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Fake social media accounts are targeting Taiwan's presidential election

A supporter of Kuomintang, or KMT, Taiwan's major opposition party, waves Taiwan's national flag on Nov. 24, 2023, in Taipei, Taiwan. Researchers uncovered an influence operation targeting Taiwan's upcoming presidential election on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube.
Annabelle Chih
/
Getty Images
A supporter of Kuomintang, or KMT, Taiwan's major opposition party, waves Taiwan's national flag on Nov. 24, 2023, in Taipei, Taiwan. Researchers uncovered an influence operation targeting Taiwan's upcoming presidential election on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube.

An influence operation spanning Facebook, TikTok and YouTube has been targeting Taiwan's upcoming presidential election, according to a new report from research firm Graphika.

While Graphika wasn't able to determine who was behind the operation, the report comes amid warnings fromgovernment officials and tech companies that elections around the world next year are ripe targets for manipulation from states including China, Russia and Iran, as well as domestic actors.

The operation Graphika identified involved a network of more than 800 fake accounts and 13 pages on Facebook that reposted Chinese-language TikTok and YouTube videos about Taiwanese politics.

They promoted the Kuomintang, or KMT, the main opposition political party in Taiwan that's seen as friendly to China, and slammed its opponents, including the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which favors Taiwan's independence.

"The content closely tracked Taiwan's news cycle, quickly leveraging domestic news developments, such as controversies surrounding an egg shortage and the alleged drugging of toddlers at a kindergarten, to portray the KMT's opponents as incompetent and corrupt," Graphika researchers wrote.

Graphika is a research company that studies social networks and online communities for companies, tech platforms, human rights organizations and universities.

Most of the accounts identified by Graphika have been taken down by the social media platforms on which they appeared, and didn't get much engagement from real users, Graphika said.

Still, the researchers wrote, "We assess that attempts by foreign and domestic [influence operation] actors to manipulate the online political conversation in Taiwan will very likely increase ahead of the 2024 election."

The videos originated with accounts that had been active since 2022 on both TikTok and YouTube under the name Agitate Taiwan. Graphika said Agitate Taiwan acted as a "content hub," posting multiple videos a day that were then reposted by the fake Facebook network.

However, Graphika said it wasn't clear whether the TikTok and YouTube accounts had been created by the influence operation or belonged to a real user whose content was being repurposed.

YouTube removed the account for violating its rules against spam, deceptive practices and scams, a company spokesperson said.

The Agitate Taiwan account remains on TikTok. A TikTok spokesperson said the company continues to investigate the account but has not found evidence that it was inauthentic or part of the operation.

The Facebook posts got little engagement from real users, but some appeared at the top of search results for specific hashtags about Taiwanese political parties and candidates in the January 2024 election, Graphika said.

"We worked with researchers at Graphika to investigate this cross-internet activity which failed to build engagement among real people on our platform. We took it down and continue to monitor for any additional violations of our inauthentic behavior policy," a spokesperson for Facebook parent company Meta said.

There were some clear red flags that the Facebook accounts were fake. Some used profile pictures stolen from real people and edited to change features — for example, by replacing the person's original smile with a different one.

Clusters of accounts published identical content within minutes of one another, and at times posted TikTok links that included an ID indicating they had been shared by a single person, in a further signal of coordination.

Some of the Facebook pages used incorrect or uncommon Chinese transliterations of Taiwanese slang, suggesting the people behind them weren't familiar with the language, Graphika said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.