The Reporter English Edition

Uncovering the Money and China Factor Behind "Mission" – Taiwan's Most Controversial Content Farm

In October and December 2019, Facebook aggressively targeted Taiwanese websites for “content violation.” Hundreds of content farms were removed for violating Facebook’s community guidelines. Among them was a small but well-known website, called “Mission” (密訊). In April 2019, Mission set a record for most shared website by Facebook users in a single week, and five times as many shares as the popular Liberty Times (自由時報). Today, Mission continues to make waves in the pan-blue community.

Surprisingly, after it’s ban, Mission returned to the platform, and continued to generate huge traffic. How on earth can such a small website have such an impact in the courts of public opinion? How does a website with so little original content continue to push its message to users? How can a website so well-known for false information and content takedowns continue to return to the battlefield? In a bid to understand the zombie-like nature of content farms, The Reporter took a deeper look into Mission, and analyzed the clever tactics it uses to manipulate public opinion.

“Fuck, if it gets taken down it just comes right back! If it’s a complete take down, it can still be born again, it seems like no matter how it’s destroyed, they just spend some money to bring it back again!”

This was the first reaction of a senior national security officer when we asked for information about the content farm “Mission.”

The official was surprised because over the past year, scholars monitoring the internet for disinformation have been reporting to the National Security Agency that Mission, a content farm brimming with false information, was rapidly influencing public opinion in Taiwan.

Faced with the proliferation of content farms, Facebook has continuously reduced the ranking of these websites on its platform, citing “poor user experience” and reducing the possibility users will see them. In October 2019, the company banned a number of content farms, including Mission, kknews.cc, and Hssszn, all of which are no longer allowed to appear on a user’s timeline.

How Do Content Farms Continue to Rise From the Dead?

While other content farms are smarting from the takedown, Mission quickly rebranded itself in just two weeks. Interestingly, whether it did so as a response to the ban is unclear, Mission changed its url name from “mission-tw.com” to “missiback.com,” declaring its Lazarus-like revival.

Content farms like Mission have generated discussion over the past two years, including their involvement in the infamous “Kansai Airport incident.” The incident saw a Taiwanese diplomat take his own life following a disinformation campaign attacking the government’s response to evacuating Taiwanese citizens out of the flood-stricken Kansai Airport in Osaka, Japan. Using a combination of strategies, content farms produce a massive amount of content that can quickly influence political events. Of these farms, Mission has stood at the centre of the controversy.

According to Pageboard Taiwan, a citizen-led Facebook analytics site, Taiwanese Facebook users shared articles from Mission more than any other site, with the popular Liberty Times trailing in second. Cheng Yu-chung, (鄭宇君) a professor at National Chengchi University who specializes in social media research, did an analysis of Facebook pages during Taiwan’s 2018 local elections. Cheng found that fan pages supportive of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) were most likely to only share articles from the United Daily News (聯合報), Mission and the China Times (中國時報), while pages supportive of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) shared articles from a variety of news sites. But a week before the 2018 election day, the number of pages sharing articles from Mission jumped to first place.

How could such a barebones website have such a big impact?

Like any content farm, Mission hosts an eclectic mix of content, including click-bait articles about pets and psychological tests. But if a user were to review a list of articles on the site, they would find that nearly 90 percent of the site’s stories are classified as “news.”

Fake News With a Dash of Copying and Rewriting

In Mission’s case, the “news” they post is almost entirely copied or rewritten from other sources. According to a database of false and misleading stories compiled by the fact-checking group Cofacts, social media users have sent 39 articles from Mission for the group to review. Of these 39 stories, Cofacts determined only four of them were factual.

Some of the false stories spread by Mission include:

“Isn't it outrageous that the Ministry of Defense is prepared to spend $13 billion USD on 66 F-16V fighter jets; they’re all outdated and way too expensive!” (Editor's note)
In fact, the F-16A/B is the older fighter, while the F-16V’s are the newer fighters.
“Oh my god! DPP! Taiwanese are dying because of you! President Tsai spent $102 million USD building 4,500 units of social housing in Paraguay, bringing Taiwanese to tears!”(Editor's note)
This news dates back to the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) government, when Taiwan agreed to donate $71 million USD to Paraguay for social housing. The Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government also contributed to the project, promoting a program that would see 4,500 houses built in Paraguay and create tens of thousands of jobs.

The Reporter used the web analysis tool “CrowdTangle” to find out where web traffic for Mission goes, and learned that their articles are mainly shared among pan-blue Facebook groups of 10,000 members or more. Some of the groups include the President Han Kuo-yu 2020 Backup Force (HQ) (2020韓國瑜總統後援會總會), the Blue Sky White Sun Justice Force (青天白日正義力量), the Military Pension Reform Operation Alliance (監督年金改革行動聯盟), Kaobei DPP (靠北民進黨) and the Anti-Tsai Ing-wen Alliance (反蔡英文聯盟).

Of these groups, the 100,000-member strong Blue Sky White Sun Justice Force, directly lists the Mission website in its introduction field.

Articles from Mission are not only widely shared among high-member number Facebook groups, they also receive high levels of engagement.

Source: CrowdTangle.Time period: June 1, 2019 to December 12, 2019.  Note 1: This image only lists the total number of user interactions (likes, comments and shares) of 1,000 posts or more.  Note 2: On December 13, Facebook banned the President Han Kuo-yu 2020 Backup Force (HQ) fan page, and the page is no longer available; the user numbers for the fan page reflect the numbers of December 11. All other fan page members are from December 13.
Source: CrowdTangle.Time period: June 1, 2019 to December 12, 2019. Note 1: This image only lists the total number of user interactions (likes, comments and shares) of 1,000 posts or more. Note 2: On December 13, Facebook banned the President Han Kuo-yu 2020 Backup Force (HQ) fan page, and the page is no longer available; the user numbers for the fan page reflect the numbers of December 11. All other fan page members are from December 13.

However, these groups suffered a setback a month before the election. In December 2019, Facebook Taiwan took down 118 fan pages, 99 groups and 51 duplicate accounts, noting that the owners were managing multiple accounts, and tried to “artificially increase the popularity of posts, as well as violated community guidelines." One of Mission's most effective content vehicles, the 150,000 member strong President Han Kuo-yu 2020 Backup Force (HQ), was caught in the takedown.

Mission packaged false information as “news” to attack the DPP government’s track record. Normally, a news website will put a disclaimer about their news and editorial policies at the bottom of their website. Instead, the architects of Mission posted the following explanation:

“This website operates by uploading articles in real time. The website shall not bear any legal responsibility for the authenticity, integrity and partisanship of the articles. The content of all articles represents the author's personal opinion and not the position of the website. Users should not trust the content, and should judge the authenticity of the content for themselves.”

Following the Facebook ban, how do Mission’s disinformation-heavy articles continue to garner attention? And how is it continuously revived? Between the virtual web and the physical world, we search for the real network behind the content farm.

The Month Long Hunt for the Brains Behind Mission

In October 2019, we went digging through the source code of the Mission website. In a dense set of computer language commands, a line of Chinese text was embedded:

Mission is a free creation platform, all registered members can freely publish their posts. We welcome you to submit your work, and we have established a reward system to encourage contributions. Advisor: Fang Hang Integrated Business Marketing Co. Ltd -- Lin Cheng-kuo (林正國).”

In order to further verify, we used a domain query tool to contact the domain registrant of Mission, Hsieh Sheng-yu (謝昇佑). He was reluctant to talk much about the motivation and history of the site but confirmed he was acquainted with Lin Cheng-kuo. Shortly after our call with Hsieh, the line of Chinese text that mentioned Lin was deleted from the source code; however, an archived snapshot of the site from July 26, 2019 continues to list Lin as an advisor.

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In October 2019, The Reporter found Lin Cheng-kuo's name in the source code of the Mission web page.

We turned our attention back to Fang Hang Integrated Business Marketing. According to Taiwan's Department of Commerce, the company’s representative is Liu Fang-yu (劉芳妤), and the company has an authorized capital of $500,000 NTD ($16,600 USD). Fang Hang was established in January 2019 and operates software and data processing services. We visited the company's registered address on Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei, and found no trace of any business operations. At the reception, we learned that the building provides a “company address registration” service.

The Reporter also learned that Lin Cheng-kuo and Liu Fang-yu are husband and wife, as well as members of the New Party's Youth Committee -- a right-wing nationalist pro-unification party. In January 2018, the New Party published a letter to the "sons and daughters of the Chinese nation worldwide," stressing that "Taiwanese independence in any form is illegal, and the time has come to face unification." Lin and Liu both signed their names on the letter.

As for Lin's identity, in a book published in 2015, New Party spokesperson Wang Ping-chung (王炳忠) said of Lin: “I have an imposing manner, and people around me are afraid of me; but for me, however, I'm afraid of [Lin].” Lin once served as the web manager for Wang's Facebook fan page, and used his computer expertise to create a unified concept that promotes the Wang Ping-chung brand more effectively.

Lin Cheng-kuo has also served as an e-commerce contest evaluator for Wang. Most of these contests focus on business techniques like digital marketing and mobile commerce, which is in line with Lin's expertise in visual design, internet marketing, and search engine optimization (SEO). These skills are critical to the success of Mission as well.

Tactic 1: Use an SEO “Link Wheel” to Cheat Search Engines

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密訊、選舉、內容農場、假新聞。(攝影/蘇威銘)
Mission uses the link-whel method to improve its search ranking score on the Google search engine. Photo by Su Wei-ming.(蘇威銘)

In addition to relying on heavily copied articles to attract traffic, Mission also uses SEO techniques to improve its ranking in search engines like Google and Bing.

But how does its ranking improve? Joy, an engineer with 10 years of experience in planning the structure of an SEO site, stressed that the main thing is to help the site build enough links. Using an SEO analysis tool called Ahrefs, Joy found that a large number of external sites frequently shared the Mission url, including the content farm "Nooho" (怒吼). Through this, Mission can appear in various anonymous forums. Joy concluded that someone had deliberately tried to increase the number of external links to Mission.

Among the large number of sites linked to Mission, Joy also discovered the existence of a “network alliance” among the sites. These sites primarily host links to other websites, and all have the same main screen. “It’s as if Mission had multiple mirror images,” said Joy.

Mission breeds like flies, spawning new websites all the time. Note: Facebook banned the Mission domain around October 14, 2019. Mission returned as Missiback.comon Nov. 6 and was banned again on Dec. 6; Pplomo.com has circulated stories since Dec. 9 and was still available as of Dec. 23. (Source: Website Informer Data collection: Ko Hao-hsiang, Hsu Chia-yu. Design: Huang Yu-chen.)
Mission breeds like flies, spawning new websites all the time. Note: Facebook banned the Mission domain around October 14, 2019. Mission returned as Missiback.comon Nov. 6 and was banned again on Dec. 6; Pplomo.com has circulated stories since Dec. 9 and was still available as of Dec. 23. (Source: Website Informer Data collection: Ko Hao-hsiang, Hsu Chia-yu. Design: Huang Yu-chen.)

Mission also has a partner in crime — the content farm Nooho. Joy found that Nooho had more than 22,000 links from external websites. Mission had less than a tenth of that number. In principle, Nooho’s high volume of links should place it very high in search engine rankings, but it is unusually low, not even close to Mission.

Joy believes the website architect has set up Nooho as an authoritative source of information, and is using Nooho to host links to Mission sites in an attempt to improve Mission’s search engine scores. A combination of the above factors and establishing a large number of links is called a “link wheel” in the SEO industry.

"Using the link wheel method to improve Mission's search score is like trying to trick Google into thinking it's an important source of information so that Mission articles can be listed first,” says Joy.

Tactic 2: Continually Set up Avatars to Evade a Facebook Ban

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臉書、內容農場、假新聞。(攝影/林彥廷)
Mission circumvents its Facebook ban by constantly creating mirror sites. Photo by Lin Yan-ting.(林彥廷)

Using the link wheel method, Mission was able to gain ground with an ideologically close audience. But when Facebook held its October 2019 “Fair Election Action Day” event and set up its interagency task force to remove malicious content, fake accounts and fraudulent followers, Mission was quickly banned from the platform.

To counter this, Mission's second tactic is to continually create new sites to circumvent the Facebook ban.

After the takedown, fan pages and groups that had originally shared Mission content started to share websites like “whatnews.cc" and “mission-hosti.com.” These doppelgänger domains are able to break through the ban. New accounts like “tiksomo.com” have also been successful. These mirror accounts were then transferred to a hosting platform called “beeper.live” -- a content farm creation platform based in Malaysia. Following this transformation, Mission officially returned as "missiback.com" in early November.

But Facebook seems to have noticed the movement of the Mission site, and in early December, missiback.com was banned again by Facebook.

Mission has been thwarted many times, but it does not fall easily. Less than a week later, a new website called “pplomo.com” appeared. As of December 2019, it was still able to post on Facebook.

Tactic 3: Add Blog-Style Elements and Share Chinese Media Content

In addition to solid technical skills, a recent look at Mission reveals a change in editorial style, with less copying and adding more “original” elements to stories, including short videos, editorials, pictures and essays. This imitation “self-media” style -- a blogging style popular on WeChat where news and editorial elements blend together -- is a response to Facebook and Google’s ban on content farms.

As of late, self-media style articles from a media group called “The Reacher” (觸極者) have taken up a lot of space on Mission. According to the site's article index, The Reacher produces daily content on hot political topics with beautiful images to entice readers.

Note: Article volume and author was retrieved from the “News” section on the Mission website. Information was collected between January 9 to November 27, 2019.  (Data collection: Hsu Jia-yu. Design: Huang Yu-chen.)
Note: Article volume and author was retrieved from the “News” section on the Mission website. Information was collected between January 9 to November 27, 2019. (Data collection: Hsu Jia-yu. Design: Huang Yu-chen.)

The Reacher also produces eye-catching videos, including a recent one titled “comfort women are being deleted from high school history books,” featuring interviews of young people from both Taiwan and China. To spur traffic, The Reacher also shares articles and videos from Taihai.net (海峽導報), a newspaper owned by China's Fujian News group; these articles combine criticism of the Taiwanese government with admiration for China's progress.

There is also a more direct link between The Reacher and Mission, through a web series called the "Grasp Sichuan Show" (掌上蜀Show).

In November this year, China-Taiwan.net (中國台灣網), a news website run by the state-run Taiwan Affairs Office, cited a Xinhua report about the Grasp Sichuan Show. The report stressed that Taiwanese media anchors and young people are promoting Sichuan-Taiwan economic and trade cooperation and youth entrepreneurship through field visits, person-to-person experiences, live-streaming and short videos.

On closer inspection, the event, which was billed as a “cross-strait new media experience interview,” was a jointly held activity by a provincial branch of the Taiwan Affairs Office, state-run China Media Group (中央廣播電視總台), state-run iTaiwan News Network (海峽飛虹中文網), state-run Huaxia.net (華夏經緯網), the state-run Sichuan Daily New Media Centre (四川日報新媒體中心) and private Taiwanese media company ETToday Online (台灣東森新聞雲).

The Reacher, which claims to be a “non-partisan group without any privileged family background” also sent a reporter calling himself “Taiwan Tiezi” (台灣鐵子) to document the whole process, and produced several video reports, which were put on the pages of both Mission and The Reacher.

We also found that the two sites don’t just draw content from the other, Lin Cheng-kuo (the "advisor" for Mission) promotes himself as the operator of The Reacher on his Sina Weibo account.

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Lin Cheng-kuo describes himself as the operator of “The Reacher” on his Sina Weibo account. (A screengrab of the Lin Cheng-kuo Taiwan Weibo account)
Lin Cheng-kuo describes himself as the operator of “The Reacher” on his Sina Weibo account. (A screengrab of the Lin Cheng-kuo Taiwan Weibo account)

Mission and the Chinese Network Behind It

With such a complicated chain of relationships, it is difficult to fully explore the true intentions of each party, but a photo adds more color to this cooperative network.

In April 2018, following China's promotion of the "60 Incentives" (惠台60條), Wang Ping-chung (王炳忠) and Lin Cheng-kuo jointly attended the inauguration ceremony for Taihai.net's new media center in Xiamen, Fujian Province, and commemorated the event with a group photo. Lin Jingdong (林靖東) — also known as "Sharp Xiamen Sister Lin" (廈門犀利姐) -- is also in the photo wearing a black blazer.

Wang Ping-chung (5th from left) and Lin Cheng-kuo (4th from right) attended the inauguration ceremony of Taihai.net’s Multimedia Centre together with
Wang Ping-chung (5th from left) and Lin Cheng-kuo (4th from right) attended the inauguration ceremony of Taihai.net’s Multimedia Centre together with "Xiamen Sharp Sister" Lin Jing-dong (4th from left). (Photo from Wang Ping-chung's Facebook page)

As the vice-president and director of the Taihai.net media centre, Lin Jingdong is also the site's main correspondent in Taiwan. According to Lin's own account, she has over thirteen years of experience in Taiwan journalism and has been stationed in Taiwan many times. In fact, she was one of the first Chinese journalists ever stationed in Taiwan. With the rise of social media, Lin has started streaming and short video production too. She set up a channel called the “Love Taiwan Sharp Gang”(愛台犀利幫) on Xigua Video, a platform owned by ByteDance. With an accent approximating a Taiwanese one, Lin praises China's "60 Incentives" as an expression of China's “Wolf Warrior patriotism” and criticized President Tsai Ing-wen as a “fraudster queen.”

Lin isn’t the only Chinese journalist who attacks Taiwan’s politics from a video channel. In October, Zhang Xida (張希達), a Taiwan based radio host with the party-state China National Radio (中國中央人民廣播電台) also started a YouTube channel to produce videos about Taiwan. Zhang is a native of Xiamen, and doesn’t have a typical Mandarin Chinese accent. His videos are laced with Hokkien phrases, and many users mistake the channel as a Taiwanese one.

But this media model has attracted unwanted attention from the Taiwanese government. The Ministry of Justice’s investigation bureau looked into a video titled “Tsai Ing-wen has sold out Taiwan to the Japanese government” which falsely suggested that the Tsai Ing-wen government annually gives $20 billion USD to the Japanese government. The bureau learned that Zhang Xida produced the video.

Zhang and Lin both have a deep understanding of Taiwan, speak the local language, and have even set up social media channels that approximate Taiwanese production styles. Their local Fujian characteristics are consistently reflected in their interviews with people in both China and Taiwan.

So what role does Fujian play in Chinese media organizations based in Taiwan?

A senior journalist who wished to remain anonymous said that Fujian Province is the most important bridgehead to Taiwan. Because of its similar language, customs and even family ties, media organizations from Fujian — especially Xiamen — are more familiar with Taiwan, and reporters from the province are frequently sent to the country.

A full explanation of China’s approach to Taiwan was outlined by CCP chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) at the annual Two Sessions in March 2019. According to a report from Xinhua, Xi said Fujian would lead the way in promoting cross-strait integration, and that the party should “strive to make Fujian the first home for Taiwan compatriots and Taiwanese companies.”

What does Xi’s plan mean for their work in Taiwan? Is it part of a United Front strategy, is it an exchange, or is it a possibility for cross-strait media cooperation? We don’t have an answer. But in regards to Mission, The Reacher and Taihai.net, it’s a chance to mutually lift each other’s content.

Wang Ping-Chung: How Could Mission Ever Compare to Yang Hui-Ju?

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密訊、內容農場、假新聞、新黨、王炳忠。(攝影/蘇威銘)
Wang Ping-chung, spokesperson for the New Party, denies any link between Mission and the New Party. Photo by Su Wei-ming. (蘇威銘)

After revealing Mission’s direct link to Chinese media, The Reporter spent two months trying to reach out to Lin for comment. But Lin is reluctant to speak out, and only noted that the issues involved were strictly business and that he could not be interviewed about it.

Due to Lin's background with the pro-unification New Party, we tried to get answers from Wang Ping-chung (王炳忠), spokesperson for the party.

Wang said he had only recently heard of Mission, but he wasn’t sure if Lin was an advisor for the website. When we asked whether there was “a connection between Mission and the New Party” Wang loudly replied that,

“it’s a deliberate smear to link Mission as New Party’s cyber-army; as soon as I heard about this I knew what this was all about, and I’ll hear none of it. This year, a marketing company volunteered its services to set up a cyber-army for the New Party, but we have few resources. We disdain these kinds of activities, and New Party chairman Yu Mu-ming (郁慕明) spoke clearly on his position.”

He then shifted his focus to Yang Hui-ju, a marketing guru who allegedly set up cyber-armies for the DPP. “How does a tiny content farm like Mission compare to Yang Hui-ju, the organizer of a cyber-army who may have received resources from political parties and even taxpayers? “

Wang stressed that his own account was frequently flagged for content violations, and suspects it’s the work of specific political parties or their cyber-armies. As a candidate for the New Party’s party-list slate, Wang intends to promote an anti-cyber bullying law once he enters the Legislative Yuan; those who spread false information or harm individuals or social stability would be sentenced up to five years in prison.

What's the Yang Hui-JU Incident?

On September 4, 2018, Typhoon Jebi struck Japan's Kansai region, leading authorities to close down Kansai International Airport in Osaka. As stories of stranded passengers reached Taiwan, an online fury erupted. Social media users blamed one of two parties, Taiwan’s representative to Japan and DPP stalwart Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), or the diplomatic staff at Taiwan’s Osaka office. The incident indirectly led to the death of the Osaka office’s director general, Su Chii-cherng (蘇啟誠), who took his own life.

According to a report from Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA), prosecutors looked into the source of the online uproar, and discovered that a majority of negative posts directed at director-general Su came from a man surnamed Tsai (蔡). Online marketer Yang Hui-ju dined with Tsai and others on September 6, and discussed messaging about the Kansai Airport Incident. Yang provided a PTT log-in to Tsai, where he published a post titled “Breaking: Information about the Kansai Airport Incident,” which included phrases like “Taiwan's Osaka Office has a really bad attitude,” and “they’re really awful,” and “these people have been there for decades, they're just like the old-style KMT bureaucrats that can't speak a lick of Japanese. What a bunch of old fogeys, they're a bunch of dirty KMT leftovers…”

Prosecutors said Yang also directed members of the “Kaohsiung Group” LINE group to forward articles that insulted the Osaka Office and its civil servants. According to article 140 of Taiwan’s Criminal Law, insulting a civil servant is a criminal offence.

On December 24, 2019, former KMT legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅) called a press conference, and claimed Yang worked under the direction of the DPP. Chiu says Yang worked from an IP address that belonged to DPP legislator Huang Kuo-shu’s (黃國書) office. Huang’s legislative assistant, Tang Wen-hsin (湯文馨) serves as director of Nanfeng Marketing Company, which signed a contract with the DPP’s news and public opinion bureau to conduct opinion polls.

On the same day, DPP spokesperson Liu Kang-yen (劉康彥) announced the contract was commissioned by the DPP’s central party division, and was something all companies and organizations do.

Combining Content Farms With United Front Strategy

While The New Party is calling for legal reforms, the cooperative network between Mission, The Reacher and Taihai.net remains unimpeded. Through this efficient political propaganda machine, a large number of pro-China and pro-unification views were vigorously broadcast in Taiwan. On Facebook, the influence of fan pages hosting said content on public opinion was evident.

We can see clues of this influence through a crisis about bananas.

In May 2018, prices for Taiwanese bananas collapsed, following an increase in planting areas and an increased yield in the fruit from favourable weather. The price of unripened green bananas sunk to a range of $1 to $5 per kg, the lowest price in five years, leading to a panic. Taiwan’s Committee of Agriculture quickly launched measures to stabilize the price.

Using the data analysis tool “QSearch,” we found a number of unique characteristics about this incident as it unfolded online. Under a twenty second period on May 29, the Facebook fan pages Kaobei DPP, Recall the DPP (罷免民進黨) and Kaobei Current Events (靠北時事) forwarded an article from Mission, titled “Pineapple prices are awful, bananas are also falling under a dollar, and seasonal fruits aren’t looking good either; farmers are all in a panic.”

On June 16, 2018, three pages re-forwarded the same Mission article about banana peels containing pesticides within the span of a minute’s time.  Note: Time frame was May 29 to June 15, 2018. The image only lists posts related to the banana price crisis. Because Mission posts are now banned on Facebook, old posts can no longer be viewed.  (Source: QSearch. Data collection: Ko Hao-hsiang. Design: Huang Yu-chen.)
On June 16, 2018, three pages re-forwarded the same Mission article about banana peels containing pesticides within the span of a minute’s time. Note: Time frame was May 29 to June 15, 2018. The image only lists posts related to the banana price crisis. Because Mission posts are now banned on Facebook, old posts can no longer be viewed. (Source: QSearch. Data collection: Ko Hao-hsiang. Design: Huang Yu-chen.)

Two days later, Taiwanese website China Review (中評社), a subsidiary of Hong Kong's China Review news agency, published a report that quoted farmers as saying, "If Tsai's government doesn't act soon, we’ll see if farmers don’t rebel.” The article also notes that cross-strait relations were originally quite good, and that there were no problems with slow sales or oversupply during the KMT government. On the same day, content farm Nooho shared the China Review piece, but merged content from another piece, and added a new headline “If the DPP doesn’t fall, then farmers won’t be good at all.”

Up to this point, things haven’t deviated too much from their normal content farm activities. But on June 2, 2019, Mission made a comeback, when an unknown author took an Apple Daily Taiwan (蘋果日報) piece titled “China is studying how to cultivate Taiwan’s unique diamond pineapple; Chaiyi County Magistrate Helen Chang: This is a national security concern” (中國學走金鑽鳳梨技術 張花冠:價崩是國安問題) and changed without permission into “Helen Chang: It’s China’s fault we have excess supply of fruits, it’s an issue of national security.” (張花冠:水果過剩是中國的錯,是國安問題). The doctored article was then forwarded to forums and Facebook fan pages.

At the same time, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, and Chinese content farm Meiri Toutiao (每日頭條) followed up with their own report, writing that “Taiwan public opinion holds that the DPP authorities’ refusal to recognize the 1992 Consensus has frozen cross-strait relations and greatly affected Taiwan’s tourism, agriculture and fisheries industries. The mainland market is crucial in solving Taiwan’s unmarketable price falls.”

Since then, the spread of false information had blown up to become a full on crisis over bananas.

On June 12, 2019, Facebook fan pages Kaobei DPP, Impeach DPP, and Kaobei Current Events shared a Mission article titled “What’s to be done about banana overproduction? William Lai (賴清德) suggests boiling unpeeled bananas and dipping them in soy sauce to eat.” After establishing the premise in the headline, the next day, three fan pages simultaneously shared an article titled “Banana peels contain carcinogenic pesticides and fungicides; think twice before you eat boiled bananas.”

Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture immediately responded, stressing that the article was falsified news from six years ago and was completely untrue. Because the news was a breach of Taiwan’s Social Order Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法), the Council hoped to apprehend the user who spread the false story. At the same time, the Kaobei DPP fan page chose to apologize for the story, saying they did not understand the workings of pesticide residue on bananas nor the current practices of the Council of Agriculture; they had no intention of deceiving the public, and that it was “only with good intentions that they decided to publish the article.”

After the incident, Kaobei DPP and other fan pages deleted their posts, along with the original Mission article. But Chinese content farms like Meiri Toutiao continued to post similar headlines like “Taiwanese Banana and pineapple prices collapsed, but the mainland kindly purchased them with warm hearts,” and “Taiwanese fruit farmers: The mainland most warmly receives our fruit exports!”

Some articles directly attribute deteriorating cross-strait relations to the DPP taking office in 2016. As a result, the articles claim, the quantity of Taiwan's agricultural exports to the mainland dropped sharply, which led to the decline in Taiwan’s banana industry. The articles deliberately ignore the role of Taiwanese farmers’ in spurring overproduction.

There were certainly justified reasons to critique the DPP's handling of the banana price crisis, there were certainly stories that riled up the emotions of Taiwanese, but more than anything, there was a massive spread of false information.

Facing a mixed model of false information, Lin Ying-yu (林穎佑), and adjunct assistant professor at National Chung Cheng University’s Institute of Strategic and International Affairs, says this is a new kind of “digital public opinion” attack, and is an extension of China’s “three warfares” (中國對台三戰) approach to Taiwan — public opinion warfare (輿論戰), psychological warfare (心理戰) and legal warfare (法律戰).

In the above example, two tactics were used, one is "advancing false and true side by side" (虛實並進) and the other is "match high with low" (高低配). On one hand, this mixed model leads the public to distrust the government through false information. On the other hand, it puts pressure on Taiwan by promoting a specific policy (i.e. - Taiwan's agricultural exports to China) from previous years. Meanwhile, state-run media like Xinhua criticize from the top, while content farms churn out stories from the bottom, all aimed at making Taiwan more vulnerable.

In Addition to Sea, Land and Air, “Mind Superiority” Is China’s 4th Weapon

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內容農場、密訊、假新聞。(攝影/張家瑋)
Professor Lin Ying-yu of National Chung Cheng University believes that thought manipulation will be the key for China to win a future war. Photo by Chang Chia-wei. (張家瑋)

A recent book from the People’s Liberation Army press called Mind Superiority (制腦權) clearly illustrates this new danger. Lin Ying-yu says that “mind superiority” refers to China’s experience with military competition over land, sea, air and internet superiority. Lin believes that control over our minds through propaganda is key for the PLA to win a future war. “This is a war about changing cognition, and soldiers will compete on the invisible battlefields of public opinion.”

Content farms like Mission play an important role in this war for public opinion, churning out articles with grisly headlines and hyperbole. These articles are reposted in large numbers, and the scary part is that they are both true and false, and it’s difficult to tell right from wrong. Before users have a chance to verify if these reports are true or not, they are inundated with even more content, Lin said.

But false information that damages Taiwan’s public opinion sphere not only comes from content farms, it also comes through social media platforms. Taiwan’s recent ranking in a Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) report by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden is an illustration of the country’s dire situation. According to V-Dem’s digital society project, Taiwan was the worst-hit (No. 1) of 179 countries last year for receiving false information from foreign governments or their agents. The United States and Ukraine, which have both been the target of false information campaigns from Russia, were only the 13th and 14th worst affected countries.

At the same time, press freedom in Taiwan is being undermined. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 's April 2019 Global Press Freedom Index, Taiwan lost its previous position as Asia's most free press, following an improved score from South Korea. Countries in Asia face the dual pressure of self-censorship and a deluge of false information.

How Are Google and Facebook Dealing With Public Opinion Manipulation?

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臉書、內容農場、假新聞。(攝影/林彥廷)
Facebook updated their community guidelines to better deal with inauthentic behaviour, said Facebook Taiwan’s Chen I-jun. Photo by Lin Yan-ting. (林彥廷)

In an interview with The Reporter, Facebook revealed that it has been working with third-party fact-checking agencies in Taiwan and using signals automatically collected from machine learning to produce specific “lists” that third parties can use as a basis for fact-checking.

Chen I-ju (陳奕儒), a public policy manager for Facebook Taiwan, said the company is dealing with fake accounts. In the third quarter of 2019 alone, 1.7 billion fake accounts were discovered worldwide. Taiwan also has such problems, so in November 2019, Facebook updated its response with a community code for “inauthentic behaviour,” a way to get ahead of the disruptive behaviour.

Since Facebook’s policy update coincides with Mission’s ban from the platform, is the company’s definition of inauthentic behaviour based on the model of business built by Mission? At one point during the interview, Chen turned to a representative from a PR firm accompanying him in the interview, seemingly seeking approval, but we did not receive an answer to our question.

Chen only emphasized “content farms, like Mission, are targeted by the platform because they create a bad user experience.”

Transparency in Political Advertising and Reducing Rankings for Content Farms

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google、seo、假新聞。(攝影/蘇威銘)
Google has developed Google Panda to reduce search rankings for content farms, said Google Taiwan’s Anita Chen. Photo by Su Wei-ming. (蘇威銘)

In addition to targeting inauthentic user behaviour, Facebook also promoted its “transparent political advertising” initiative in November 2019. It disclosed information about the identity, dollar amount, ad reach and content of ads on its platform, which will be disclosed on the platform for seven years. The company said the political ad database is an attempt to “safeguard the fairness of elections and prevent improper interference.”

Google, the target of SEO manipulation, is also taking action. Google Taiwan senior manager for public and government affairs Anita Chen (陳幼臻) points out that in 2011 the company launched a “major update to its algorithm,” called Google Panda. “It’s like a filter to deal with low-quality websites from content farms. Our technical team will reduce their search rankings. This algorithm is still being adjusted to this day, it is live and dynamic.”

Google Panda symbolizes Google's determination to stand up to content farms and SEO search optimization tactics. The algorithm does have a significant impact on search engine rankings, with the percentage of large content farms dropping by 40 percent within two weeks.

But content farms like Mission have long been morphing, evolving, and regenerating to take the lead in the field of public opinion manipulation.

For Puma Shen (沈伯洋), an assistant professor at National Taipei University’s Institute of Criminology who focuses on information warfare, Mission is like a “propaganda machine that publicizes a specific political ideas.” Even if everyone has their own political position, there’s still a particular country behind the scenes using a specific set of information to interfere with our cognition; in this “cognitive battle,” Taiwan is the loser.

“There must be a strong basis for dialogue in a democratic society and polarization undermines that. The more chaotic and confrontational a society becomes, the easier it is to attack it,” said Shen.

(To read the Chinese version of this article, please click: 打不死的內容農場──揭開「密訊」背後操盤手和中國因素)

索引
How Do Content Farms Continue to Rise From the Dead?
The Month Long Hunt for the Brains Behind Mission
Mission and the Chinese Network Behind It
Combining Content Farms With United Front Strategy
How Are Google and Facebook Dealing With Public Opinion Manipulation?

用行動支持報導者

2020年,世界更加不安。當全球因為疫情而陷入閉鎖與恐慌之際,港版《國安法》讓香港淪為一國一制、菲律賓政府抓記者關電視台、白羅斯政府操縱媒體和大選、台灣更面臨中國因素的威脅與滲透⋯⋯。當民主自由遭遇重大挑戰,我們更需要不受任何力量左右的獨立媒體,全心全意深入報導真相、努力守望台灣。

5年前的9月1日,《報導者》成為台灣第一家由公益基金會成立的非營利媒體。我們期許自己扮演深度調查報導的火車頭,在讀者捐款支持下獨立自主,5年來穿越各項重要公共議題,獲得國內外諸多新聞獎項肯定,在各層面努力發揮影響力。然而,受到疫情嚴重衝擊,《報導者》的捐款也受到影響,我們需要更多的動能,才能持續在這條路上前進。

請在《報導者》5週年之際成為我們的贊助者,與我們一起前進,成為迎向下個5年的重要後盾。

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