An exposition on THe forEign informatioN mAnipulation and interference​

Author: Dr Beki Hooper, Trilateral Research; Reviewers: Dr Richa Kumar and Dr David Wright, Trilateral Research.

On 13 January, Taiwan held the world’s first general election of 2024. The election results would decide whether the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would continue to lead Taiwan or if the China-backed Kuomintang (KMT) would take the lead. Had the latter won power, then China would likely be able to exert its influence over the country, with the ultimate goal of re-unifying China and Taiwan. Thus, the election results had crucial implications not only for Taiwan, but also its neighbours and its allies, such as Japan and the United States. 

While 40 million people were eligible to vote in the election, only three per cent of voters were needed to sway the result. China employed multiple strategies to try to influence this thin margin to vote for the KMT. While some of China’s influencing strategies were traditional, such as economic coercion and military intimidation, the country also engaged in a sophisticated online disinformation campaign. 

When foreign actors develop and share disinformation with the intent of influencing the beliefs, behaviours and/or decisions of citizens of a different nation, this is called foreign information manipulation and interference, or FIMI. FIMI is often characterised by state-led online information manipulation campaigns that are executed for geopolitical advantage.  

China launched a sophisticated FIMI campaign in the lead-up to the Taiwanese election. Their campaign comprised well-known disinformation techniques, such as spreading fake news with the intent of undermining the Taiwanese government, along with a less expected FIMI tactic: cyberattacks. Traditionally, cyberattacks are “attempts by cybercriminals, hackers or other digital adversaries to access a computer network or system, usually for the purpose of altering, stealing, destroying or exposing information” with the aim to make financial gain. Rarely have they been used as a manipulation tactic. 

Taiwan experienced a huge spike in cyberattacks in the run-up to the election. In 2024, cyberattacks spiked by 3,370 per cent — more than a 30-fold increase — since the previous year, and in the 24-hour period before the election, cyberattacks in Taiwan more than doubled. While it is still not entirely clear why these cyberattacks were deployed, it is likely that Chinese-linked hackers were trying a last-ditch attempt at finding compromising information on the DPP, while also attempting to undermine the people’s trust in their government

In the months preceding these cyberattacks, China pumped fake news out to the Taiwanese public at an alarming rate. The disinformation was harder to spot than it has been in the past, largely because of the use of generative AI, and the subtlety of the messaging. Instead of being overtly pro-China, the disinformation seemed engineered to sow seeds of distrust in the Taiwanese government and its allies, for example, through fake stories about the DPP harvesting blood from its citizens for US-led bioweapon development. The cyberattacks, deployed just before the election, built upon this engineered lack of trust. While not usually considered a component of FIMI, the psychological effect of the cyberattacks in conjunction with the disinformation campaign puts them squarely within the definition of foreign interference. 

In the end, China’s manipulation strategies failed. The DPP won and will remain in power for an unprecedented third consecutive term. Nevertheless, there is growing concern about these emerging, hybridised FIMI strategies that blur the lines between information manipulation and cyberattacks. Not only do these blurred lines complicate the effort to design FIMI countermeasures, but they also confuse the question of accountability as geopolitical interests intersect with financial gain. Countries can now hire cybercriminals to execute cyberattacks for geopolitical manipulation while simultaneously creating profiteering opportunities for those criminals. 

Developing methods to counter evolving FIMI techniques is vital for the protection of our democracies. The ATHENA project aims to develop such methods: we are creating FIMI countermeasures, policy recommendations and educational resources to enable institutions and people – from governments to citizens – to tackle FIMI. 

If you would like to find out more about the methods we are developing, you can follow us on LinkedIn or email us at athena.comms@trilateralresearch.com. If you want to stay up to date with the project as it develops, you can sign up to our mailing list here

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