The long-running PhD thesis controversy of Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen, sparked in June 2019 when Tsai submitted her thesis to the London School of Economics Library, 35 years late, was a hot-button issue in her 2020 re-election campaign. The tardy thesis entitled Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions was not only missing from the LSE Library shelves but the school she attended now says it does not know who her thesis examiners were. Tsai refuses to release the oral examination viva report keeping the controversy alive.
President Tsai survived unwanted media attention with a large electoral win, however the controversy hangs on in ROC and United Kingdom courtrooms with a criminal defamation prosecution and several Freedom of Information lawsuits. The thesis controversy and its influence, if any, on the 2020 election has been the subject of several academic papers and studies. One report, Deafening Whispers, by Doublethink Lab in Taiwan, touches on Tsai’s thesis using classic propaganda and disinformation tactics of changing the narrative and leaving out significant information. On the topic of Tsai’s thesis controversy the report would be better titled Deafening Silence.
To begin an analysis of the thesis controversy misinformation in the Doublethink report, a summary of relevant information is in order. Even more basic, what is Doublethink Lab?
Doublethink Lab is a think tank. The core activity seems to be a cadre of computer savy activists looking at internet data at the micro level and drawing conclusions on whether or not something is disinformation. Doublethink is well funded and well connected. Co-founded by Wu Min-hsuan and Puma Shen in 2019, the cyber-oriented think tank quickly moved into the political arena with its analytical talents and published a report on the 2020 election. Doublethink Lab describes itself as a “Taiwan based organization that operates at the intersection of the Internet, public discourse, civil society, and democratic governance.”
Wu Min Hsuan, also known as “Ttcat,” is CEO of Doublethink Lab, Wu’s LinkedIn bio lists him as a former paid political consultant in Taiwan. Puma Shen, Doublethink Lab Chairman, is an Assistant Professor at National Taipei University and Vice-President of the Taiwan Human Rights Association. Puma Sheen has been described as Taiwan’s leading disinformation expert.
The jargon filled election report is full of charts and graphs and nearly incomprehensible text. Anyone who followed the 2020 election in Taiwan knows that President Tsai’s thesis controversy had a brief but loud role in the campaign, yet Doublethink has changed the narrative leaving significant information out and reducing the only reference to the thesis controversy to a single sentence in the entire 130-page report. Okay, one sentence is at least a mention, now on to the report.
“We propose a model that brings together the different actors and modes of China’s information operations, using Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election as a case study. We find that although the whispers of individual agents of Chinese disinformation campaign may appear to have had little impact on incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen’s overwhelming victory, together the cacophony of whispers threatens to be deafening: sowing division in Taiwanese society, pushing groups into echo chambers, and attacking fundamental democratic values.”
“Saturated with disinformation, online propaganda, and radically divided opinion, attacks on Taiwan’s information space are growing on a daily basis and garnering global attention.”
“Awash in disinformation during both the 2020 general election and the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has been flagged as a testing ground for the PRC’s worldwide propaganda and information warfare.”
“We have developed a cross-platform database to keep track of 1,485 shared domains that can be grouped into 600 websites and filtered into 113 shared political content farms, which we used to reference 191 suspected Facebook Pages.”
“Facebook Taiwan has changed its algorithm to lower the ranking of disinformation sites in their search results in order to reduce the number of people who see these posts. Last October, Facebook filtered out all news feeds containing the domain names of the content farm Mission and other well-known content farms, including Kknews and Hssszn.”
Despite all of Doublethink’s work with Facebook data there is not a peep in the report about the election “war room” where Facebook representatives met with cyber warfare experts and ROC anti-infiltration agents while a purge of user accounts was planned. Content farms that outsource distribution for payments did get noted in the report.
“These profit-driven content farms were therefore still able to cause harm in the 2020 Taiwan general election by moving onto the YouTube platform in an attempt to discredit then-candidate Tsai Ing-wen.”
“Based on data Doublethink Lab collected from January 5, 2019 to January 31, 2020, we identified thirteen themes and fifteen narrative frames of disinformation.”
“Themes are the dominant subjects of discussion—what people were discussing, while narrative frames are the underlying assumptions brought to the discussions—how people were discussing or presenting their perspectives.”
“To further verify whether the content of disinformation would affect consumer belief, we conducted an exit interview on the day of 2020 Taiwan general election. To minimize the effect of respondents across different regions and their party preference, we selected 11 polling stations throughout the country, where the voting pattern for the two main parties were most similar to the 2016 Taiwan presidential election. We received a total number of 892 interviews from those 11 polling stations. In the interview, the research team selected four influential rumors related to China but along four different political affiliations.”
“Listed below are four political rumors circulated in the 2020 Taiwan general election. 1. Wang Liqiang is a pseudonym, therefore China’s announcement of criminal evidence pertaining to Wang Liqiang is self-contradictory. Political affiliation: anti-China 2. Tsai Ing-wen’s PhD thesis dissertation is fake and unqualified. Political affiliation: anti-DDP 3. Passing the same-sex marriage bill in Taiwan is a plot by pharmaceutical companies to profit off of AIDS. Political affiliation: against same-sex marriage. 4. Han Kuo-Yu is educated in China by the CCP’s United Front Works Department. Political affiliation: anti-KMT.”
“The first and second rumors were widely reported by the mass media (more than 50% of respondents have heard these two pieces of disinformation).”
That is it. Nothing more mentioning President Tsai’s thesis in the lengthy report. However, Puma and Wu know more than they told. A separate Doublethink paper on the polling place exit study gives a few more details on the thesis controversy and its impact on the election not found in Deafening Whispers.
“As many as 80 percent of respondents have received information claiming that President Tsai Ing-wen plagiarized her Ph.D. dissertation, with 60 percent of respondents claiming they’ve seen the information frequently. Only 20 percent of respondents said they believed the statement was credible. There appears to be a weak correlation among respondents who have received this information and those who believe it. Compared to the false statement about Wang Liqiang in question group 1, the emotion elicited by this question group was more positive (“sympathy” for Tsai, “ridiculous” or mild “surprise”). However, there was no significant correlation between the emotions elicited by it and the credibility of the statement.”
“For example, in question group 2, people who did not believe that Tsai Ing-wen’s Ph.D. thesis is fake often replied that the information was “ridiculous” or “disgusting.” The spectrum of emotions behind this could be “how ridiculous/disgusting that someone is still spreading this information!” There is no obvious distinction between positive and negative emotions. If we want to analyze further, we will need to obtain more detailed information through interviews or other means.”
Doublethink was chasing a moving target with 80 percent of respondents reporting plagiarism of the thesis as the purported misinformation whereas Doublethink’s loaded question posed the thesis as a fake. At the same time the thesis controversy on Facebook chat groups and later in United Kingdom courtrooms was focused on validity of the PhD degree and the identity of who approved the thesis. By linking domestic critics, scholars determined to learn the truth, and members of the general public with theories of plagiarism and forgery those seeking information become demonized, another propaganda trick well familiar to the Doublethink team.
Oh well, the cyber sleuths did try hard to write a good report and even disclosed one of their own investigative techniques. “Doublethink Lab researchers disguised themselves as clients and were invited into the messaging app Telegram where discussion in a group called Big Durian took place….”
The Doublethink conclusion was that the thesis controversy was no big deal because it had been widely reported in the media and whatever harm to President Tsai’s reputation had already been considered and rejected by voters.
A United States Department of State study conducted at Harvard University entitled Combatting and Defeating Chinese Propaganda and Disinformation suggests there was more to the story than told by Doublethink Lab in their election report.
“China’s role was in propagating and amplifying this false story. If any attack were to affect the elections, it would have been this one. The false story came about during the ruling DPP’s presidential primary election. Because Tsai was unable to find her LSE diploma, thesis, and transcript at the beginning to prove her degree, the story gained further traction. Furthermore, China’s cyber army flooded Taiwan’s social media space with this story. Even though the LSE later confirmed her doctorate in an official statement, this disinformation continued to be spread by both traditional and social media outlets.”
“Facebook found the war room effective, and Dr. Puma Shen, Taiwan’s top Chinese sharp power professor, stated that the war room was one of the key reasons why Chinese propaganda and disinformation did not have much effect on Taiwan’s elections this time. Shen explained that the war room was able to block a significant amount of foreign-produced fake news, making the information environment much better than that of the 2018 elections.”
So the question emerges, why was Puma Shen so silent in the Doublethink report, was it to soft-pedal the thesis controversy changing the narrative away from the controversy and the behind-the-scenes disinformation warfare of Facebook’s war room?
An academic paper funded by the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs entitled Media Warfare Taiwan’s Battle for the Cognitive Domain lists questions about President Tsai’s PhD degree as the first Chinese misinformation line of attack. The paper was authored by Professor Kerry K. Gershaneck and is an awkward fit with Doublethink’s no-big-deal approach to the thesis controversy.
“The PRC Media Warfare generally followed the following six primary lines of attack: questioning President Tsai’s doctoral degree, attempting to influence top Taiwanese media leaders at a Beijing conference, rehashing contentious domestic issues such as same-sex marriage legalization, smearing a former Chinese spy who exposed China’s covert influence operations, attacking the Taiwanese government’s bill against foreign interference, and creating doubts around Taiwan’s election integrity
Between Anti-Infiltration Act cyber teams in the ROC departments of government, Facebook censors ready to purge, and organizations like Doublethink Lab on the counter-offensive, Tsai Ing-wen’s PhD thesis controversy quickly quieted as a campaign issue.
A more recent thesis controversy purge on the ”What Do They Know” website has proven to not be as accurate as the disinformation experts would like the public to believe. MySociety purged the accounts because the London School of Economics and Political Science, where President Tsai attended school, suggested that Chinese operatives may be behind the Freedom of Information requests about the thesis. Six Taiwanese researchers have stepped forward identifying themselves as purged by MySociety, none of whom are from China and all motivated simply by a search for truth.
The mystery of President Tsai’s thesis has sparked a large number of Freedom of Information requests in the United Kingdom swamping the “What Do They Know” website. My Society spokesman Gareth Rees explained the purge of WDTK users.
“We have been made aware that there is the possibility that the LSE has been added to a list of targets to gain social credits in China. As such we believe that your request and the others we received in this time period have not been made for just the purpose of receiving information but for personal gain.”
“With this information in hand, we were confident to treat the issue as mass misuse, more akin to spam or even a disinformation attack than to people making misguided requests.”
“During the course of this situation, we have banned 108 user accounts, most of which have been created to circumnavigate previous bans and to post inappropriate material to our site. We removed more than 300 requests from the site and 1,640 comments from pages.”
The MySociety censorship team has not disclosed if they called upon their Tic-Tech advisor Wu Min Hsuan, the Doublethink Lab CEO, to vet the purged thesis researchers. However, the MySociety purge has all the earmarks of the 2020 election war room cyber warfare with its allegations of personal financial motives by Chinese disinformation agents. One hopes the 2020 Facebook purge was done more accurately than the more recent MySociety purge of legitimate Taiwanese researchers.
Meanwhile, despite the Doublethink silence helping to quiet the 2020 election media frenzy, Tsai Ing-wen’s 1983 PhD thesis continues to be controversial in the halls of justice.