President Biden recently said that he made clear to President Xi of China that he did not want to see China interfere in the upcoming Taiwanese elections on January 13. But for Taiwan, information interference is already underway and never really stopped. Taiwan’s allies, social media platforms, and civil society groups need to deepen their collaboration with organizations doing the important work of defending Taiwan’s information environment, support the multistakeholder model of internet governance that allows Taiwan to ensure its interests are pushed forward, and work to prevent information operations in advance of the 2024 election. For the rest of the world, Taiwan is a harbinger of the spread of digital authoritarianism, and the need to defend against it, in 2024 and beyond.
Disinformation around Taiwan's election is on the rise and shows what's coming for the world
China’s information operations in Taiwanese elections are well documented and, in 2020, held prescient examples for the world in terms of how deep partisanship within an electoral system could be exploited, as well as how YouTube could be used to influence the election. Fact checkers have been hard at work since the election debunking disinformation on topics ranging from imported eggs to nuclear wastewater that played on long standing fears about food safety and health among Taiwanese people.
According to the Taiwanese civil society database Cofacts, disinformation in Taiwan’s information space has increased by 40 percent since last year. Given that Taiwan is treated as a testbed for information manipulation campaigns by the Chinese Communist Party, much as Ukraine has historically been for Russia, the onslaught is notable. For instance, China is changing the tone and distribution mechanisms for its influence campaigns to prey on more localized concerns and to use platforms outside of the mainstream. Microsoft and Mandiant have found that China’s use of generative AI has become more prevalent, complex, and effective. Meta recently took down more than seven thousand accounts–their largest takedown ever–linked to a Chinese influence operation. These metrics indicate that the presence of disinformation around the Taiwanese elections will be greater and more insidious than previously seen.
Given that Taiwan’s January 13 election marks the first on the calendar in what will be the largest election year in history, it’s going to test the mettle of governments, journalists, politicians, tech companies, and the country’s entire democratic system. Understanding how the onslaught of disinformation will impact the opinions of the Taiwanese public will be critical for Taiwan’s election, but much like in 2020, the tactics and behaviors will likely be duplicated elsewhere, not only by the Chinese Communist Party but also by other actors.
China's moves on internet governance put Taiwan–and democracy–at risk
In advance of the elections, Taiwan is “all hands on deck” when it comes to cyber attacks, but it faces a distinct disadvantage when it comes to defending the rules and structures of the internet. Over the past decade, China has sought to reinvent the internet by undermining the multistakeholder system of internet governance championed by democracies while promoting a state-centric alternative of cyber sovereignty. Under the existing system, an alphabet soup of international fora govern the internet, allowing governments, companies, and civil society groups to work together in defining the rules that keep the internet open, operating, and interconnected. China’s stated foreign policy is to rewrite these rules through “members only” UN processes that include the Summit of the Future, the Global Digital Compact, and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum. Because Taiwan is not recognized as a sovereign nation in the UN system, it is unable to participate in any of these processes, and has long faced China’s targeted efforts to exclude them. For China and its authoritarian allies, transitioning internet governance to a multilateral system of cyber sovereignty is the best path to tipping the balance of power over the pipes and policies that underpin the global internet.
Allowing China’s dominance in internet governance to succeed is to neglect one of the most consequential fronts in the fight against global digital authoritarianism. In the UN, it is going to fall to Taiwan’s allies to ensure that in multilateral negotiations, Taiwan’s important role within global digital architecture remains at the center of the agenda. Taiwan’s presence as an Observer Member of the Freedom Online Coalition allows other members to promote Taiwan’s democratic resilience, while also serving as an example of the importance of all countries being able to define their digital futures. China’s intention to impose digital dominance on Taiwan was brought into stark reality in early 2023, when China is suspected to have severed underground cables providing internet services to a Taiwanese island. Taiwan’s influential digital minister Audrey Tang highlighted these issues at the Internet Governance Forum, the world’s largest gathering of internet experts and leaders, in Kyoto, Japan just a few weeks ago.
Taiwan's civtech community is the bright spot, and the model
In the face of such challenges, Taiwan’s civil society shines bright. A feature video on “The Taiwan Model” told the story of how the Taiwanese government and civil society successfully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, with facts, transparency, and even fun playing as significant a role in the country’s COVID-19 response as lockdowns and vaccines. Civic tech community members have matured and grown their infrastructure in preparation for the next presidential election, honing their skills during Taiwan’s 2022 local elections. Civic tech groups like Doublethink Lab, the Open Culture Foundation, and the g0v community of hackers are all leaders in countering Chinese influence and protecting Taiwan’s information environment.
Technology companies especially should make it a priority to work with the civil society groups actively tracking disinformation and fact checking media trends. Supporting and engaging with Taiwanese civil society is the only way companies will be able to prepare for the onslaught of challenges they will face in the Taiwanese elections and the super election year of 2024, especially given the combination of China’s track record in exploiting social media platforms, and the fact that most technology companies have decreased their focus on trust and safety over the past year.
For years, Taiwan has been at the center of U.S. policy, but as geopolitical tensions mount and threats to democracy spread globally, it’s critical to prioritize and preserve the island nation’s right to chart its own path in its 2024 election and in the digital space. Digital authoritarians are gaining more traction globally, expanding their efforts to co-opt internet governance and to decrease trust in electoral and civic institutions through information campaigns. Social media companies and governments need to work to protect Taiwan’s information space, expand collaboration with civil society groups, and continue to represent Taiwan’s interests in multistakeholder governance. Investing resources and attention in Taiwan’s democracy and digital sanctity doesn’t only benefit the young nation; it also helps us understand the threats facing democracy globally, and how we can use our existing international governance models and the interoperable web to protect against a rising authoritarian tide.
Moira Whelan is the director of the Democracy and Technology team at the National Democratic Institute.