China, Chatbots and The 2024 Taiwanese Election Interference

International press briefing about the 2024 Presidential elections in Taipei

Recently the world’s attention was focused on a set of elections in Asia, and whilst this is not an unusual occurrence, of course, as elections take place all the time, this one, however, had the potential to affect global geo-political matters as it was taking place in Taiwan. 

Taiwan is an island off the mainland of China, and formally known as Formosa, and which was a former colony of Japan, and it was to here that the Nationalists went after the Communist takeover, following their fight against the Japanese who had invaded China.   Taiwan sees itself as a bastion of democracy in Asia, whereas the Communist Chinese government sees it merely as a rogue province and it has made no secret of its avowed intention to reunite Taiwan with the mainland and has very recently and in the run-up to the election ramped up its rhetoric using the words ‘by force if necessary’ which is a chilling statement.

Taiwan’s 24 million people are opposed to reunification China, unless it is on its own aegis.  As the Taiwan election approached China ramped up not only its aggression but also its attempts to influence the result: interference by another name.  Mainland China, of course, at over 1 billion people dwarfs Taiwan economically, in population and in militarily might – which latter factor is one of the reasons why the USA has a complete Fleet comprising several carrier groups in the vicinity.  In the run-up to the election China engaged in an electronic propaganda war against Taiwan to try to influence the result of the election.  This attempt involved, amongst other things, distribution of fake news articles, deep fake videos and the use of chatbots to inundate social media.  This was with the intention of spreading disinformation – that is lies to you and me – and sow confusion in Taiwan.

China has massive resources and threw them into this information onslaught in an attempt to get its preferred candidate elected and or just to confuse the voters to make the election lose credibility – both internally to Taiwan and to outsiders.  The campaign got down and dirty with release of a 300-page e-book attacking the outgoing President: and by implication the Vice President who was running for President in the election on an ‘Independent Taiwan’ platform.  The e-book was full of salacious content, lies and disinformation and tried to depict the President Tsai Ing-wen as a corrupt dictator and sexual deviant.  Other interference included the false claim about the Vice President that she wasn’t Taiwanese and therefore was ineligible for office.

Further disinformation included videos using AI generated voiceovers, inter alia, showing the present encouraging his people to buy cryptocurrency.  In fact, the Chinese interference had the opposite effect and the Taiwan independent candidate was elected defeating, the other two candidates.  China, of course, refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the elections at all.  In a further attempt to frighten the Taiwanese on election day itself eight Chinese aircraft and six naval vessels were detected around Taiwan’s waters.  Whilst many countries sent congratulations to the new Taiwan President – which China condemned, others, notably, Russia did not.

Taiwan has a course expressed fury at such interference and widespread dissemination of false news.  China, by contrast, which claims that Taiwan as part of its own country, and just a province, dismisses any criticism as irrelevant because it views it a purely internal matter.  Why, though, it is considered okay to pedal disinformation on an internal matter, it does not explain.

This type of interference by the use of AI and bots is, sadly, becoming more widespread with some commentators claiming outside inference in for example, the UK in USA elections by amongst others, Russia and China.  This also raises the key question ‘Is this sort of thing now to be the norm?’ and then if so and given the increasing use and sophistication of AI, bots and so on ‘Will it become harder to spot and refute?’  This has serious implications for democracy, and in particular for those countries on the radar of those two political behemoths, and which have less sophisticated IT defences (i.e. Russia’s use of bots to attack systems in the Ukraine and, in the past, other states bordering it).

This is even more apposite as there are elections due in both the USA and the UK soon and where this interference is successful, or even perhaps partially successful, it raises a serious question as to how we can preserve democratic integrity.