After the US presidential election in 2000, well-known academic Douglas Kellner published the book Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, which examines how the election used image politics to sell then-US president George W. Bush as “Mr Personality” — rough language, frequent slips of the tongue, anti-intellectualism — and shaping him in the image of “the common man,” but deliberately ignoring a controversial family business, his questionable record as governor and his personality defects, making possible the “grand election theft,” both stealing the election and creating a historical media spectacle.
At the time, Kellner pinned his hopes on the new medium of the Internet, hoping that online media would save democracy and stop the one-sided, conservative, traditional-media spectacle.
Eighteen years later it is time to consider Saturday’s nine-in-one elections, and perhaps look back at the 2016 US presidential election or the Brexit referendum: Have the new Internet media really promoted progress and corrected the distortive media spectacle?
Regrettably, the answer is quite the opposite. Online media have failed to reverse the democratic crisis brought about by traditional media, and instead the growing number of Internet users and the low cost of spreading fake news, creating fake accounts and manipulating public opinion has made it easier than ever to steal an election and maximize the extreme populism of election campaigns. This has created an even more dangerous democratic crisis.
In campaigning leading up to Saturday’s vote, the images of the main candidates in traditional and new media are vague and there has been a lack of policy discussion. The only topic seems to be “the volume on the Internet.”
One candidate has hidden his clear past authoritarian political views and promoted himself as a newcomer to politics. He has used vulgar language — references to “spending the night together,” “Ferris wheel motels,” “castrations,” “syphilis.” This, along with large numbers of views and messages by anonymous Internet users, has put the spotlight on him and turned up the “Internet volume” to create the impression in new and old media of all political affiliations that he holds a huge lead over his opponent.
Many media outlets hold reporters responsible for the number of clicks their stories get, which means journalists report widely on this candidate — regardless of whether the news is true or fake — to achieve the ultimate goal of increasing clicks.
Of course, people have all along been aware of the political stance of the parent media — newspapers or TV channels — behind these online media outlets, which have made no attempt to hide their position.
Now those parent outlets take advantage of the diffusion of platforms, such as online newsletters, social media and Web portals, to bolster their power to distort online opinion and the volume on the Internet. This could lead to a grand election theft of the Internet era.
There have been reports that foreign forces are interfering with the elections, focusing on working through two specific print media and one TV station, large-scale Internet and social media intervention and false polls to influence public opinion.
According to the reports, the authorities are investigating the situation.
This is a new type of information warfare that concerns national security. Any concrete progress made by the investigation should be made public before the elections to ensure voters’ right to information.
What should voters do to prevent their precious vote from being stolen by public opinion manipulation?
Facebook on Oct. 22 ran an advertisement that outlined 10 tips on how to identify fake news. Many of the tips can be applied to identify candidates who have been bolstered by false public opinion, helping to avoid election theft.
For example, it said to “verify the evidence” by examining whether a candidate has been consistent in their opinions throughout their political career. The tip to “verify news sources” advises people to pay special attention to pictures and videos with no clear source of information, as they might be misused.
People must pay particular attention to any follow-up clarification by those who have been misrepresented, because media outlets producing false reports often do not bother to provide such clarification.
As to the tip that “some people might deliberately create false reports” — this is difficult for voters to verify, due to a lack of resources to check every report, but they must be alert to reports or headlines that obviously contradict common sense.
For example, due to her criticism of a candidate, one legislator’s Facebook page was flooded by hundreds of thousands of posts overnight. This surpasses even the influence of a speech given by a US president. Applying common sense is helpful when assessing the truth of such a post.
Many messages posted under online news reports are also fake — their purpose is to sway public opinion, so people with different opinions do not dare express their own.
It is tiring to listen to the news as a voter — even when watching election news, people have to apply all sorts of techniques to determine whether the news is true or fake.
However, voters do not want a “grand election theft” in Taiwan, so let us cherish our precious vote, starting by saying no to fake election news online.
Wang Tai-li is a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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