Facebook’s real-time help during the Taiwan election
Russia increases its disinformation operations in South America
Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Elections in Taiwan overshadowed by the “One China” policy

Good Old Soviet Joke

During the times of communism, a customer comes to the knife shop and asks: “Comrade, do you have razors?”
“No, we don’t.”
After the customer leaves, another one wandering the shop asks: “Why did you tell him you don’t have any razors? The shelf over there is full of them.”
“If he thinks I am some kind of comrade, then he can shave with a sickle.”

Policy & Research News

Facebook’s real-time help during the Taiwan election

During the Taiwanese election earlier this month, the Taiwan government website kept an hour by hour detailed account of the money pouring into digital election advertisements. Powered by data from Facebook, it was a near-live window into the flows of money and paid influence during a campaign to elect Taiwan’s president and legislature. As The Globe and Mail report, it was a system devised by Facebook specifically for the Taiwanese election, but it could go on to have global implications. Taiwan is just off the shores of mainland China and has all the functions of an independent state but it is claimed by Beijing as Chinese territory. That has made it the world’s foremost theatre in a sophisticated struggle for influence as China seeks to bring Taiwan into its fold, while many in Taiwan seek to maintain their own distinct democratic identity. Therefore, the recent election was considered by all parties as increasingly significant.

In months leading up to the election, leaders in Taiwan warned that Chinese interference threatened the information sanctity of the election that took place on the 11th January. Facebook played an important role in a huge campaign to suppress fiction and preserve fact, as the Taiwanese election reflected familiar problems common to countries elsewhere. In response, Facebook staffed an election war room in Taiwan and sent notifications about disinformation to users who shared untrue content. “Over the last three years, we have dedicated unprecedented resources to fighting malicious activity on our platform and, in particular, to protecting the integrity of elections on Facebook,” the company said in a statement. Meanwhile, political parties and government agencies alike deployed rapid-response teams to develop factual graphics and memes to respond to disinformation within a couple of hours.

The election also highlighted the great difficulty in addressing disinformation in Taiwan. Director of DoubleThink Labs, (one of Taiwan’s most respected institutes studying disinformation), prof. Shen states, “We have so much disinformation locally here in Taiwan. So what Chinese cyber forces could do is to amplify its distribution,” “They don’t need to produce fake news. They can use the fake news we already have in our society. Furthermore, J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute add “The disinformation campaign that has been unleashed upon Taiwan has yielded absurdity and caused tremendous damage to its democracy.”  Meanwhile, other experts, including prof. Shen, have praised Facebook for their effective response to disinformation during the 2020 Taiwan election.

China’s large-scale push to influence Swedish media

Through the Chinese ambassador in Sweden, the Chinese government has been in contact with media companies in Sweden on several occasions, in an attempt to influence publications, according to a survey carried out by SVT News (Swedish national television).  Four media companies claimed they had been contacted by the Chinese embassy on several occasions and that they had been criticized for their publications, both by letters and e-mail. Several of the news companies consider the contacts as attempts to unduly influence the media. The Chinese ambassador has also invited several of the reporters to personal meetings and lunches which during such meetings, the Chinese ambassador often commented on the journalistic coverage of China.

US Developments

Russia increases its disinformation operations in South America

US State Department gave a warning on the increasing Russian information warfare in South America. The region saw many anti-government protests last year, which gave Russia an opportunity for promoting its own narratives in states like Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia. In Chile, for example, about 10 percent of the pro-protest tweets were actually sent from Russian accounts. In Bolivia, Russian accounts tweeted over a thousand tweets daily after President Evo Morales had resigned. Russia’s most important objective has been defending Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro against the widespread protests in Venezuela. However, the whole situation is also a part of a larger proxy war against the US and other liberal democracies.

University of Maryland closes America’s oldest Confucius Institute

The University of Maryland became the newest university to end its partnership with the Chinese Confucius Institute. Chinese institutes for promoting Chinese culture and language were once seen as a positive thing for US-China relations, but experiences of censorship, propaganda, Chinese government intervention and other problems have turned the issue into a challenge. 2018 National Defence Act prohibited universities from receiving funding from both the Department of Defense and the Chinese government at the same time, which is why many universities have cut their ties with Confucius Institutes.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Elections in Taiwan overshadowed by the “One China” policy

The economic, military and political ties between Russia and China have grown in the last year, and this blossoming relationship is reflected in Moscow’s narratives. An able overseas media strategist, the Kremlin has been described as a useful ally to the Chinese in the global information space (see the Kremlin Watch Briefing on 20 December 2019). The recent presidential elections in Taiwan hailed as a triumph of “free democratic way of life” by re-elected incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen who opposes unification with China, represent an interesting case study in this partnership.

News about the elections in Taiwan were virtually absent in major state media outlets in the Kremlin. For illustration, RT International, one of the Russian channels with the widest overseas reach, did not report a single story about the elections, safe for one military-related news item (“Taiwan holds military exercises after president’s re-election”). Interestingly, however, RT Russian briefly covered the elections, though the focus was the importance of the preservation of the “One China” principle, rather than the resistance of the Taiwanese against it implied by the election results.

On the other hand, Sputnik News, another state media outlet with the international audience, offered slightly more extensive coverage on the elections in Taiwan. While one report did mention Tsai Ing-Wen’s statement about the triumph freedom and democracy, the wider narratives appear to focus on the “One China” principle here, too. For example, an analysis claims that “despite [Tsai Ing-Wen’s] victory, many Taiwanese people are interested in maintaining the autonomous island’s political status quo.” Additionally, the analysis suggests that if Taiwan is recognized as independent from the PRC, there would be “a grave, grave crisis” including “disastrous” economic effects, “huge consequences” regarding the Taiwanese population in the mainland, and actions against the United States who retain close ties with the island.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Russian Economic Policy and the Russian Economic System – Stability Versus Growth

Philip Hanson, for the Chatham House

In the report, Philip Hanson analyses the success of the Kremlin’s economic policies put in place since 2014. These policies were of orthodox nature and focused on bringing stability to Russia through austerity measures. Public spending was cut, the rouble was devalued, interest rates were raised, state pensions were indexed according to the inflation target of 4 per cent, and the federal budget transfers to the regions were cut. Even though there was some dissatisfaction among the population and the business elites, the austerity reforms were pushed through with relative ease due to the authoritarian nature of the Russian regime. The context of Western sanctions also supported Moscow’s message that the economic difficulties of the Russian population were due to malign foreign influence, curbing discontent.

The economic policies were successful in bringing stability to Russia. Inflation fell, the budget achieved surplus, the national debt declined, and the national reserves increased. However, economic growth kept on being slow. Russia’s growth is below the global average, and the country’s political elite is afraid of losing weight in the world economy. In order to achieve economic growth, the government devised a strategy focused on nine national goals to be achieved by the end of Putin’s term in 2024. They are:  (1) ensure sustainable natural population growth; (2) increase life expectancy to 78 years; (3) ensure sustainable growth of wages and pensions above inflation; (4) halve the numbers of people living in poverty; (5) improve housing conditions for at least 5 million households annually; (6) increase the share of innovating organizations to 50 per cent; (7) speed up the digitization of the economy and the social sphere; (8) become one of the world’s five largest economies with growth rates above the global average and inflation below 4 per cent; (9) support high-productivity, export-oriented businesses in the key sectors of the economy, doubling non-raw-material and non-energy exports.

These goals, however, are based on increased public spending and are not accompanied by anything in the way of privatization or institutional reform. This means that a budget surplus must be maintained, which requires austerity. This contrast between stability versus growth in Russia means that the enforced push for growth might affect the current stability brought on by the 2014 reforms. Less dependence on state-led investment projects, increased competition, judicial reforms, reform of the private sector’s ecosystem and the strengthening of property rights are suggestions of how Russia could bypass this impasse, keep stability and increase growth.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.