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Countering China’s Cognitive Viruses

Maj. Ya-Chi Huang/Taiwan Army

In recent years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has conducted information operations and cognitive operations through “content farms” — websites and associated entities that churn out massive amounts of low-quality content for propaganda — to influence Taiwan’s people and provoke internal conflicts on the self-governed island, which the PRC claims must be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary. However, since protests erupted in Hong Kong in mid-2019 over the PRC’s extradition bill and the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang came to light, Taiwan’s people are more alert to such disinformation campaigns, especially those coming from the PRC.

As a result, the PRC has been forced to change tactics. Thus, when Taiwan faced a COVID-19 outbreak in May 2021, it was an opportunity for the PRC to conduct its cognitive operations. Now the PRC uses not only its traditional internet trolls, such as the so-called 50 Cent Army or its “wolf warrior” diplomats, it also taps new social media sites and platforms to further spread disinformation and misinformation on controversial issues in hopes of expanding its influence in Taiwan and weakening the people’s faith in their government. So when these Chinese cognitive viruses spread into Taiwan’s social media in May 2021, it became another crisis beyond COVID-19.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) uses the “50 Cent Army,” a group of Chinese Communist Party state-backed internet commenters whose numbers reportedly range from 500,000 to 2 million.



Taiwan has nearly 19 million internet users who average eight hours online each day and have eight social media accounts, according to the 2020 Taiwan Internet Report. That is an indication of the maturity of Taiwan’s social media. Looking at May 2021, and the coronavirus outbreak, the number of Facebook pages and YouTube channels increased, and plenty of disinformation appeared on Taiwan’s dominant messaging app, Line.

Chinese cognitive viruses fall into three categories: attacking Taiwan’s government, speaking for the PRC and creating societal chaos. In the first, common themes include questioning the safety of Taiwan’s self-manufactured COVID-19 vaccine and criticizing its epidemic prevention measures. When Taiwan’s government showed concern over Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests and the closure of the Apple Daily newspaper there, Chinese-run social media operations criticized Taiwan’s epidemic prevention as insufficient. In the second category, the PRC highlights Taiwan citizens vaccinated in China, praising the quality of Chinese vaccines and how they have helped other countries combat the pandemic. In the third approach, the PRC fabricates ridiculous claims regarding other nations’ vaccine donations to Taiwan, including Japan, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and the United States. While Taiwan is grateful for those donations, the PRC is annoyed. When AstraZeneca vaccines from Japan arrived in Taiwan, for example, false information about side effects spread on social media. When the U.S. announced vaccine donations to Taiwan, another Chinese disinformation campaign sought to tie the donation to arms sales. Similarly, when U.S. senators visited the island, Chinese propagandists claimed the officials were assessing evacuation routes. In short, the PRC seeks to build anger and create fear and panic among Taiwan’s people.

Japan’s fourth donation of COVID-19 vaccine doses was unloaded on September 7, 2021, at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. A Chinese disinformation campaign on social media questioned the safety of the vaccines. Source: Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan.



The PRC uses three approaches to spread its cognitive viruses: creating internal conflicts, building people’s anger, and dividing and ruling. By enlisting local collaborators to stir controversy and spread false information, it seeks to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan and provoke dissatisfaction and anger toward the government. Moreover, the PRC is adept at allying with the secondary enemy to battle the primary enemy. Thus, when it works with local collaborators, it is not supporting certain interest groups but just using them to extend its influence and fight the government in Taiwan.

Facing the threat of the PRC’s cognitive viruses, Taiwan’s Army is working to strengthen the people’s resistance and faith in defense through cultural publicity. These efforts have been undertaken not only amid the challenges of the pandemic but also during Taiwan’s worst drought in 56 years and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s constant intrusions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The Taiwan Army’s combat and support units are dedicated to fighting these various difficulties and, while combating Chinese cognitive viruses, hope that cultural awareness measures can also boost the morale of Soldiers and civilians alike. To clarify disinformation immediately, for example, the Ministry of Defense (MND) website not only features a section on clarification of disinformation, but the ministry also posts clarifications on social media sites each time it identifies disinformation.

In addition, the MND continues adapting to produce innovative and creative cultural publicity campaigns, publishing them on social media sites and other internet platforms. It has also collaborated with one of Taiwan’s largest television companies to produce a program titled “FIGHTING” since 2018. Celebrities are invited onto the program to experience military life and raise public awareness of military issues. To celebrate Taiwan’s Armed Forces Day, the MND collaborated with a private company to design a colorful, military-themed train in an urban style for the metro rail system. It also introduced a canine mascot — a Shiba Inu — as its goodwill ambassador to appeal to younger groups and to present the Armed Forces as approachable, friendly and lively. Unlike previous campaigns, which tended toward the realistic or somber, the latest design series is sweet and upbeat, reflecting a wish to portray the military as relatable and ordinary people.

Taiwan holds live-fire artillery drills amid tensions with the People’s Republic of China. A Taiwan self-made anti-ship Brave Wind III or Hsiung Feng III medium range supersonic missile is launched. Image released on May 27, 2022, by the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense. Source: Taiwan Ministry of National Defense via The Associated Press.



To effectively resist Chinese cognitive viruses, Taiwan’s military must improve cultural publicity capability and build troops’ resistance. By cooperating with other ministries and disseminating military knowledge as widely as possible, the MND hopes to strengthen people’s faith in the Armed Forces and raise awareness of the PRC’s disinformation campaigns. Just as retired U.S. military analyst Timothy L. Thomas wrote in his article “The Mind Has No Firewall,” published in the U.S. Army War College’s quarterly academic journal Parameters, the importance of a person’s mind, consciousness and spirit can’t be ignored when focusing on hardware systems. With the PRC persisting in promoting unification propaganda to Taiwan’s people, it’s crucial that the MND collaborate more with other ministries and build a solid firewall in people’s minds to counter disinformation and lower the effectiveness of the PRC’s cognitive operations.

As the coronavirus has mutated, Chinese cognitive viruses have changed as well. Taiwan is the PRC’s first target for its cognitive and information operations. Beijing’s goal is to spread its disinformation worldwide, which is what it’s doing now. Therefore, just as nations develop more vaccines to protect their people against the coronavirus, they must develop vaccines against cognitive viruses. What happened in Taiwan can be a lesson for all countries that have democracy and freedom and value the voice of their people — just like Taiwan.

This article published in the July-August 2023 edition of The Officer Review magazine, the journal of The Military Order of the World War, Vol. 62 No. 4. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format.

Maj. Ya-Chi Huang is a Major in the Taiwan Army and serves as the leader of the PRC radio program subdivision, Voice of Han and Psychological Warfare group. She is a 2013 graduate of the Fu Hsin Kang College of the Taiwan National Defense University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism Development. She also serves as a Chief Counselor in the units of the Longtan Type A Combined Maintenance Depot of the 3RD Regional Support Command, 33 Chemical Group of the 6th Army Command, and Service Battalion of Army Command Headquarters. As part of her duties, Maj. Huang researches cross-strait societal and cultural issues. During her career in Voice of Han, she won the 2019 Taiwan Rotary Golden Wheel Awards for News on Public Service (Radio News Media Coverage).


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