Liberty Times (LT): How severely does “fake news” affect Taiwan and other nations?
Wang Tai-li (王泰俐): Fake news has affected the election outcomes of many democratic countries, for example, the nine-in-one local elections in Taiwan, the midterm elections in the US and the general elections in Sweden and Brazil.
I have been conducting research on fake news regarding Taiwan’s elections since last year and have proven that centrists and those considered “light green,” or moderate pan-green supporters, were affected by fake news.
These two groups are less able to judge what news is false and could easily vote for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Other groups, such as young people, low-salaried workers, people who use Facebook or other social media a lot and females are prone to believing in fake news generated during election season.
This could be due to various reasons, including a distrust of politics, being uncertain of the future, hiding behind the “filter bubble” effect or being politically apathetic.
LT: What do you think are the causes of fake news and disinformation? How do you expect fake news and disinformation to develop?
Wang: A paper in Science was devoted to fake news. In the article, the researcher concluded after analyzing thousands of pieces of information that novel news arouses the greatest amount of curiosity in an audience, which leads to higher click rates on the Internet.
However, this characteristic has been abused by individuals or states that are aware of it. By using the openness of the Internet, they create fake political news en masse in an effort to influence public rhetoric, thereby achieving certain political goals.
With regards to Taiwan, some media agencies are citing unverified or greatly biased information directly from the Internet in their reports. This is seen as one of the greatest sources of false news.
However, the matter of fake news has become a highly politicized issue and is said to be an excuse used by the ruling party to oppress freedom of speech, or to silence all criticism.
This is due in part to inflammatory comments by politicians and biased reporting from agencies.
LT: How should governments deal with fake news while maintaining a respect for free speech and the rule of law?
Wang: Every nation that deals with fake news has to ask whether using an outside authority or legislation would infringe on freedom of speech. Yet, where national security and cybersecurity are concerned, the public broadly supports the government taking legal action against fake news.
There are many Americans who are opposed to [US President Donald] Trump, but they do not oppose his policy to counter foreign influence campaigns that aim to spread propaganda and disinformation.
I support our nation legislating against fake news that concerns national security or cybersecurity. Unlike other democratic nations, part of the Taiwanese media has been infiltrated by “red capital.” This issue was covered in two reports by the Japan’s NHK and once in a documentary on al-Jazeera, as well as in the New York Times, the Washington Post the UK’s Financial Times and BBC. The internationally renowned academic He Qinglian (何清漣) wrote a book, Red Infiltration: the Truth About the Global Expansion of Chinese Media. These provide sufficient proof [of China’s media infiltration].
LT: The National Communications Commission (NCC) repeatedly touts the principle of self-regulation in the media. Is it effective?
Wang: A 2017 EU report said: “Self-regulating mechanisms’ effectiveness on Internet-based platforms is unproven, while the degree of media outlets’ willingness to be bound by these measures is also unproven.”
In Taiwan, there is the example of a certain television channel that was recently fined by the NCC for airing unprofessional news programs that contravened the law. The channel did not conduct any self-reflection. That very day, the channel went on the offensive, airing news programs and talk shows attacking specific NCC members, while it continued to provide lopsided exposure to a certain politician. Surely self-regulation is not working for that channel.
I agree with a statement that former NCC chairwoman Nicole Chan (詹婷怡) made shortly before her resignation: “The Taiwanese media’s ability to regulate itself has completely failed. I myself have been on multiple TV channels’ journalistic self-regulatory committees. The majority of committee members were rubber stamps... Having an outside regulatory body is the best choice among bad solutions, and at least is better than doing nothing.”
LT: Does recommending good news outlets, reporting fake news accounts or making fact-checking mandatory prove useful in countering fake news?
Wang: The US, the UK, Germany, France and even Russia are dedicating a lot of manpower and resources to use big data to understand how foreign-based influence operations can manipulate social media platforms.
Last year, the government proposed amendments to the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (災害防救法), which includes articles that forbid spreading fake news, but the bill is still being reviewed at the Legislative Yuan.
Facebook has been amendable to the US Congress’ demands. It is in the process of unveiling recommended news tabs that promote trusted news sources while weeding out fake ones.
There are 18 million Facebook users in Taiwan and the company’s Taiwan office should assist in the nation’s defense of its democracy and the fight against fake news.
LT: The NCC’s methods of regulating fake news have generated quite a bit of controversy and led to the resignation of its chairwoman. Can you share how other nations have regulated fake news?
Wang: France late last year passed a law to combat fake news on social media and empower judges to remove information that would affect public peace from social media platforms. The platform must unveil the actual identity of individuals placing advertisements and how much they have paid.
The law also states that, should a broadcasting organization attempt to influence an election and is suspected to be under the influence of external forces, competent authorities in France are empowered to revoke operational licenses or remove the program at fault.
Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act in 2017, mandating that social media must remove “news that is obviously fake” within 24 hours of being notified by the authorities, or face a fine between 5 million and 50 million euros (US$5.7 million and US$56.6 million at the current exchange rate).
Fake news in Taiwan is rampant. One of the main reasons is because some netizens do not believe that there is fake news. Another reason is due to the political standoff between the major parties, preventing the passage of legislation such as the draft digital communications and broadcasting act and the anti-media monopoly act.
With the presidential election coming up, more fake news can be expected.
I hope there is more research done, preferably on a greater scale, regarding fake news. National and information security agencies could perhaps pitch in to unveil the true reasons that foreign powers are waging a disinformation war against Taiwan.
Translated by staff writers Jake Chung and Jonathan Chin
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