PSYOPS and Cyber War in Taiwan

Cyberattacks targeting Taiwan are nothing new. Every day, there are both attempted and successful attacks targeting government and private sector websites. But during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August 2022, we saw a drastic increase in cyberattacks and cybercrime generally.

The Taiwanese Government recorded twenty-three times more cyberattacks than usual on 2 August. Government websites, including the Office of the President and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, came under especially serious attack. It has been reported that a significant number of attacks came from IPs located in Russia and China.

Some webpages of the National Taiwan University were replaced with ‘There is only one China in the World’. (Source: anonymous screenshot circulated online)

One popular type of attack that occurred during Pelosi’s visit, but also happens with less intensity in normal times, is the Distributed Denial of Service. Through sending a huge number of messages to a website at the same time, a DDoS attack can be used to shut down the website. This happened to the websites of the Office of the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of National Defense multiple times during this period. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website received, within a single minute, more than 8.5 million requests to access their site, which is significantly over the site’s capacity. This leaves the government unable to communicate to its people through their websites.

Website defacement is another popular approach by hackers, and one used intensively during the period of Pelosi’s visit. Hackers even replaced the webpages of some government and universities and the screens at train stations were replaced with messages such as ‘There is only one China’ 世界只有一個中國 and ‘The old witch’s visit to Taiwan is a serious provocation to the Chinese government’ 老巫婆竄訪台灣,是對祖國的嚴重挑釁.

The message ‘The old witch’s visit to Taiwan is a serious provocation to the Chinese government’ was shown on the public screen at the Taiwan’ New Zuo-Ying Train Station. (Source: Wang Hau Yu’s Facebook)

Significantly, screens at convenience stores also came under attack, their content replaced with similar messages. This caused serious concern since cyber-defense for Taiwan’s private sector not in the critical infrastructure list has not previously been seen as a priority but now emerges as a worrying vulnerability.

The timing and intensity of these attacks raise a concern that what has previously been thought of as ‘cybercrime’ or isolated ‘cyberattacks’ should instead be seen as a concerted strategy of ‘cyberwarfare.’

The Blurred Line Between Cybercrime and Cyberwarfare

The use of DDoS and website defacement as tactics of cyberwarfare can go further than simple disruption of business. These measures can also facilitate the dissemination of fake news and even enable extended disinformation campaigns.

War in the digital era can be very different from traditional warfare in that it can be launched without its victims even being aware that they are being targeted. Indeed, as outlined in the Australian Government’s 2022 Defence Strategic Update, disinformation campaigns have already been used to achieve strategic goals without provoking conflict. In Australia and the Indo-Pacific region, especially among democratic nations, there is growing concern about disinformation campaigns, especially those believed to originate in China and from the Chinese Government.

Some people might associate a disinformation campaign with ‘fake news’ or ‘misinformation’. However, it is not synonymous with either of these things, which are better thought of as ‘misinformation’. In a misinformation campaign, people share false or misleading information that they think is true, without intention to mislead others. But a disinformation campiagn is different. As defined by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it is ‘the intentional creation and dissemination of wholly or partly false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences and/or obscure the truth for the purposes of causing strategic, political, economic, social, or personal harm or financial/commercial gain.’ The purpose of disinformation is to mislead others deliberately. The creation and distribution of disinformation can cause great harm to a society or government.

The information distributed in the disinformation campaign may not necessary be entirely fake news, either. Even verifiable information can be presented in a misleading way to target certain groups of people. An example of a disinformation campaign of this sort involves allegations that the Taiwan government paid NT$94 million lobbying Pelosi to visit Taiwan. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs clarified that money was paid to a lobbying company to expand ties with the US government, not to lobby Pelosi to visit Taiwan, nor to pay for her trip to Taiwan.

We see disinformation disseminated not only through state-owned Chinese official channels, including official Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, websites, TV and radio, but also in collaboration with individuals, political and civil groups. Some examples of such collaboration include the voluntary participation of ‘little pinks’ 小粉紅, typically young self-identified Chinese patriots, including students; the so-called ’50 cents party’ 五毛党 – predecessors of the ‘little pinks’ alleged to receive a small payment for each post or repost of desired content; and ‘content farms’, organised groups that receive support from companies to disseminate information to the public but also to create content.

Humour over Rumour

The crucial lesson is that war might already have appeared in a new guise, one that we do not even think of as war. Psychological operations – PSYOPS – are an integral part of the contemporary military strategy of many countries including the United States and Australia. Through influencing public opinion, encourating political polarisation, and otherwise causing conflict within a country, hostile objectives can be accomplished with less effort and bloodshed. Taiwan has long been a target of PSYOPS over the past dacades and has built good counter-measures to tackle PSYOPS. However, technology-facilitated PSYOPS are spreading faster and wider than before. While it is important that Taiwan’s government continues to improve its measures against PSYOPS, it is also crucial that it adopt new technologies and ideas in providing correct information in real-time. The tactic ‘humour over rumour’ used by the Taiwanese Governemnt during the COVID-19 pandemic successfully reduced fear and panic buying by the public for items such as toilet paper.  However there is a risk in times of disaster that the use of humour as a tactic might not be appropriate and careful consideration needs to be given to its design and content to ensure its effectiveness. In order to protect the country, it is important to study how disinformation compaigns are created and disseminated, and how people are influenced by disinformation, with particular attention to the role of culture and language.

Countering cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns will need to involve the public and private sectors, as well as individual effort. That is, co-production is critical to tackle cyber attacks and disinforamtion campaigns.

*The article was based on a previous paper presented at the inaugural ANU Taiwan Update at the Australian Centre on China in the World.

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