What you need to know
China and Taiwan offer different models for tackling the worldwide problem of fake news, top-down or bottom-up. Take your pick...
Having worked on an independence-leaning newspaper in Taiwan and a state-run daily in China, I found both were partly propaganda tools and content to bend facts to purpose. At one I couldn’t print cute pictures of pandas, at the other I wasn’t allowed to talk about the country’s leaders.
Though most of the job was getting facts straight and reporting the same news as everyone else, there was editorialization and bias, peddling political influence and cohabiting with big business through advertising. Fake news wasn’t so much of an issue.
Essentially, these papers agreed what the news was, or wasn’t, and put their own slant on it. Faced with a rapidly changing internet-based media environment they were slow to shift from cutting down trees and shoving papers through doors to going online. More recently, they have been left bemused by the rise of search engines and social media.
Google, Facebook, Reddit, Baidu and WeChat are among the new media giants. Traditional TV still has a role to play, but even this is diminishing as millennials, in particular, switch to on-demand video services. In this fractured environment, the old media’s voice is no louder than anyone else’s, but is quick to claim the competition pumps out fake news. Pot, kettle, black.
Though fake news came to prominence as a result of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidential throne, essentially it is nothing new. It’s just a bigly fib. The word “fake” derives from the late 18th century, but started trending from the 1980s onward when branded goods were counterfeited. From 2010 the word became associated with news and since then more than 100 fact checking organizations have sprouted up, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. After Brexit there was a lot of talk about the “post-fact” or “post-truth” era.
It’s a worldwide phenomenon, but in the Chinese-speaking sphere the attitudes of Taiwan and China to fake news are instructive. While Taiwan seeks a democratic solution targeting “erroneous news;” China’s velvet glove and iron hand approach is top-down – a "reward and punish" system that jails offenders, as suggested by Ren Xianling (任賢良), vice minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China, at an internet conference in Wuzhen, China, late last year.
I would say China had to deal with the problem of fake stories earlier than the West, possibly because of the centralized nature of its publications industry and the sudden explosion of people reaching out through new media. Of the many fake stories that went viral during my China tour between 2007 and 2014, there was the one about a girl impregnated in a surging crush of people at the Shanghai World Expo, and a zoo that passed off a Tibetan mastiff as a lion.
Contrary to expectations fed by media distortions, ignorance, or both, China is hyper-networked and the online community is full of contradictory opinions. In response, the government developed a sophisticated system of controls, including an estimated 2-million strong army of human web crawlers, who flag fake news and post affirmative opinions about the government. They are known as “50 Centers” because this is how much they are said to be paid for each post. This state-sponsored approach is called “networked authoritarianism,” by the co-founder of citizen media network Global Voices Online, Rebecca MacKinnon.
The government has put in place keyword filters. It bans users who spread information that is false, harmful or is just an inconvenient truth. When there is controversial news, the authorities direct social media organizations on how the events should be framed and prevent discussion about certain issues. Official papers are no longer allowed to quote unattributable social media sources.
Now that Facebook and other social media platforms in the West are facing internal and government control, many Chinese are experiencing a sense of schadenfreude, laughing at the West’s discomfort. For example, Sina Tech recently led a story with, “Facebook launches rumor-busting censorship system,” adding that it was “four full years behind Weibo” – the domestic microblogging service similar to Twitter.
Taiwan’s media environment is best described as chaotic. Fact and fiction often share the same page, scooter crashes and partisan politics are popular on TV reports. No wonder then that the social media environment is also a fertile breeding ground for fake news, oftentimes feeding the traditional news cycle. Notable fake stories are radiation tainted food from Fukushima, propagated by anti-nuclear activists; Chinese aircraft buzzing Taiwan during the election; the president cussing out her advisors over Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲); TVBS producing fake news items to discredit the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) says fake news “is a serious problem affecting not only Taiwan but other countries too.” She has promised to crack down on fake stories allegedly planted by Chinese hackers on Facebook, Line and social media generally. Recently, she sent the vice president on a media tour to tackle false rumors that soldiers would shoot people protesting about pension reform. It is unlikely that she will go down the China route and restrict online discourse, as Taiwan prides itself on being a beacon of free speech. Such an approach would be fiercely resisted.
Instead, the civic tech community “gOv” has stepped into the breach. This motley group of social media experts came to prominence during the Sunflower Movement protests of 2014 and intends to “make the government work for the people.” It has created a fake news warning plug-in called “News Helper,” and a bot that helps Line users determine whether or not story is true or false. The aim here is education rather than the lash. Time will tell whether it is China’s or Taiwan’s approach that will win the day.
Finally, however, the onus is on the individual to sift information from the noise and choose what to read. After Brexit, Britain’s Daily Mail was dubbed a fake news provider by Wikipedia. The paper will stay popular among confirmed nationalists, but it has lost credibility outside this bubble. Such a turn of events has a certain irony because in the old days, editors used to say reporters could not rely on Wikipedia as a source. In so many ways, it’s the other way round today and the hive mind of millions, plus volunteer editors, is arguably a better model and more trusted than “professional” news gatherers.
Given the transformation of technology and democratization of the media, there are more voices competing for attention and they won’t go away. Fake news is not new, but memories are short. We could never really rely on the media to relay the unvarnished truth and certainly can’t rely on Facebook. Instead, we should welcome diversity and merely seek the truth rather than imagine we had arrived at it. As consumers we have choice and get the media we deserve.
Editor: Edward White