Imagine in the not so distant future (say within the next 10 years) that an outspoken “populist” and political outsider is running for election in Taiwan with the backing of China. He repeatedly slams the Taiwanese political establishment for throwing average Taiwanese workers under the bus, accuses it of brazen political corruption (without providing any actual evidence), accuses foreign workers and residents of being criminals and a drain on the economy (they get free health care!), and arrogantly insists that he is the only one who can fix Taiwan’s problems.
Although his candidacy is viewed as a long shot, an absurd joke, he’s candidacy also draws millions of viewers for its entertainment value. The media can’t resist giving him free publicity and non-stop coverage because he drives ratings and ad revenues to new highs. It’s widely believed that eventually the candidate will disappear and be forgotten, so there’s no harm in the media milking it. Except that a network of Chinese bots on social media is working overtime to game the social media algorithms and make any topic on this candidate continue to trend thus keeping him in the spotlight.
As the campaign enters full swing, every time a Taiwanese person looks at their social media feed or turns on the news they will see stories on this candidate at the top. The top comments on any online news article about him invariably idolize him or demonize his opponents, systematically upvoted by a network of Chinese trolls. And although most Taiwanese people still insist that this candidate is a big joke, any criticism draws condemnation from a legion of online supporters including thousands of Chinese bots and trolls.
Election day is approaching, a sizeable minority of Taiwanese are die hard supporters of the candidate, but most still think he has no real chance. Many point out the candidate’s dubious background including questionable loans from high ranking members of the Chinese Community Party. Some point out that as a real estate tycoon he has no real political experience. Others explain how his election would only serve to delegitimize Taiwan, weaken the economy, and make unification with China all but inevitable. All are drowned out by an army of media voices perpetuating narratives planted by Chinese trolls. Those promoting dissenting views of the candidate face ad hominem attacks, accusations of corruption and disloyalty to Taiwan, often communicated through the language of memes and disseminated by a network of Chinese trolls.
It’s election day. A slight majority still believe the candidate has no real chance. Polls show him behind by 3%. Many are so confident he will lose that they decide not to bother with voting or, citing accusations by Chinese bots on social media of his opponent’s corrupt, instead choose to vote third party.
The results come in, and in an astonishing upset the candidate wins by 10,000 votes. Most Taiwanese are shocked, angered, terrified. In the following years the politicians and the media struggle to make sense of the outcome. The newly elected president flies to Beijing in his first months in office and receives a warm welcome, a state dinner with top party officials in the Forbidden City. In the coming year the new president heaps praise upon the Chinese Community Party leadership, drives wedges between Japan, the US, and Korea, blames Taiwan for the sour relationship with China, overturns trade deals, spurns the WTO, abandons Taiwan’s application to join ASEAN, floats the idea of joining China’s One Belt, One Road initiative as much better, scapegoats foreign workers and residents as criminals and an economic drain on the island.
Despite widespread criticism and the lowest approval of any president in Taiwan’s history, accusations of abandoning Taiwan’s autonomy and lowering the country’s international reputation, his supporters with the backing of Chinese bots continue to attack any dissenters as corrupt, unpatriotic, sore losers who just want to overturn the outcome of a legitimate election. When his campaign manager and attorney are arrested for laundering millions of dollars from China, his supporters insist that everyone does it, it’s a witch hunt, a smear campaign…
…How would you feel?