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US cyberespionage experts say they are monitoring China’s online disinformation tactics in advance of Taiwanese elections on Saturday as a window into Beijing’s capabilities and the tools it could eventually deploy against Western democracies.

“We have defence-sector customers around the world and there’s definitely broad interest,” said Ben Read, senior manager of cyberespionage analysis at US cybersecurity firm FireEye. “Taiwan is not seen by China as foreign, it’s more of a domestic focus. So they feel they have a freer hand. It means they’ll display capabilities that they wouldn’t display elsewhere. It’s an early place where stuff shows up.”

Beijing’s skill in hacking and using false news stories, bots and falsified social media accounts to undercut adversaries and spread disinformation puts it slightly behind global leaders Russia and the United States but ahead of Iran and North Korea, experts say.

Chinese government cyber units allegedly focused on Taiwan and Hong Kong are China’s best, while those focused on Southeast Asia and elsewhere tend to be “more persistent than skilled,” said Read. This reflects rather mundane bureaucratic issues of staffing and budgets behind the shadowy screen reflecting China’s strategic priorities, he added.

In August, Facebook and Twitter said they uncovered hundreds of accounts originating from inside China that were a part of a coordinated effort to undermine the Hong Kong protest movement.

Analysing Beijing’s tools, tactics and effectiveness won’t stop with Taiwan’s election, given that it often takes months to tease out what happened, as seen with Russian interference in the 2016 US election, cybersecurity experts say.

So far, there is little evidence that Beijing has made a quantum leap in tactics or capabilities since Taiwan’s 2018 local elections, they added.

While Moscow has propagated online disinformation campaigns worldwide, Beijing has largely limited its focus to areas or groups it considers a threat to its sovereignty and Communist Party control. But that could change, analysts say.

Bots or people? Pro-China disinformation campaigns make it hard to tell

China under Xi Jinping has become more globally assertive, seen in its Belt and Road Initiative and island-building activities in the South China Sea. And its investments in artificial intelligence will allow it to target and manipulate international social media audiences, the Australia Strategic Policy Institute think tank said in a recent report.

“There’s real concern that China could move beyond Taiwan and Hong Kong to non-Chinese democracies,” said Adam Segal, head of the Council on Foreign Relations’ digital and cyberspace policy programme. “If you want to understand what Russia is doing, you watch Ukraine. If you want to understand what China’s doing, you watch Taiwan.”

The Chinese embassy in Washington declined to comment on alleged cyber interference in Taiwan’s election.

“Taiwan is not seen by China as foreign, it’s more of a domestic focus. So they feel they have a freer hand,” says a manager at the US cybersecurity firm FireEye. Photo: Reuters

“To blame Beijing for meddling in the election was groundless as reunification is inevitable and the mainland will not see the election result as an important factor affecting this process,” the nationalistic Global Times wrote recently, quoting experts.

Analysts say Beijing’s disinformation efforts are becoming more sophisticated, its fingerprints less obvious, its campaigns more “plausibly deniable”. Earlier efforts by suspected China-based operatives used simplified characters common on the mainland but not in Taiwan, but this mistake is rarely made these days, they add.

Cyber campaigns are one of many instruments Beijing has employed to nudge Taiwanese voters into supporting pro-Chinese candidates under its long-term objective to unite the self-governing island with the mainland.

Taiwan election rivals make final pitch to voters

“Certainly the influencing of the social media space is important, but it’s part of a panoply of tools” that include verbal threats, military drills, economic leverage and influence operations by companies, non-profit groups and other Taiwanese proxies, said Priscilla Moriuchi, head of nation-state research at cyber firm Recorded Future and a former National Security Agency (NSA) official.

Some of Beijing’s earlier efforts have backfired, prompting Taiwanese to rally round the flag. In early 1996, Beijing conducted missile tests in the waters around Taiwan in a bid to see candidate Lee Teng-hui lose. Lee won by a landslide.

Critics say Beijing’s move last month to sail its new aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait represents a similar intimidation effort.

Washington does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei under the one-China policy, although it is committed to defend the island. A spokesman for the US Defence Department declined to say whether it was monitoring China’s cyber activities.

But analysts said the Pentagon was watching closely, particularly given closer recent ties between Washington and Taipei as the US-China trade war heated up under US President Donald Trump.

In November, the US and other countries held a cyberdefence exercise with Taiwan. And on Friday, the US Army said that over the next two years it would set up specialised task forces in the Pacific capable of conducting cyber, missile and information operations against China.

Beijing’s cyber campaigns – focused largely on Taiwan, Hong Kong and India’s Tibetan enclave – contrast with Moscow’s more global meddling. While both nations distrust the US and other Western democracies, China as a rising power believes it has more to gain by appearing globally responsible.

“The Russians have gone after divisions in American society, everything from the Christian right wing, the [National Rifle Association] and anti-Semitic groups to weirder stuff like the CIA is behind everything, that vaccines are going to give you autism,” said Scott Harold, a cyberwarfare expert at the RAND Corporation.

“China genuinely believes it can grow its influence within the bounds of the existing system and doesn’t need to adopt the Russian chaos approach.”

In November, the US and other countries held a cyberdefence exercise with Taiwan. Photo: Reuters

Experts say the leading edge of any more aggressive global disinformation efforts will be on platforms it controls, such as video-sharing site TikTok – use of which the US Defence Department banned last month.

WeChat’s growing reach among overseas Chinese also allows Beijing to censor content and influence discussion on the multipurpose platform well beyond its shores, they add.

Harold says Washington should embrace Chinese-Americans as front-line responders in countering Chinese influence operations rather than heaping suspicion on scientists and students of Chinese descent as potential spies.

“They will have the best antennae and at the same time they will be the target,” he said. “Beijing will try and convince Chinese-Americans that they’ll never accept you … you’ll always be distrusted, that you might as well come back home to China.”

US Army bans TikTok, signalling growing concern about app’s Chinese roots

But Taiwan is clearly on the front lines. Varieties of Democracy, a group at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg that assesses democracies, found that Taiwan has faced more disinformation by outside governments, mostly from Beijing, than any other place in the world.

Leading up to the election, Twitter and Facebook both launched dedicated services to track manipulation and misinformation. Last month, Facebook removed 118 fan pages, 99 groups and 51 accounts targeting the island, according to Taiwanese media. Facebook declined to comment on individual accounts.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen campaigning in December. Photo: AFP

In a bid to counter potential threats, Taipei has created a patchwork of legal and regulatory measures as it tries to blunt the impact of misinformation without censorship or draconian restrictions. These include punishing media for inaccurate reporting or distortions, creating counter narratives and training citizens to better distinguish lies from truth.

But experts say China’s campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically undercuts its ability to participate in United Nations and other multilateral efforts to fight disinformation.

In late December, Taiwan passed a controversial “anti-infiltration” bill, aimed at countering China’s influence, that bans “hostile” foreign forces from activities such as campaigning, lobbying, making political donations, disrupting social order or spreading disinformation related to elections. Violators face a maximum five-year prison term and a fine of up to US$332,000.

Taiwan’s anti-infiltration bill is passed as opposition lawmakers protest

The opposition Kuomintang party said this impeded efforts to improve cross-Strait relations.

Taipei has also created a Department of Cyber Security with a hefty budget to safeguard websites and databases most often targeted by mainland cyber spies.

In addition, every Taiwanese ministry now has a team to detect disinformation campaigns early and create a strong counter narrative within an hour, including short films, social media posts and live-stream messages, said Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, in a recent interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US watchdog group.

“Truth to be told, it is actually very exhausting,” she added.

Said Moriuchi, the former NSA official: “One of the best ways to drown out disinformation is to counter it with the facts. If they can do that expeditiously at the rate the disinformation is coming in, that will go a long way.”

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