COUNTRIES AROUND the world are worrying, rightly, about Russian interference in their elections. But there’s another player in the game with a lot of experience, and it isn’t sitting this one out.
China began dabbling in Internet disinformation long before “Russian troll” became part of the American vernacular. Its so-called 50-cent army, as many as 2 million strong according to some estimates, started marching in 2004: sneaking state-sponsored narratives into organic conversations, or just distracting citizens from controversial subjects, and pretending the 448 million comments it generates a year come from ordinary people.
These manipulation attempts have historically been mostly inward-facing, while efforts to sway foreigners have focused instead on overt propaganda disseminated through 3,000 public television channels, 2,500 radio stations, 12,000 newspapers and magazines, and more than 3 million websites. But recent activity suggests that Beijing has turned its attention outward — most aggressively, not so far from home.
The Stanford Internet Observatory has identified the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election as a near-certain target for a Chinese influence campaign. Journalists discovered this summer that an upset mayoral victory in 2018 by a pro-Beijing politician in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan’s largest city, was not the story it had seemed of charisma and digital know-how propelling a populist to victory. Instead, a mainland campaign had used sockpuppet accounts to gin up support, a tactic in line with researchers’ findings of cross-strait operations in recent elections. Now, a presidential contest approaches, and all signs point to more of the same, or worse.
That China is clearly prepared to turn its mammoth manipulation apparatus toward regional conflicts is bad enough: Twitter removed hundreds of thousands of spammy accounts participating in a “state-backed information operation” focused on Hong Kong’s protest movement this summer, and Facebook kicked off a smaller collection of pages and accounts with links to Beijing around the same time. The question is whether Beijing is as willing to push further.
President Trump’s claims of Chinese meddling in the midterms so far aren’t supported by the evidence, but this country should get its guard up. Reuters reported recently that an Australian government agency attributed a pre-election attack on its Parliament and top political parties this spring to Beijing but kept quiet to protect trade relations. That doesn’t bode well for the United States and its allies, who will need one another’s cooperation to counter any offensive. China is hardly a stranger to waging war in cyberspace, but as the U.S. presidential campaign warms up, Beijing may now mean to open a new front. That can’t go unnoticed, or unchallenged.