During Vice President Lai Ching-Te’s visit to Paraguay and transit through the United States, rumors that defamed Taiwan’s relations with Paraguay had been sprawling online. Analysts told The News Lens that the rumors could be regarded as part of China’s opinion warfare against Taiwan, constructing “narratives” rather than “fake news”, which are harder to be debunked and echoed with some collective sentiments of Taiwanese locals. This strategy would likely continue to be a tactic influencing Taiwan’s Presidential Election in 2024.

During VP Lai’s high-profile visit to Paraguay, a number of viral fake news was spread online, such as the rumor that Taiwan agreed to provide USD $320 million for social housing in Paraguay, the alleged leaks of Paraguayan internal documents exposing how Taiwan secretly provided Paraguay with financial aids.

On social media platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, rumors also claimed that "Taiwan Paraguay Technological University” is a “shell company” that was built to deceive Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for financial aid.

After Lai returned to Taiwan, while China staged military drills around Taiwan as a stark warning to the island, rumors simultaneously emerged on a few local online forums, maintaining that “Kinmen soldiers are planning to escape from Dang Island.”

Analyst Jerry from Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan local organization which continuously monitors disinformation online, told The News Lens that China has sparked an opinion warfare against Taiwan this time not only through fake news, but by constructing “narratives,” which experts or journalists would find harder to debunk in nature.

Jerry pointed out that before August 2, when Taiwan’s Presidential Office publicly disclosed Lai’s travel itinerary, claims had already sprawled online, arguing that Lai was a “troublemaker,” “heading to the White House to meet his American dad,” and that “Lai’s visit to the U.S. is a gray rhino (an event that can be foreseen to cause social harm)”. Early at that time, these sources of claims were from China's Taiwan Affairs Office, state-owned media outlets, and the Foreign Ministry of China.

Jerry analyzed that these claims were more likely to be “political propaganda” rather than inherently wrong “fake news”. They took the form of speculations or opinions, resonating with anyone opposing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan.

After the Presidential Office announced Lai’s itinerary on August 2, the next wave of China’s opinion warfare began, claiming that Lai's visit to the U.S. received low reception standards and was not taken seriously by the United States.

This time, the criticism was also echoed by some of the Taiwanese citizens who expected more of Lai’s U.S. transit. The criticisms from Taiwan and the “inciting defection” theory from China represented two separate camps, but they were “organically synthesized” into one, Jerry said.

Jerry stated that before the presidential election next year, China is likely to continue manipulating issues related to warfare, cross-strait peace, and the economy. Additionally, since China may cancel the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between the two sides of the strait, this is also bound to be a focal point for manipulating public opinion.

Jerry pointed out that China’s tactics were different from previous years. In 2021, some discussions could be traced back to Weibo before spreading to Taiwan. However, from the 2018 local elections to the present, it has been observed that China “won't create topics itself” and instead amplifies issues in Taiwan that have already become heated. For instance, recently in Taiwan, discussions about green energy policies were linked to allegations of corruption involving senior DPP officials. This might be synthesized with some suspicious pro-China online accounts that began attacking green energy policies last year.

Jerry also cautioned that it is hard to conclude that any contention involves China’s manipulation, due to difficulty in tracing the origin of public opinion. However, China can continue spreading opinions and influencing Taiwanese society through pro-China figures in Taiwan.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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