The online fabricated story of a lunchbox shop owner refusing to serve a Filipino has caused the incident to be blamed for damaging Taiwan’s image in the international community.
The Internet is rife with false reports and unfounded rumors posted on social networking sites such as Facebook, and once these stories are posted, they can have an enduring effect.
As early as 2009, The Associated Press (AP) social media guidelines warned its employees not to spread rumors or to post unsubstantiated or unconfirmed reports online. These guidelines were updated in late April, after AP’s Twitter account was hacked and made to tweet a false report about an explosion at the White House in which US President Barack Obama had been injured.
The updated guidelines require AP employees to adopt more stringent standards when publishing articles on the Internet, saying: “Staffers should always refrain from spreading unconfirmed rumors online, regardless of whether other journalists or news outlets have shared the reports.”
They specifically say that “Sources discovered [on social networks] should be vetted in the same way as those found by any other means.”
Compare this with news media in Taiwan, and particularly the ever-powerful televised media, where one is hard-pressed to see any of the self-discipline set out in the AP guidelines, and as a result subjected to the broadcasting of rehashed hearsay and rumors originally spread online.
Today’s TV is full of news cobbled together from security cameras, onboard car cameras or the online rumor mill, while the traditional methods of sourcing stories through journalistic legwork and chasing stories firsthand are becoming a thing of the past and being replaced by specialist “people search engines.”
Now, a journalist has no need for legwork, everything is done on the computer: Stories can be created by harvesting online search results and content gleaned from any major online forum, as well as posts, pictures or videos uploaded on social networking sites. It is no wonder that renowned Taiwanese director Ang Lee (李安) is so despairing of TV journalism in Taiwan.
Traditional media found the fabricated, emotive lunchbox story — posted in a moment of madness — and broadcast it secondhand. Petrified that they would be caught as the only ones not to run the story, every media outlet jumped on the bandwagon, allowing the lunchbox affair to snowball into a behemoth through the sheer number of outlets reporting it.
It was only when people realized that the facts of the story did not add up that they thought to verify them. By then, of course, the damage to Taiwan’s international image had already been done and the traditional media — the aiders and abettors of the whole affair — have no right to comment.
Chan Yi-chin is an assistant professor at the Chung Chou University of Science and Technology.
Translated by Paul Cooper