On January 13, 2024, Taiwan’s voters elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te as their next president, despite the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) best efforts to prevent the DPP from keeping the president’s office. This election witnessed a fresh surge of PRC attempts to interfere in Taiwan’s politics, through direct political meddling, economic coercion, and shows of military force. Of particular interest to Washington, the PRC-backed disinformation campaign may portend similar foreign influence campaigns in the US presidential elections. As the site of the first elections in a year of more than four dozen elections worldwide, Taiwan’s experience with cyber influence holds important lessons.
Taiwan’s election results
Lai, as vice president under current Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, campaigned largely on a platform of status quo policies—namely, treating Taiwan as independent and pursuing close ties with the United States. Lai secured 40 percent of the popular vote, with Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), candidate Hou Yu-ih garnering 33 percent and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) leader Ko Wen-je receiving 26 percent. Notably, the DPP lost its legislative majority, going from 62 to 51 seats, while the main opposition, KMT, secured a plurality. Neither major party has a majority without the TPP’s cooperation.
The PRC strategy to influence Taiwan politics
The DPP’s approach to cross-strait relations—emphasizing a Taiwan identity and close ties with the United States and US allies—is in direct contradiction to China’s political interests and corresponding narratives. Two weeks ahead of the election, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that “reunification is a historical inevitability.” PRC officials framed the election as a choice of war or peace, urging voters to make the “correct choice.”
Furthermore, a Taiwan intelligence source reported to Reuters that Wang Huning, China’s fourth-ranked official, led a December 2023 meeting involving key agencies, such as the Ministry of State Security and the United Front Work Department, to coordinate strategies for influencing the 2024 election outcome. This suggests a centralized and timed approach, immediately following the finalization of election candidates in November.*
The effort consisted of several prongs:
- Political: Early in the campaign, there were three non-DPP presidential candidates, splintering the opposition. Beijing initiated a tax investigation into one of them—Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who has extensive manufacturing operations in China. Gou eventually withdrew from the race, and authorities promptly closed the investigation. Gou’s withdrawal reduced the non-DPP lineup, but the opposition ultimately did not consolidate behind one candidate, as Beijing had hoped.
- Economic: China suspended tariff cuts on certain Taiwan imports during the presidential campaign, an unprecedented act of PRC economic retaliation during Taiwan’s election season, according to Tamkang University professor Chang Wu-yue. Following Lai’s victory, the PRC State Council threatened to suspend more tariff cuts from the long-standing Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement.
- Military: China has a history of conducting military drills during Taiwan’s election seasons, including incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, which had increased in frequency during the latter half of Tsai’s tenure as hostsilities with the DPP-led government escalated. But on election day, China notably moderated major air incursions, resuming them only after the election. It has also sent balloons over Taiwan airspace, potentially used for surveillance. These methods are likely designed as a global show of force, particularly for the United States, and likely an intimidation tactic geared toward Taiwan.
PRC’s disinformation and cyber influence operations
Disinformation and cyber influence formed the fourth prong of PRC efforts to influence the election. As the United States prepares for 2024 elections, Washington can examine both China’s disinformation influence efforts in Taiwan and the effectiveness of Taiwan’s countermeasures to learn lessons on confronting foreign interference.
China’s artificial intelligence (AI)-driven disinformation operations—aimed at shaping public opinions, promoting narratives favorable to Beijing, and creating confusion—have intensified. AI enables individuals to easily generate deceptive images, audio, and video at a high frequency. According to Blackbird.ai, a firm that exposes and documents threats to the global information system, Beijing employs classic marketing techniques, building digital ecosystems to reach specific targets and exploiting public trust in apparently authoritative sources. Its tactics include subtle disinformation posts originating from China-controlled content farms and spread by agents, bots, or unwitting social media users. PRC content, covertly integrated into local media, is often republished on social media. The PRC also attempts to acquire Taiwan social media accounts and to pay influencers to promote its narratives. It uses these methods to inundate online spaces with high volumes of content to manipulate algorithms and increase spread.
As the United States prepares for 2024 elections, Washington can examine both China’s disinformation influence efforts in Taiwan and the effectiveness of Taiwan’s countermeasures.
The PRC’s key priorities this election cycle appeared to include spreading narratives and generated content targeting candidates and the DPP, stirring up security fears, and https://twitter.com/globaltimesnews/status/1734775149038280891. On January 9, 2024, Beijing launched a satellite over Taiwan, for which the Taiwan government issued a national alert to every resident. Yet in the English version, the word for “satellite” was mistranslated as “missile,” which the PRC capitalized on to accuse the DPP of “misleading the public and sowing panic.” Shortly thereafter, there was https://twitter.com/heldavidson/status/1744667982650122670 proving that the public was fearful, further cementing Beijing’s claim.
Countermeasures against Beijing’s global media influence in Taiwan include government laws and regulations, civil society initiatives, media literacy education, and tech company actions.
Taiwan has responded to PRC interference with laws such as the Anti-Infiltration Act of 2020, which covers election interference and transparency measures for foreign agents and investments. Although the law has proven effective in the past, weak enforcement mechanisms present limitations to exposing and deterring threats. Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, says the government instructs ministries to “debunk rumors with a counter-narrative as soon as they come up” and has detained and prosecuted individuals judged to be involved in disinformation efforts.
Cofacts, Taiwan FactCheck Center, and Doublethink Lab represent a collective civil society effort to track and counter disinformation, organizing efforts to teach residents how to identify and resist disinformation. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education, for its part, has incorporated media and online literacy programs into the island’s school curriculum. The government has also recommended the use of a number of fact-checking applications, including Gogolook’s Auntie Meiyu. Finally, companies such as Facebook have proactively addressed misinformation by taking down fake account networks.
Taiwan officials believe that public awareness has increased as a result.* Fortunately, polls indicate that 70 percent of Taiwan’s respondents believe that fact-checking effectively counters disinformation. However, countermeasures must keep up with the pace and volume of PRC influence campaigns, and fact-checkers may not act quickly enough. Coordinated across time and space but varying in sophistication and effectiveness, the PRC’s efforts likely did not have a significant influence on the election outcome; yet they likely succeeded in planting seeds of doubt, discord, and distrust.
Broader implications for the United States and for democracy around the globe
In 2024, with elections occurring in more than 50 nations, including the United States, autocracies such as China, Russia, and Iran are expected to continue to conduct influence operations, as seen in past elections. China’s previous interference in US elections has been scattered and uncoordinated, often focused on specific candidates who have taken stands on sensitive issues. Yet the experience of Taiwan, along with those of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, suggests China’s increased potential to conduct more coordinated, sophisticated, extensive, and organized efforts to influence outcomes of the 2024 US election.
Influence operations have great potential to distort reality, deteriorate the information ecosystem, manipulate public opinion, and threaten the integrity of political systems and democratic processes. In addition to existing threats of foreign interference, the rise of generative AI tools has reduced barriers to generating and circulating mis- and disinformation broadly, including about democratic processes and elections. Coupled with a lack of federal regulation to safeguard generative AI usage, tools to detect generative AI-produced content are ineffective and already struggling to keep up, increasingly blurring the line between real and generated content. This is already affecting discourse on the US election, as generative AI tools were used to mimic President Joe Biden’s voice ahead of the New Hampshire primary in January 2024. To mitigate further harm and meet the moment, the United States should adopt Taiwan’s multisector response: public sector, private sector, and civil society have a shared responsibility.
A September 2023 report from the Center for American Progress highlighted the deficiencies in the private sector’s readiness and mitigation efforts, offering policy recommendations drawn from lessons learned in previous elections and highlighting innovative approaches platforms can take to solve these legacy and novel challenges. The 21st century’s rapid technological advancement consistently leads us into uncharted territory, and the time to act is now, before the worst has come to pass.
Read CAP’s report on safeguarding democracy online
Understanding Taiwan’s experiences and raising awareness of potential threats will ensure that the United States does not go into the November elections completely unprepared for the risks that this kind of interference presents, especially against the backdrop of emerging threats. The United States, in conjunction with its partners and allies, must act to identify, expose, and counter election interference operations—for the sake of both US democracy and that of the international community.
*Authors’ note: These claims are based on author conversations with Taiwan officials.