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Resisting Russian and Chinese Disinformation Campaigns

Sarah Wozniak


Russia and China are actively creating and disseminating disinformation narratives in Ukraine and Taiwan to pursue their policy agendas and expand their spheres of influence. Both targeted nations have demonstrated remarkable resilience against Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns. So far, taking proactive measures to fight disinformation and producing emotionally appealing content have prevented state-led disinformation from manipulating public opinion. Understanding how Ukraine and Taiwan have resisted powerful malign influence from their adversaries can help other countries resist disinformation threats. Despite their current resiliency, Ukraine and Taiwan will need to continue innovating their resilience strategies against Russia and China since disinformation will remain a looming threat.


Russia has aggressively spread disinformation in Ukraine since before the invasion in February to undermine Ukrainian national unity from within institutions, break Ukrainians’ trust in their government, and manipulate the narrative about the war. The Chinese government is mimicking Russia’s known disinformation tactics by pushing false content quickly, continuously and repeatedly to target Taiwan: the “self-governed island” China claims as its own. China is intent on regaining sovereignty over Taiwan by spreading disinformation to push their One China Principle and achieve national reunification. Both Russia and China produce fake news in content farms, use bots to reach users on social media, and echo false narratives from an array of sources to fabricate authenticity.


However, despite the aggressive disinformation campaigns, Russia has failed to change the narrative about the war in Ukraine, and only 6.4% of Taiwan’s population is in favor of moving towards Chinese national reunification.


How are these two countries able to resist disinformation, and what can other nations learn from their resiliency?


Ukraine


Ukraine’s national media is largely controlled by oligarchs. Reporters Without Borders rated Ukraine 106/180 in media freedom, a score in decline since the invasion. Most national TV channels are run by powerful elites minimizing individual voices in the information sphere. Some consider this media landscape ripe for corruption, yet Ukraine’s proactive measures and emotional appeal succeed in mobilizing citizens to resist Russian disinformation.


Combatting Disinformation: An Offensive Approach


Ukraine is borrowing from the Kremlin playbook and using Russia’s own strategies against them to fight back with truthful information. The Ukrainian media highlights Russian war crimes against civilians on platforms with large Russian speaking audiences such as VK, a Russia based social media platform. With this method, Ukraine can bypass Putin’s state-controlled propaganda and access the Russian population directly on their preferred platforms. Ukraine was strategic in planning this offensive strategy, as Russian disinformation has long been a known threat for this population.


Evoking an Emotional Appeal: Mobilizing Citizen Support


Ukraine uses Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s charisma and social status to fight Russian disinformation. President Zelenskyy often speaks in videos and uses his large following abroad to establish an emotional relationship with his population while garnering support and boosting national morale. In Ukraine, viral media posts showing citizen support, from donating to re-enacting high school proms, and even even getting married on top of ruins help keep pro-Ukrainian sentiment strong across the nation. The continuous emotional online presence thwarts Russia’s attempts to undermine Ukraine’s national unity.


Taiwan


Taiwan’s media landscape is free from state control, yet the polarized political scene makes it difficult for journalists to remain objective. Experts have commented on Taiwan’s media freedom, and their more recent score of 38/180 because it exceeds the U.S. rating by four points. Independent media is thriving, giving its robust civil society efforts to combat disinformation a fighting chance. The “self-ruled island” uses its own strategies to prepare for Chinese disinformation and emotionally appeal to its citizens.


Combatting Disinformation: Strong Civil Society


Taiwan is prepared to fight Chinese disinformation because of their robust civil society and media literacy education programs. Taiwan's civil society is uniquely structured to combat disinformation because there are multiple able and funded organizations all working towards resisting media corruption. Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC) works in collaboration with Facebook and Line, a popular messaging platform in Taiwan, to promote information transparency and citizen participation in the government. TFC also offers educational programs through Line and Facebook to help users learn to identify disinformation. DisinfoLab’s report about Disinformation Resiliency in Eastern Europe further explains the importance of a strong civil society network. Additionally, Taiwan uses media literacy trucks to educate rural populations in Taiwan on how to recognize fake news. With this approach, populations living in remote rural areas who might be more likely to believe disinformation are equipped with the media literacy tools they need to recognize and resist China’s disinformation campaigns.


Evoking an Emotional Appeal: “Meme Engineering”


Taiwan uses humor to connect with its citizens in a process called meme engineering. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, calls this a “humor over rumor” approach. All government departments have a dedicated task force designed to create memes that dispel false narratives with images and humorous text. The memes must be shared within sixty minutes after the disinformation messages are shared, and use a 2-2-2 system, with less than 20 words in the title, 200 words in the text, and 2 images. Through this creative approach, the Taiwanese government counters Chinese disinformation with humorous content that citizens will naturally enjoy sharing, and hopefully attract more popularity than the original disinformation.


Conclusion


Ukraine and Taiwan have demonstrated that proactive strategies and emotionally appealing content in conjunction are necessary to successfully resist disinformation from powerful adversaries. Their success thus far can be observed as an accomplishment, but maintaining that resistance will require continuous innovation. Russian and Chinese disinformation campaign strategies will adapt to prevent resistance, so new and creative methods to dismantle those false narratives are a must. It is necessary for other nations to learn from Ukraine and Taiwan’s resiliency while adapting their own innovative strategies. Today, it is clear that proactive and creative responses are some tools that combat disinformation well, preserving national identity, but tomorrow's disinformation tactics may be different. Nations must utilize aspects of Ukraine and Taiwan’s approaches while continuously innovating their own to keep pace with evolving adversary tactics.


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DisinfoLab is a student-run disinformation and technology think tank at William & Mary. We use a multidisciplinary approach to investigate emerging trends in online disinformation and develop novel st