation in the world for the last nine years, according to a 2022 report by the Digital Society Project, a venture of the Swedish institute Varieties of Democracy. Taiwanese politicians and researchers say the of the majority of those attacks originate from China.
Data show that cyberattacks targeting Taiwan spiked ahead of Pelosi’s visit to the small island in August, both in hacking attempts and in disinformation that spread across popular social media platforms, like Facebook, YouTube, and LINE, an instant messaging app popular in Taiwan.
“Fake news on social media is a way for [China] to pave the way for their eventual operation,” Kitsch said. “They want to basically sway public opinions, demoralize the public, [to] make their eventual takeover that much easier, which is actually what the Russians were trying to do in Ukraine.”
According to Kitsch, many of the users posting false information in apps like LINE appear as everyday Chinese citizens, not government spies. They work to build trust with the Taiwanese people in their chat groups by initially posting innocuous information, such as supermarket discounts or activities at a local temple.
“And they would have the credibility so when people look at the story, their first reaction is, ‘Oh. This guy can’t be lying to me. He just told me about that great discount last week,’” Kitsch explained.
Cybersecurity experts say the fabricated or misleading posts are part of a Chinese disinformation campaign intended to hurt Taiwanese morale. It is also designed to sow distrust of the U.S., one of the island’s strongest allies, fostering doubt among Taiwanese that the U.S. would come to their aid in the event of a kinetic war.
One post 60 Minutes saw in the LINE app featured a video of a White House press conference that was falsely captioned with an ominous fabricated statement from the press secretary: “The United States will forsake Taiwan in case of an invasion.”
Puma Shen, the director of DoubleThink Lab, a research group that focuses on Chinese influence campaigns in Taiwan and around the world, told 60 Minutes this is part of China’s disinformation campaign to paint the U.S. as an enemy.
“When I ask the college students here in Taiwan which is the country that disseminates this information to Taiwan, about 20 percent of them said U.S.A. and Japan,” Shen said.
Disinformation is not the only front of China’s cyber war. Cyberattacks might also come in the form of disruption and hacking attempts — both large-scale attempts on infrastructure and smaller-level assaults on digital targets, including denying access to or defacing government websites.
Taiwanese parliament member Wang Ting-Yu told 60 Minutes that data from Taiwanese intelligence show that approximately 20 million cyberattacks target the island each day. China, Wang said, is the source of the overwhelming majority of them.
When it comes to cyberattacks, Wang said that, while Taiwan does not engage in counter assaults, it does protect itself.
“Taiwan is an IT island. We are good at high technology…” he explained. “We are under these kinds of attack for a period of time. So our capability to counter these kind of activities — we are quite good at that.”
The video above was produced by Brit McCandless Farmer and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.