In last week’s issue of Overwatch, “Information Operation campaigns In Plain Sight,” we highlighted our combined efforts with Pangea Group to uncover information operations (IO) surrounding tensions between China and Taiwan. In a combined effort with local analysts, we uncovered a three-pronged approach to China’s IO campaign that frames the problem set at the local level.
For this week’s Overwatch, we broaden our scope to see how these IO campaigns are surviving the distance and how effective, or ineffective, they are with Americans across several landscapes – the U.S. government, news media outlets, and citizens. As of recent, analysts are seeing an increase in Taiwan mentions across mainstream western/U.S. media, even though tensions between the Democratic Republic of China (DRC/Taiwan) and Mainland China have been on the rise since the elections of the Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and 2020.
This bipartisan support of helping Taiwan bolster its defenses to counter China has allowed legislation at the Congressional level, and action at the Executive level, to go forward since early August. This bipartisan consensus may be targeted in the future by Chinese information operations to erode the ability of the U.S. government to support Taiwan.
As with all politics, the U.S. will need to tread lightly as they deal with opposing sovereign nations. Overwatch and Pangea analysts highlighted in last week’s Overwatch that the good intentions of the U.S. Government can be the fuel that China needs to push their agenda. This specific IO campaign aligns with China’s message that paints the U.S. as the sole party responsible for changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and supports the IO message that the U.S. has repeatedly breached its commitments to Beijing with respect to Taiwan.
U.S. News Coverage
The effects of this bipartisan support to bolster Taiwan’s national defense can be seen in the media’s coverage of the $1.1 billion arms sale to Taiwan, as well as articles about the current state of Taiwan’s military. Articles across media sources such as CNN, Foreign Policy, Insider, and the Financial Times focus on the relative unpreparedness of Taiwan’s military for a conflict with China and the need for further arming Taiwan through the purchase of arms from the United States.
Perhaps more interesting, though, have been comparisons between increased military spending in Taiwan and the crisis in Ukraine. A Foreign Policy article published on September 8, 2022 notes that “The U.S.-led response to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has been impressive but it is not a model for a similar intervention in Taiwan.” The article goes on to mention the need to arm Taiwan preemptively as geography, and the risk of U.S.-Chinese confrontations, would make arming the island after the fact nearly impossible without risking expanding the war.
From the articles mentioned above, we can see that the U.S. media’s framing of the increasing tension and potential conflict with China projects bipartisan support for the arming of Taiwan’s military, which is seen as currently lacking the equipment to counter the Chinese. The narratives presented above also paint a picture that the United States will be responsible for arming the country and that this must be carried out for the same reasons the U.S. is currently sending military aid to Ukraine.
What U.S. Citizens are Saying
A quick look at Twitter helps lay out some potential avenues through which bipartisan support could begin to be eroded. Starting as early as August 30, 2022, accounts across the platform began tweeting their dissatisfaction with the U.S. spending money on the defense of Ukraine and Taiwan when the city of Jackson, Mississippi was unable to provide clean drinking water for its citizens.
While it may be tempting to think that these sentiments are being driven by the Chinese agenda, rather they are opportunities for China to exploit the difference in opinions between the U.S. government and the support of their constituents. It is targeted fractures like this on the digital landscape that create accessible entry points from which disinformation campaigns can be launched to erode the U.S. resolve reflected in western media. These would be avenues to monitor for China’s third line of effort in an IO campaign; seize the opportunity to highlight discord in others to serve their own self-interest.
While the narrative of the bipartisan push to arm and support Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression has been the dominant conversation surrounding the ongoing tension, other topics have been essential to open-source intelligence analysts. These include the specific economic ramifications of increased tension or war over Taiwan, the logistics of a Chinese Invasion of the island, the perspective of mainland Chinese citizens, and the views of those in Taiwan.
While doing research for this brief over the last month, analysts found an article from a tech magazine published on September 12, 2022 that went into detail about the need to diversify semiconductor chips due to the increased risk of conflict, as well as an article from a local Fox affiliate website published on September 5, 2022. Additionally, an article published in Newsweek discussed a report on the 3,500 targets China would likely focus on in Taiwan during a conflict. Analysts found no mention of the reaction of China’s domestic population to increasing tensions with Taiwan in western media sources. Finally, most articles that feature the perspective of individuals in Taiwan focus solely on their view on the incursion of Chinese ships and planes over the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
In summary, the content found in U.S. news media tends to focus only on the U.S.’s role in the current tensions between Taiwan and China, while content specific to Taiwan generally focuses only on the potential flashpoints that could cause the conflict to erupt. The perspective and responses of the Chinese and Taiwanese to these crises are missing from these narratives and can only be fully understood through the analysis of regional media created outside the United States.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have recently been in the news regarding their campaigns to remove politically motivated bot-accounts from their platforms. Overwatch analysts assess that this will have a great effect on IO campaigns across social media but will not have a great impact on news and political agendas. As such, Overwatch and Pangea analysts will be monitoring the trends in media over the next 30 days to see just how much of an effect the removal of these accounts will have on IO campaigns in plain sight.