Fake news overtook Taiwan’s social media platforms for days surrounding US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan.
China had threatened to take “forceful measures” with “grave consequences” before Pelosi confirmed her trip, claiming that the visit would violate the One China principle, China’s policy that claims Taiwan is part of China rather than an independent state. The US has adhered to the One China Policy after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) replaced the Republic of China (ROC) as a member of the United Nations in 1971. However, it has always maintained a strong “unofficial” relationship with the island, adopting an approach of strategic ambiguity in all relations with Taiwan. Many believe Pelosi’s visit signals a less ambiguous approach in the US’s support of Taiwan.
Since her visit, Chinese propaganda has been in full gear spreading pro-Beijing narratives.
After Pelosi left Taiwan and continued her trip to Korea and Japan, China’s military body, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), initiated military exercises with live missiles surrounding Taiwan.
According to Japan’s Ministry of Defense, China fired a total of nine ballistic missiles on August 4. Four ballistic missiles were fired from China’s Fujian province to Japan’s exclusive economic zone through the sub-orbital space above Taiwan. After these missile launches, the PLA continued military flights and ship exercises in the Taiwan Strait until August 8.
Besides military threats, Taiwanese people are experiencing cognitive information warfare via social media.
Many have pointed out that the PLA’s military exercises demonstrated its missile attack capabilities and established it could effectively create a joint blockade targeting Taiwan. A private consultant on national security affairs, David Chen, for example, said that China’s military exercise is part of military deterrence to attack the will and win without fighting. Such a tactic involves “cognitive domain operations.”
As pointed out by media observers, including China Digital Times and China Media Project, the Chinese government had attempted to disseminate and shape the narrative of Pelosi’s Taiwan trip in both conventional methods and through social media targetting around the globe. Apart from making appalling soundbites and retweeting anti-US and pro-One-China narratives, such as Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters’ ignorant remark on China and Taiwan’s UN history, the flood of fake news on Taiwan’s social media is likely part of China’s “cognitive domain operations.”
The fake news that circulated in Taiwan days surrounding Pelosi’s visit, as reflected in the fact-check reports written by two IFCN-certified fact-check organizations in Taiwan, the Taiwan Fact-Check Center (TFC) and MyGoPen, mainly aimed at insulting Pelosi, showing off China’s military power in the drills, belittling Taiwan’s status.
There had been several prominent fabricated news stories circulating on social media in the form of video commentary and images of Nancy Pelosi before she arrived in Taiwan. These fabricated stories, according to MyGoPen’s fact-check report, claimed that the US military was impeaching her for her husband, Paul Pelosi’s investment in the stock market. One of the sources for the fabricated news is a YouTube channel (now removed) on military and political affairs, which had been identified by the Taiwanese authorities as being affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Other fabricated stories were surrounding Nancy Pelosi’s health and personal security. A fabricated report published on July 30 on Weibo claimed that Pelosi was hospitalized upon arrival in Japan. This is incorrect as Pelosi debuted her trip on August 1 and only arrived in Japan on August 4. She was never ill or hospitalized.
On August 2, a fake Twitter Japan Yahoo! account (@Yqhoo_news) claimed that Pelosi’s airplane was shot down in the Taiwan Strait. Based on TFC’s investigation, the now-suspended Twitter account had less than 50 followers and was created in March. However, its fabricated claim was reposted on other social media platforms in Taiwan.
Many fake photos and videos were circulated to exhibit China’s military strength in the drills. A video of Taiwan’s military exercise in 2020 was appropriated and circulated through multiple accounts on Twitter and Facebook as evidence of China’s military operation near Taiwan’s Matsu Islands. Another set of photos taken from North Korea’s military drills in 2017 had also been appropriated to show China’s military power during the drills.
Fake photos were also found in China’s official sources. A set of photos released by the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command has been proved to be photoshopped. The set of photos tried to indicate that PLA had entered Taiwan’s territorial water. However, according to TFC’s fact-check report, photo experts found that the size, focal length, and proportion of objects in the image did not match. Image forensic software indicated that one of the photos was heavily doctored.
Apart from fabricated items, falsified commentaries were widely circulated to spread Beijing’s political narratives. For example, a famous Taiwanese journalist Lee Sy-Duan was attributed as the writer of a widely circulated commentary that praised China’s rapid development and described Taiwan as an immature polity. When the commentary emerged in 2021, Lee denied that he wrote the piece, but during Pelosi’s trip, it re-emerged on Chinese social media platforms attributing Lee as the writer again. The commentary was originally published on an online news site, Storm Media, under the name Wang Chih-Hsiung, who claims to be a professor at the University of Chicago.
Another falsified commentary, attributed to Professor Hwang Shaw-Hwa, claimed that the US attempted to use the CHIPS and Science Act to coerce Taiwan’s semiconductor industry to relocate to the US. Hwang denied that he was the author.
The flood of fake news in Taiwan has caught the attention of security experts. US military and security news outlet @DefenseOne commented that the information operation is to undermine US-Taiwanese relations:
As international attention focused on U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a Chinese disinformation campaign used fake news sites and fake social media accounts to try to undermine US-Taiwanese relations | @DefTechPat https://t.co/K24FxK96st
— Defense One (@DefenseOne) August 14, 2022