The Invisible Armada

Editorial cartoon from Taipei Times on March 5 2022, p.8.

Counter-Disinformation as an apparatus for imperial population management: Some reflections on the Taiwan elections and “NATO Orientalism” 

Jon Solomon


Jon Solomon
Professor, Université Jean Moulin, and Researcher, Université Paris Nanterre

The bulk of commentary in Western language media about the elections that occurred in Taiwan on January 13, 2024, in which the candidate representing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), William Lai Ching-te, won an unprecedented third consecutive term for his party with 40% of the vote, has focused on the implications for geopolitical relations in the Taiwan Strait. Additional commentary has emphasized that the poll was a victory for electoral democracy against belligerent authoritarianism. 

Yet what is poorly understood, if not actively mystified, is the nature of the “democracy” evolving in Taiwan under full digital conditions. A certain number of seemingly marginal facts related to the role of digital culture in this electoral cycle signal an intensification of the apparatus of weaponized population management for which the digital has become the primary vehicle. 

First, let us summarize a few key points about the campaign and the electoral results with the help of the analysis raised by Dr. Youngie Wu, a professor in the Graduate Institute of Documentary and Film Archiving, Tainan National University of the Arts, and leftist activist-organizer in Taiwan. The elections were largely fought around issues related to the personal moral integrity of the candidates. There was very little discussion about substantive issues. In part, this angle was given in advance by the series of high-profile corruption scandals in which the ruling DPP was implicated, dating back to the pork barrel politics around Taiwan's own expensive and largely unsuccessful Medigen Covid vaccine. Yet, as Wu has observed, the elections inadvertently revealed a “don't ask, don't tell” style consensus among the opposing political parties and the media that report on them. Substantive policy discussions of key issues that supposedly distinguish the parties from one another, such as the US plan to turn Taiwan into a militarized “porcupine” against China, were conspicuously absent. The media simply did not ask the candidates questions about policy differences. 

It is emblematic of the low quality of the campaign that the question of transitional justice and political reconciliation in relation to the past injustice of White Terror during the world’s longest period of martial law (from 1949 to 1987) did not come up at all, despite the release in May 2022 of the final report of the Taiwan Transitional Justice Commission, the government commission responsible for that task. The absence of a broad public discussion about the pros and cons of the government-sponsored transitional justice report does not bode well for the chances for true reconciliation among historically antagonistic segments of the populations in Taiwan. In effect, this silence highlights the need felt among the ruling party and the “Taiwan Independence” camp more generally, which supports a notion of sovereignty historically enabled by Pax Americana and colonial legacy, to find a way to manage social antagonism via a discourse of national security. 

As Professor Wu observes, the presence of an unwritten consensus that utterly closes down public discussion and debate raises vexing questions about the nature of democracy taking shape in Taiwan. In Wu’s estimation, if the term “democracy” continues to be used to describe political developments in Taiwan, it is the sign of a powerful mystification realized through the practice of voting. Voting enables disempowered citizens who are otherwise excluded from the key decisions of governance to fantasize about having an input. Despite the constant revelations about corruption and pork barrel politics, this mystification remains highly effective precisely because it creates, we might hypothesize, a palpable sense of self and other at the individual level that appears to map coherently onto notions of self and other at a larger, collective level. This cross-mapping serves in turn to legitimate the ubiquitous mystification of social relations that we will discuss in a moment under the rubric of conspiracy theories. Finally, Dr. Wu makes an important point refuting the claims of those who saw evidence of the elimination of Big Money in this recent electoral campaign. While small donors did play an important role in financing the campaign of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), a new third party that garnered 26% of the vote largely by attracting young voters disaffected with the two main parties (the DPP and the KMT, or Chinese Nationalist Party), the reality is that monetization today occurs indirectly through the privatized platforms such as Facebook which is where most of the “public” discussion and campaigning now occurs. (For those readers unfamiliar with Taiwan, the island nation reportedly registers the highest level of Facebook penetration in the world). Here, influencers play an outsized role that is effectively transactional in nature. 

Hence, the narrative framing preferred by the international media, who pitched the election as an existential plebiscite over Taiwan's survival in the face of “authoritarian aggression” from China, effectively whitewashed the reality on the ground, which is that the 60% of voters who voted for the two main party candidates besides the DPP were largely antagonized by the DPP's corruption and incompetence, as well as the increasing economic polarization of society. Among this section of voters, nearly half were predominantly young voters who rejected the two main parties (the KMT and the DPP), in favor of the TPP. In that sense, the partial exodus away from these main parties indirectly reveals a truth about those voters, still in the majority, who have remained with the two parties despite everything. In effect, the behavior of these voters is now largely determined by digital tribalism, in which political participation is measured in terms of affective binaries of us and them, like and dislike. The disappearance of interest in substantive issues and the emergence of an unwritten consensus can both be seen, in effect, as symptoms of this mediatization. 

While analysis has focused, for obvious reasons, on the winners of the presidential contest, it is somewhat more revealing to consider comparatively marginal phenomena from which central trends can be discerned. Notably, this was the first time in Taiwan that a candidate who is an expert in disinformation and who sits on the Steering Committee of a large US regime change agency (more on that in a moment) was elected, by proportional vote, to the Legislative Yuan. Dr. Puma Shen, a young scholar of criminology who ranked second on the list of candidates for proportional seats advanced by the DPP, is also the founder of two civil society organizations (CSOs) that are, taken together, emblematic of a single system of population management at the heart of the transformations occurring in liberal democracies today. On the one hand, his Doublethink Lab is one of the most important civil society organizations in Taiwan devoted to the study and countering of disinformation – unilaterally oriented towards China; on the other hand, his Kuma Academy has become a leader in the industry of private civil defense companies and militia training centers that have mushroomed in Taiwan. Although it would be misleading to exaggerate the importance of a single individual, Dr. Shen’s commitments are emblematic of a form of governmentality that relies on information technologies and social mobilization on privatized platforms to realize the neoliberal goals of population management. The recent elections in Taiwan, which resulted in Dr. Shen gaining a seat in Taiwan’s national assembly, offer a clear example of the way this apparatus functions. 

During the course the electoral campaign, so-called “theories calling into question the United States” (yimeilun) became a focal point of contention among the different electoral camps, principally divided into the three main parties that included the KMT (Kuomintang Chinese Nationalist Party) and the TPP (Taiwan People’s Party) in addition to the DPP. Despite the vociferous polemics in which supporters of the parties engaged, the terms of the debate around such theories were hegemonically decided in advance by groups such as Dr. Shen’s Doublethink Lab associated with the “pan-green camp” of the DPP, which for practical purposes dominates the public discussion about security issues in Taiwan. One of the functions of the term “yimeilun” (or “theories calling into question the United States”) was to create a sense of homogeneity out of phenomenon of a highly disparate nature such as the importation of ractopamine-laden pork under US pressure or the declarations of US senators to “fight to the last Ukrainian.” Rather than initiating a debate sustained by the use of public reason over the history of settler colonialism in the United States (a subject hardly recognized in Taiwanese media) and the conjunctural crisis of Pax Americana, the CSOs associated with the pan-green DPP camp, such as Doublethink Lab or the Internet Operations Research Group (IORG), have responded with a strategy of erudite mystification. Presenting the current conjuncture in terms of information operations executed by foreign actors aided by domestic accomplices, their work mystifies rather than clarifies the major challenge to democratic government posed by algorithmic governance and information technologies – much less the knotty questions of the traumatic past and the nature of covert state power in the context of imperial decline and the increasingly violent and unpredictable struggles within the ruling elites of a crumbling transnational empire. 

The type of mystification involved in counter-disinformation ops is ideological in the Marxist sense. Against an enlightened view that holds that truth claims can be evaluated on the basis of factual retrieval and the elimination of individual bias, the Marxist view apprehends ideology in the form of social relations. This shift from bias to relations is necessary if we are to understand how counter-disinformation ops and social mobilization via privatized digital platforms are part of a larger apparatus of global population management, for which Taiwan provides a very clear example. Despite the local manifestations of these phenomenon, the locus of this hegemonic discourse, or consensus, is not centered in Taiwan. 

In truth, we are witnessing an extension and enlargement of the logic of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) that debuted in the 1990s, now mobilized to ends more closely adapted to the new not-so-Cold War in progress. Writing in 2015 about antiterrorist datamining conducted by US intelligence agencies, Grégoire Chamayou had already observed a certain link between the operations of intelligence agencies and the mode of conspiratorial thinking. Given what we now know about the covert activities of the US state during the previous Cold War, the GWOT and beyond, such links are not surprising. In the context of the creation by the US of a new, innovative form of empire that does not function on the principle of direct control as was seen in the French, British, and Japanese empires that preceded it but rather cultivates and incorporates postcolonial sovereignty, via the innovative form of “colonial governmentality under erasure,” into its post-World War Two empire, the United States along with its allies among local regional elites constitutes without doubt the most important and best organized conspiratorial force in the world today. It goes without saying, however, that in Taiwan, as in Europe today, to speak of the hegemonic alignment among US state agencies, Wall Street, CSOs, think tanks, media, academia, and privatized digital platforms, to speak in short of the fabled “MICIMATT” (Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank), is considered a priori to be an illegitimate “conspiracy theory” unworthy of discussion. 

This response is symptomatic of the conspiratorial thinking it seeks to combat in the sense that it takes for granted the importance of historicization while effectively denying that the basis of historicization – any historicization whatsoever – lies in the fictional power at the heart of modern democratic community. As both Jacques Derrida and Jacques Rancière have pointed out in different ways, the institution of literature provides a kind of overarching model for societies such as modern ones that are not formed on the basis of generational inheritance (tradition, God, the ancestors, etc.). Somewhat misleadingly named, the “institution of literature” doesn’t have to do, conceptually speaking, with a regional, relatively autonomous sphere of society (such as real “literature”) but rather points to society’s groundless foundation in the contradictory articulation between totality and fiction. “Literature” names both the democratic community in which anybody is authorized to say everything (and everything can potentially be said) and the fictive basis of the community that is completely open and untotalizable. In that sense, the institution of literature provides the model for modern societies in that it models both social critique and social authority, or again, both con-figuration and con-spiracy.. If “conspiracy theories” proliferate today in Taiwan as elsewhere around the globe, the reason lies not so much in the depredations of illiberal “adversaries” as in a crisis experienced via two kinds of historical repression. The first concerns the demise of theories of the social totality (a code word for Marxist critiques); the second concerns the crisis of “literature” and its replacement by the convergence between information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology that usurps the power of fictioning today. 

While these considerations may seem to be very far removed from the dust and din of electoral politics in Taiwan, it is precisely the history of these historical repressions that are coming to the fore in the development of a Schmittian democracy, as Alain Brossat has memorably called it, in Taiwan. Taiwanese democracy, in other words, is increasingly constructed on the assumption that critiques of the social totality are utterly impossible and consigned to the trash bin of history, even as the attempt to control the line between fact and fiction acquires obsessional qualities. Taiwanese democracy assumes both the legacy and the forgetting of the legacy of Taiwan’s leading involvement in the global (conspiratorial) movement of fascist anticommunism during the long Cold War. Indeed, one of the outcomes of the government’s report on transitional justice in Taiwan lies precisely in the unstated normalization of the historical legacy of fascist anticommunism under the aegis of the United States. This normalization is particularly evident in the consensus among the indirect beneficiaries of the White Terror, among whom the family of the outgoing president, Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, was particularly emblematic. 

Here again, the example of Dr. Shen’s role in Taiwanese democracy is instructive. Currently a member of the Steering Committee for the World Movement for Democracy (WMD), Dr. Shen participates in a key organization in the “network of networks” organized under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy, a US regime change agency that orchestrates groups of CSOs to act as temporary partners on projects within the larger “Washington Consensus.” Recalling Michel Foucault’s idea of “strategic relations” in which power consists not so much in the ability to command as in the ability to create a sense of self and other, the “network of networks” builds on the ideological mystification of a conspiratorial Other to produce what are seemingly grassroots, self-mobilized political subjects that just happen to be “naturally” aligned with the Washington Consensus. This “network” is precisely where the mystification of social relations occurs with persuasive force. 

Hence, it is hardly surprising and yet extremely symptomatic of the ideological mystifications involved that conspiracy theories played a prominent role throughout the electoral campaign in Taiwan, including up to the present, post-election situation. Without going into the details, we could simply reiterate that various sorts of conspiracy theories were not only equally distributed among all three of the major parties and their supporters but were also promoted by important online influencers and new media personalities who occupy a commanding position in the attention economy. Indeed, the ubiquity of conspiracy theories correlates to the displacement of political campaigns from the city plaza to the immaterial space of the internet, invariably mediated by privatized, highly surveilled, digital monopoly platforms on which transactional influencers play a dominant role. 

According to a poll released by Doublethink Lab after the election, the reach of the influence of such online personalities saw growth between 18 to 40% compared to the last election. As for the source of disinformation, about 40% of the electorate confessed to having no clear sense of the origin – a result that could indicate either confusion or a nascent recognition of the difficulty of attribution in a digital medium. Among those who did express a clear sense of the source of alleged disinformation, the largest proportion (26%) attributed it to the DPP, while only 15% attributed it to China. According to the same poll, nearly 50% of the electorate believe that the United States simply intends to hollow out Taiwan while using it for its own ends. For a poll compiled by a CSO devoted to conspiracy theories of Chinese infiltration, the results convey an unexpected sense of resistance that cannot be simply explained by partisan affiliation. 

Parallel to this flourishing of conspiracy theories, the Taiwanese cybersecurity industry has seen unprecedented growth, several orders higher than that at the global level, with the rate of growth at 11.9% over 2020 and 2021 compared to only 2.8% at the global level during the same period. The explosive growth in cybersecurity is inscribed in a project dear to the partisans of the pan-green (DPP) camp to take Israel as a model for a regime of population control and capital accumulation managed by information technologies whose genealogy is derived directly from the permanent (in)security, as Didier Bigo memorably called it, of the GWOT.

What we are seeing thus is what could be described as the Orientalist NATO-ification of Taiwan. As the pioneering theorist of network culture and algorithmic governance Tiziana Terranova explained in a brilliant article from 2007, titled “Futurepublic: On Information Warfare, Bio-racism, and Hegemony as Noopolitics,” the phenomenon of Orientalism first analyzed by Edward Said was transformed and given new life during the Global War on Terror by the advent of information technology, which Said documents in Covering Islam from 1981, just several years after the publication of the much better known work, Orientalism

The role of information technologies in the service of “NATO Orientalism” is a lesson that sadly seems to have been forgotten today, not least of all in relation to Taiwan. In the age of a massive effort to criminalize China and to depict the defense of global white hegemony in terms of an axial struggle between authoritarianism and democracy, Terranova's article serves as a poignant if silent witness to the political regression associated with knowledge production about the non-West – as if Terranova's analyses (and those of Edward Said) had never happened. The long chapter titled, "The Epistemology of the Secret: Hegemony and Conspiracy in the Age of Privatised Digital Platforms," in my 2023 book, The Taiwan Consensus and the Ethos of Area Studies in Pax Americana: Spectral Transitions, essentially foresaw the emblematic importance of Dr. Puma Shen’s commitments for the political landscape in Taiwan. In this context, it would be pertinent to recall that the WMD on whose Steering Committee Dr. Shen sits chose Taipei as the location for their most recent Global Assembly held in 2022 and that the president of the NED was one of the invited guests. To make the connection clear, it is important to remember that the NED’s new president, Mr. Damon Wilson, was formerly an Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council, a NATO think tank.  

At the end of the 20th Century, Taiwan joined the ranks of the newly industrialized Asian Tigers by concentrating on economic development. Today, however, the Taiwanese economy is heading for a doubly hard landing. On the one hand, the leaders of the ruling DPP and their American partners have pushed Taiwan into the arms of the Pentagon, creating serious headwinds for civilian economic growth. On the other hand, the reliance on the United States to the detriment of relations with the People’s Republic of China exposes Taiwan to secular stagnation and cost of living increases accentuating social and economic polarization. 

In the face of these growing crises, the DPP since coming to power in 2016 has been able to construct a discourse of disinformation and civilian mobilization that essentially amounts to an apparatus of population management. The deepening cross-mapping of social antagonism specific to Taiwan with the fortunes of the collective West provides the grounds for ideological mystification that is experienced as naturally persuasive by many Taiwanese, regardless of political affiliation. Significantly, the opposition parties have shown themselves entirely incapable of generating any kind of effective counter-discourse, despite often being smeared as the parties of “appeasement.” Far from contesting the narratives of national security and disinformation, the media outlets associated with the opposition pan-blue KMT camp have voluntarily piled on, propagating and consolidating the discursive hegemony built around the fictive line established by the distinction between officially sanctioned conspiracy theories, such as Chinese disinformation, and unsanctioned ones such as US interference. As Terranova pointed out nearly two decades ago in a different yet intrinsically related context, the first casualty of such an apparatus is not some abstract notion of “the truth” but rather the possibility for populations subjected to highly innovative forms of colonial governmentality hidden behind apparent postcolonial sovereignty to problematize the terms used to identify their situation formulated by “discourse professionals” in the MICIMATT and thus wrest away from Pax Americana hegemony the possibility of fashioning their own discourse.  

While there is no space to rehearse here the analyses of conspiracy theory discussed in The Taiwan Consensus, I would end by simply pointing out that the ubiquity of such theories in Taiwan as elsewhere today is symptomatic of a crisis occurring on multiple levels. At the core, all of these levels point together to the agonizing disappearance of both critical theories of the social totality and the collective figure of politics in the wake of the demise of communism across much (but not all) of the world in the second half of the 20th century. If the social totality seems no longer to be available as a resource for critique and action, it is, as I have argued in The Taiwan Consensus and The Ethos of Area in Pax Americana: Spectral Transitions, specifically related to the ideological alienation of humanity’s communicative capacities in what Naoki Sakai calls the modern regime of translation and the apparatus of area and anthropological difference – and which must be historicized in terms of the living legacy of fascist anticommunism and antiblackness that feeds the “NATO Orientalism” to which Taiwan is an active contributor today. Indirectly corroborating these analyses, the philosopher Frédéric Neyrat has recently noted that the crisis emblematized by the contemporary proliferation of conspiracy theories is ultimately connected to the collapse of social communication, now channeled into privatized, monopoly digital platforms. In that context, the discourse of counter-disinformation and civilian mobilization constitutes a veritable apparatus of GWOT-style population management that undermines the political via a hegemonic consensus, ultimately playing a decisively anti-democratic role even in the midst of ostensibly democratic electoral politics with elevated levels of voter engagement and turnout such as seen in Taiwan.