Mon, Mar 31, 2014 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Education or manipulation?

Almost two weeks after student activists occupied the Legislative Yuan, some people who previously had shown little interest in the cross-strait service trade agreement are now trying to find out what it is all about. Some have even asked if a supervision mechanism for cross-strait agreements should be instituted. Since the issue is complicated, a variety of simplified “service trade agreements for dummies,” dubbed “lazybone’s packs” (懶人包), have been devised and distributed via the Internet.

The purpose of such information tools, compiled by experts, netizens and others by different government agencies, is to explain a complex issue in a simple and easily understood way, so that people of all ages and from all walks of life can grasp the service trade pact which Taiwan and China signed in June last year during the ninth round of cross-strait talks in Shanghai.

For instance, a series of video clips and documents created by National Taiwan University economics department chairwoman Jang Show-ling (鄭秀玲) is a quick guide to the trade agreement and has enlightened many students, while the Ministry of Economic Affairs has introduced its own version, “service-trade-agreement 101,” claiming this can tell people everything they need to know about the deal in only five minutes.

Probably more efficient is central bank Governor Perng Fai-nan’s (彭淮南) seven-point convenience pack, which purportedly takes less than a minute to inform the reader why this trade deal with China is crucial.

However, a netizen has just uploaded several videos of legislative hearings concerning the pact, as well as a detailed elaboration of the agreement’s clauses and its appendix. Watching a couple of hours of this makes one realize that the devil is in the detail.

Both the supporters and critics of the agreement have made good points. However, such information packs may be true or false, helpful or misleading, depending on the perspective or motive for their distribution. For example, for reasons of convenience, many people will likely refer only to YouTube videos or PowerPoint files and not make further efforts to learn more about the pact. This does not allow them to calculate the costs and benefits to the nation, or whether there are policy alternatives.

Thus, guides for dummies can either educate or mislead, whether they are from netizens or the government. They provide basic information that helps the public better understand the outcomes and problems associated with the pact, but both advocates and opponents of the service trade agreement know all too well how to convey messages to their targeted audiences by carefully selecting facts to support their opinions.

It is understood that Taiwanese are regularly exposed to certain kinds of misinformation or biased information from the mass media, opinion leaders and the government on many issues. Insofar as the available information is false, misleading or biased, neither true democracy nor genuine public opinion are allowed their true voice. Therefore, the public needs to do its homework and make its own informed calculations on the merits or deficiencies of alternative policies.

Yet the emergence of so many information packs about the service trade agreement reflects the lapse in the government’s democratic response to the public and its disregard of the public’s right to know the details from the very start of the process. It also represents a growing number of people who are resistant to persuasion by government, corporations and other established interests, while economic inequality prevails and becomes increasingly serious.

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