This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Images of falsified a Taiwan Presidential Office memo circulated widely online this month, angering the island’s democratic government by claiming that Taiwan had agreed to receive the nuclear wastewater from Fukushima, Japan.
In a world of increasingly sophisticated fakes and forgeries, the bogus Taiwan Presidential Office memo posted on Twitter announcing “the government will receive wastewater from Japan” was sloppy with fingerprints from the communist mainland, experts said.
Among the telltale signs, were the use of the mainland’s simplified Chinese characters, terms that betrayed unfamiliarity with the government system of Taiwan, and improper memorandum terminology.
Kolas Yotaka, Taiwan’s presidential spokesperson, wrote on Facebook that there were five obvious and ridiculous mistakes in the falsified memo, beginning with the fact that memo was dated April 16, but was already being circulated on Twitter on April 15.
“Whether it is the way the memo was dated or how the recipient agency is addressed, it is just not how we write our memos. Not to mention there are simplified Chinese characters used. Under no circumstances would this be an official document issued by our government,” she told RFA last week.
“This is a fake memo. We urge our citizens not to believe in that disinformation and stop sharing the fake memo. This is absolutely not a memo issued by the Office of the President,” Yotaka added.
On April 16, the Presidential Office of Taiwan filed a report with the police, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, and President Tsai Ing-wen posted respectively on Facebook that the widely circulated fake memo is a typical cognitive warfare tactic.
Tsai noted that the fake documented was tweeted the day after she had received an unofficial U.S. delegation.
She wrote that “cognitive warfare” is spreading information in an attempt to influence the opponent’s thinking and actions.
She wrote that she told the U.S. delegation that Taiwan is quite experienced in responding to disinformation from China, and that she looks forward to Taiwan-U.S. cooperation in countering it.
“The democracy and freedom in Taiwan are hard-earned, and we will not let cognitive warfare tear up Taiwan’s society,” wrote the president.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Liu Kang-yan said the DPP condemns cognitive warfare that directly targets “Office of the President of the Republic of China” with online rumors and opinion-swaying disinformation to sabotage the internal unity of Taiwan and to burn out democratic resources with “grey-zone conflicts.”
The Office of the President further noted that any memo to the Department of Defense would simply address the recipient as “Department of Defense,” rather than “Department of Defense, Republic of China,” as in the fake memo. The office also said that while the memo referred to “cabinet meetings” in the Office of the President of Taiwan, there are no such things.
Information warfare experts found that the same Twitter account that spread the disinformation had also carried bogus media reports carrying the fake memo that purported to be from RFA and Radio France Internationale.
Puma (Pao Yang) Shen, assistant professor of Graduate School of Criminology at National Taipei University told RFA that mainland fake news purveyors regularly pose as credible media outlets as a typical example of Chinese Communist Party cognitive warfare tactics against Taiwan.
“Of course they would pick Radio Free Asia as their enemy, because RFA often report unfavorable news about China. They see RFA as the enemy,” he said.
“In the past they would intentionally create fake Radio Free Asia accounts and lead readers to believe that RFA reported biased news. Most of these accounts shared fake RFA screenshots to other platforms, and then they came back to laugh at RFA,” added Shen.
Shen said a Twitter user surnamed “Sun” appears to be behind the fake Taiwan memo, its reproduction on RFA and RFI, and a series of accounts that tweet fake content. The Sun account has been actively targeting RFA for more than a year, he said.
Little Pinks at work
One of Sun’s accounts, with the handle “@us_ned_chinese” mimics the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S.-backed foundation China views as its enemy, said Shen.
Although tweets from Sun’s accounts are not sophisticated and are ridden with errors – Shen called them “low-level Little Pinks tricks” after young Chinese jingoists on the internet – they create chaos and confusion, serving Beijing’s purpose.
Sun’s accounts also post about repression in Xinjiang to trick readers who are sympathetic to the plight of Uyghurs into believing that the fake accounts share the same point of view. Later these accounts post disinformation to mislead readers, said Shen.
Shen says at least a dozen tweets that contain either disinformation or fake videos about Taiwan are posted daily, and some are so sophisticated that it is hard for the public to determine their authenticity. Sometimes those who spread fake news enlist local to produce misinformation, he said.
“Using the name of a foreign media outlet makes the disinformation more credible. The RFA is today’s unfortunate victim, and tomorrow it could be Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA),” said Hsiao-Huang Shu, assistant research fellow of the Chinese Politics, Military and Warfighting Concepts division at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research.
“The purpose may be to leverage the media’s credibility to propel the spread of the fake news, because once the disinformation goes viral, it will be shared quickly on the internet or social media groups,” said Shu.
Shu said the CCP finds it particularly easy to carry out influence warfare because it is quite simple to copy and paste disinformation and share on the internet, where messages containing disinformation can last for as long as five years, before they are discovered and deleted.
Meanwhile, those messages containing clarification or correct information may either not be shared as quickly as the original disinformation or not reach platforms where disinformation spreads far and wide, added Shu.
Yotaka said attacks on Taiwan’s government agencies vary greatly, from “disinformation, misinformation mixed with some truth, (to) incorrect information”
“We could only urge the media to be cautious,” she said.