Overwatch Series: Information Operations Campaigns – Their Influence and Longevity

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. 

Tweets about this issue began taking on a similar format and were discovered in English and Spanish














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. 

Our Assessment 

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.  




Information Operation Campaigns In Plain Sight

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces was perhaps a global eye-opener to the fact that sovereign nations still go to war with each other. As unpleasant as the concept of war is, it will not be the last time we see events like this unfold. However, what is different now is that any action, big or small, can draw the observation and criticism of not just governments, but citizens of the world who are all connected through the internet. How will those nations fight back? In this first installment of an Overwatch series, analysts look at how sovereign nations use the internet to prepare the global stage for their actions. Enter: Information Operations or IO. 

Understanding information operations is crucial to understanding what is happening around us. Every message from a media agency or government delivers a well-designed purpose to a target audience. To see the full spectrum of an IO campaign, you must put yourself in the shoes of both the deliverer and receiver of the message. To do this, Overwatch analysts partnered with Pangea Group to provide ground-level research and intelligence. Comparing this native-level insight into cultural and linguistic nuances enables a research team to see things that conventional artificial intelligence and machine learning tools overlook.  

Three Sides of the Coin 

While it may be common knowledge that countries such as Russia or China fully employ IO campaigns, it’s not always clear how complex they can be. With the help of analysts in the local area, we can now see that China has three very distinct functions of its IO campaign with Taiwan:  

Overwatch analysts will highlight the different IO campaigns and how they support China’s mission to prepare the stage for future actions as we move forward.  

The View from Taiwan 

Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, common themes and messages coming from Taiwanese locals, and the media outlets they follow, have slightly changed from a distant possibility of a Chinese invasion to the full likelihood of it. According to the Formosa survey conducted on March 23-24, 2022, as stated in an article in Newsweek, local Taiwanese concern of invasion had increased by 10%. To the outside observer, this increase may seem low; however, in an environment that – “For more than 70 years, people have ‘waited’ for a war that is yet to come.” – this shows a shift in local sentiment significant enough to pay close attention to.  

Taiwan’s information environment has seen sentiment from pro and anti-reunification messaging for over 70 years. This has led to several Taiwanese generations anticipating that, someday, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can and will be in control of Taiwan by any means. This is a narrative preferable to the CCP as they speak of trying to create a peaceful solution while simultaneously creating deterrent messages towards foreign influence like a flash invasion, lightning assault, and firmly cracking down on Taiwan’s independence separatist acts. 

According to the white paper released by Xinhua on August 10, 2022, people on both sides…have set out on a path of peaceful development, a message the CCP would have the mainland and the Wai Mei 外媒, or foreign media, believe. This messaging is amplified through CCP Western social media campaigns with messages stating:  

  • You have me, and I have you – relating to the electronic semiconductor industry where influencers attempt to create a sense of panic around the issue of a world shortage in the event tensions rise in the Taiwan Strait to open conflict.  
  • I waited for a long time, motherland; you finally came to pick me up -, using famous Hong Kong singer Andy Lau’s song “Today” to provide the assumption that Taiwan would see the CCP’s invasion as a liberation.  

  • Taiwan reunification – mentioned several hundred thousand times a day with common messages stating surrender, comply, re-education, and untenable. 
  • Taiwanese are Chinese… Actions speak louder than words – Singer Li Jianfu wrote the song “Descendants of the Dragon” in 1978 in response to America’s decision to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan to pursue relations with the CCP. Using historical significance and pop culture, this song has been replicated and shared with millions of re-tweets, shares, and likes. 

  • Taiwanese should strive for national rejuvenation– suggestive language in response to Ambassador Qin Gang’s statement that “One Country and Two Systems” is democracy.                     

Much of the internal messaging by the CCP on the topic of Taiwan is lighthearted and suggestive of a long-lost relative as opposed to an oppressive foreign invader. In line with their Internal IO campaign, these types of messages are meant to normalize the idea that reunification is the best option for the Taiwanese people. While media outlets and social media outside of mainland China are painting one picture, locals see something very different inside mainland China. 

China’s Public Face

In its first public message on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2nd, 2022, China has primarily tried to portray the United States as the instigator of the current tensions and reassure China’s domestic population that the CCP is defending the country’s sovereignty. Beijing issued a rare and highly authoritative Foreign Ministry Statement that stated China “will never accept” Speaker Pelosi’s visit and “will never agree to it” and that the visit is tantamount to “playing with fire.” An equally rare Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Statement mirrors these statements. At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command announced a series of multi-day military operations in various locations around Taiwan, one of which was to entail “conventional firepower demonstrations” east of the island.  

These messages set the ground for an IO campaign that prepared observers for the uncertainty and strife that would occur if outside entities interfered with Chinese internal governance. China made a bold attempt to push these IO campaigns further by making multiple public claims on state-sponsored media sites that focused on an internal audience that it was sending SU-35 fighter jets over the Taiwan Strait less than 20 minutes before the Speaker’s arrival in Taipei. This message was likely meant to bolster patriotism and the belief that China would defend its sovereignty. However, the Ministry of National Defense for Taiwan quickly debunked these claims 

China continued its IO public messaging surrounding the mid-August and late-August US congressional delegation, the first and the second since the US Speaker of the House visited Taiwan in early August. These public statements continued to paint the United States as the sole party responsible for changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and accused the US side of having repeatedly breached its commitments to Beijing concerning Taiwan. These key themes are consistent with those observed in response to the Speaker’s visit and in line with Chinas third aspect of IO: preparatory. Beijing is now attempting to signal that it has no choice but to respond forcefully to these provocations on issues pertaining to its sovereignty and that the international community is aligned with Beijing on this issue.  

Taiwan Independence, a toxic cup of wine: Image created by Global Times, a Chinese State-run media company, in response to the visit by the U.S. Speaker of the House. The image was created by CGTN, an Englishlanguage media company based in Beijing. This cartoon has made it into every corner of the internet, from U.S. based credible news sources to Chinese and U.S. social media platforms.  

Separate from the messages directed against U.S. interference with China, we also see countermessaging themes denying human rights violations.

This cartoon was recently broadcast on Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram in response to a United Nations report generated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report details investigations of China’s Xingjian Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in response to “2017… increasing allegations by various civil society groups that members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority communities were missing or had disappeared”.  

In a recent Public Broadcasting System article, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson replied, “The assessment is a patchwork of false information that serves as political tools for the U.S. and other Western countries to use Xinjiang to contain China strategically,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. “It again shows that the U.N. Human Rights Office has been reduced to an enforcer and accomplice of the U.S. and other Western countries.” This continues the narrative that the U.S. and the U.N. deliberately spread falsehoods to undermine China’s security and internal peace.  

The Global View  

In next week’s Overwatch brief, analysts will uncover what everyone else on the internet sees when they take a cursory look into the affairs of China and Taiwan. In the following brief, Overwatch and Pangea Group analysts will look deeper into how these Information Operations campaigns can affect global economies, governments, and private citizens in Jackson, Mississippi.