Puma Shen: What can Taiwan Learn from Russian Election Hacking?

Puma Shen: What can Taiwan Learn from Russian Election Hacking?

Puma Shen says China could use Russian-style online disinformation campaigns in the run-up to Taiwan's 2020 Presidential Elections. 

By Puma Shen (沈伯洋)
Translation by
Mr. Almost

This piece first appeared in Civil Media and is translated under a creative commons license.

Let me start this article with a simple example. These days, if you wanted to sell a bottle of iced tea, you wouldn't simply run an ad that says, “drinking iced tea helps get rid of any bad taste in your mouth after eating greasy food!” You wouldn’t do that because people buy iced tea for reasons other than clearing up a bad taste in the mouth. A better approach would be to sell a whole variety of iced teas that appeal to different groups.

Things are different in politics of course. A political party can't put out a huge amount of candidates for the public to pick. You need to settle on one likeable candidate, and then put out different ads targeted to different groups in society. 

Let's look at Taiwan’s 2018 local elections as an example. In the Southern port city of Kaohsiung, the campaign team for Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) sent out picture memes to supporters over the messaging app LINE. Some of these memes compare the balding Han to historical cueballs Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Republican period general Rao Guohua (饒國華). 

These memes were distributed to two different groups because there’s a slight difference between people who like Chiang images and those who like Rao images. If you want people to like Han, making the right ad is essential. 

In the case of Russia, they went to extreme lengths to accomplish the same thing. They cultivated online fan groups and local partners; they targeted members of the Black-American community, retired soldiers and the LGBTQ community. They even targeted online pet fan groups. They carefully managed their work with these groups for years, that is to say, they tailored content for different groups, and then, in the last year, they began to put out false political messages to influence the campaign.

It's not that Russia is hardworking, it's that the countries it seeks to influence have certain political fault lines. There’s also American companies willing to do Russia’s bidding for the right price; in some cases, they even paid these companies in rubles. 

But Taiwan is different.

Taiwan has fan pages of all kinds. China doesn’t need to spend the same amount of time and money, they can just make some offers and people will sell. It took Russia years to build up a trusted network of “issue-specific” groups, but it wouldn’t take China nearly as long.

That's not to mention the questionable loyalty of some of Taiwan’s political spin doctors and PR firms, who might be willing to sell out their country for the right price. Taiwan has left an open door for Chinese companies to collect our personal information, which they then put through their big data treadmills.

That is to say, what Russia took four years to do, China could do in just six months. Of course, China has developed it’s own network of online moles, but in my view, they aren’t the biggest problem. Taiwan’s sheer preponderance of Facebook fan pages and LINE groups are far more dangerous. You might say these fan pages are small, with only a few thousand “likes”, but from a marketing perspective, these groups are ideal for dividing the public into very fine segments. Taiwanese society can be segregated into three thousand or so groups without any problem at all.

There are different ways of marketing (or deception) for different groups. In terms of behavioural economics, as long as you target the right group, and use just the right amount of biased headlines in a social media feed, then you can change voter intentions. For example, by subtly altering a group’s composition, you could change an innocuous fan group into one that berates former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) or current president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

That's right, you can influence these groups without disseminating “fake news” at all. Facebook has successfully used algorithms to change voting intentions in the United States. You don't think big data collected in China could do the same thing? This is a low cost, high benefit strategy. 

These aren't the only tricks up China’s sleeves. It might not be easy to buy off an internet celebrity (after all, they’ve been working in the industry for years and their loyalty won’t come cheaply), but they can easily achieve their outcomes with some disposable C-list celebrities. This is chump change for China. A case like this happened not long ago. A Taiwanese TV celebrity announced that a media firm in Sichuan was looking for attractive 20-25-year-old models to become internet celebrities. All they had to do was promote “peaceful unification between China and Taiwan” to their online audiences.

Why Sichuan, one might ask? The United Front Work Department — the CCP's main overseas influence operations — often works through the provinces, with metrics of their own, like any other. China's internet army is also divided up provincially, with conflicting methods of carrying out their work. 

Of course, content farms, fan pages, live streaming and other online tools have their limits and text and images need to be spread to other mediums to have a real effect. If a news station were to pick up some of their online content, then its distribution could expand tenfold. With Taiwanese media outlets like CTi (中天), CTV (中視) and the China Times (中國時報), that’s not very difficult, because these outlets share the same political position as Chinese state media. News bulletins seem to follow whatever is trending these days, and if you whip up enough excitement, then other KMT-leaning TV stations like TVBS and EBC (東森) will follow suit. You can't defend yourself from the onslaught.

What's more, since China has basically infiltrated Taiwan's borough wardens and temple associations, all you have to do is add some pro-China online content farms to the mix, and whisper “peaceful reunification” in everyone's ears, and you can see the true state of affairs in Taiwan.

Puma Shen is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Criminology at National Taipei University. 

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