Agricultural misinformation is being disseminated nationwide through newspaper and TV reports, as well as messaging apps, while efforts to clarify rumors might not reach even one-10th of its intended audience, Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Chi-chung (陳吉仲) said, as the council steps up measures to combat rumors.
Misinformation in the agriculture sector has surged drastically, especially before elections, Chen said in a telephone interview with the Taipei Times on March 15, as he was traveling to southern Taiwan to meet with farmers.
In the week before the legislative by-elections on March 16, the council held news conferences or issued statements almost daily to deny false reports, he said.
Photo: Yang Chin-cheng, Taipei Times
At the time, Chinese-language media were focused on a CtiTV report on March 8 in which a farmer claimed that last year, he dumped almost 2 million tonnes of pomeloes into the Zengwen Reservoir (曾文水庫) as prices plunged.
The council said it would take legal action against the network if it did not correct its report within 20 days.
The farmer later said that he had exaggerated the volume of pomeloes that he had dumped.
In June last year, a photograph showing a truck dumping bananas by a roadside in Kaohsiung went viral as rumors swirled that prices had plummeted to NT$1 per kilogram.
The photograph was later found to have been taken by the Public Television Service in 2007.
These cases highlighted the problem of a recurring imbalance in fruit supply and demand, which has become a hotbed for rumors.
Some farmers did dump a certain amount of pomeloes last year, but not as much as 2 million tonnes or even jin (600g), said Lin Lai-fa (林來發), a fruit wholesaler based in New Taipei City’s Sanchong District (三重).
Banana prices rose as high as NT$100 (US$3.24) per kilogram after crops were damaged in a typhoon in 2016, which encouraged many farmers to grow the fruit and adversely affected prices in the following years, he said.
The council should improve its grasp on agricultural production nationwide and dissuade farmers from growing the same crop, when necessary, Lin said.
Lin said he supports government efforts to correct false information, but added that countermeasures should not be used to suppress political rivals.
Earlier this month, the council sued Yunlin-based farmer Lin Chia-hsin (林佳新) based on three articles of the Criminal Code, saying he had slandered the council and affected trade with his allegations that the council had sold rice in public stock to China at unreasonably low prices.
If convicted, the farmer could face a prison term of six months to three years or a fine of up to NT$300,000.
The council has proposed amendments to the Agricultural Products Market Transaction Act (農產品市場交易法) and the Food Administration Act (糧食管理法) that would impose a fine of between NT$60,000 and NT$300,000 for spreading rumors.
The proposals are one of the priority bills this legislative session.
Asked why the council has proposed the additional penalties, Chen said that there are different ways of spreading misinformation and not every offense falls under the purview of the Criminal Code.
Chen said that he visits farmers in different regions every week to ensure that they receive correct policy information and are able to voice their opinions directly.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Tseng Ming-chung (曾銘宗) earlier this month accused the council of raising a “cyberarmy” to attack dissidents after it called for bids for a NT$14.5 million project to recruit social media editors this year.
KMT Legislator Arthur Chen (陳宜民) said that the council has been opening bids for similar projects since 2017, but it has refused to report on them as requested.
He asked the Control Yuan to investigate the council’s spending.
The council said that the editors are hired to produce easy-to-understand infographics and videos to counter misinformation, and they do not operate anonymously as claimed.
The council added that it would cooperate with any investigation.
Mass media quality and the public’s media literacy are factors affecting the spread of fake news, academics said.
Some media outlets spread fake news to rally support for certain politicians, but readers or viewers can see through them when a rumor is overly exaggerated, National Taiwan University agricultural economics professor Woo Rhung-jieh (吳榮杰) said, referring to the report about dumped pomeloes.
Apart from the government, farmers’ associations and academics should help deliver correct information, and the public should sharpen their ability to distinguish facts from rumors, Woo said.
The increasing spread of misinformation is a national crisis that requires a response from high-level government agencies, such as national security agencies and the National Communications Commission, Woo added.
Tu Wen-ling (杜文苓), a public administration professor at National Chengchi University, said that the nation lacks objective platforms for discussing public issues, which shows that the “software” of Taiwan’s democracy is inadequate.
While Public Television Service offers more quality programming, its resources are limited and it is difficult for it to rival commercial media outlets that are often politically biased or backed by Chinese funding, she said.
People should act like citizens capable of deliberating public issues, not just as consumers of information, so as to avoid absorbing misinformation and living in a social media bubble in which users tend to endorse like-minded ideas, Tu said.
To protect the nation’s agriculture sector, officials should not simply trumpet sales figures while turning a blind eye to other problems, such as illegal factories built on farmland, she said.
Asked if she thinks the nation’s agriculture sector has become increasingly politicized, Tu said agriculture is never non-political, as it concerns distribution of resources in a local or global context, with cross-strait ties being another complicating factor.
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference member Zhang Zexi (張澤熙) on March 11 said China should make Taiwan’s central and southern regions the focus of cross-strait exchanges by targeting associations of farmers, elderly people and women.
He suggested that Beijing plot cross-strait interaction in a more refined and precise manner, so that Taiwanese would have a deeper sense of belonging to China.
Zhang’s remarks could resonate with some officials in Taiwan, especially those from the KMT, who are trying to secure export orders for farmers.
Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), for one, on Friday last week embarked on a week-long trip to Hong Kong, Macau and China to promote the city’s agricultural products.
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