National Taiwan University
Disinformation (or ‘fake news’) has spread across the Taiwan Strait from China over the last year. And Taiwan’s own competitive news media, heavily influenced by social media, have helped it spread.
In the past year, Taiwanese media have extensively covered stories about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China sending aircraft and ships to patrol Taiwan. These stories were sparked by social media accounts run by the Chinese military, which released pictures and videos about the PLA operation that were widely shared within Taiwan. Before long, seven 24-hour news channels were delivering breaking news about the Chinese operations every hour, using the photos and videos made by the PLA — but without having verified whether or not they were true. According to a later strategic analysis, the PLA has been trying to manipulate Taiwan public opinion by using official and unofficial channels to spread fake news, even though it is unlikely to wage a real war against Taiwan.1
As shown in our survey, about three-quarters of Taiwanese use social media for any purpose (primarily Facebook and Line) and more than half (56％) use them for news. However, here as elsewhere, social media platforms shoulder few, if any, social responsibilities.
Since deregulation in the 1990s, Taiwanese media has been very competitive, with the aforementioned seven 24-hour news cable channels, plus five terrestrial television stations, four newspaper groups, as well as emerging digital-born news operations. To survive in the digital market, many have relied increasingly on sensationalist content, and have adopted stories from social media with little regard for facts or trust.
Popular news websites dramatised the PLA’s military operations. For example, Apple Daily presented the operations as a hyper-real film, creating animations and composite photos in which the leaders of Taiwan and China confronted each other. This approach helped Apple Daily online attract a large number of page views, but despite this, its parent group has been struggling to drive revenue and had to cut staff in July 2017. As elsewhere, most digital advertising revenue in Taiwan goes to Facebook and Google and few sites charge readers for news.
The public broadcaster, PTS, is the most trusted news brand according to our survey, though is used by relatively few people (15% via TV and 10% online). Since it is subsidised by the state, it is under less commercial pressure and largely abides by professional values, including verifying photographs published by the PLA. Commercial operators, by contrast, like TVBS (50% offline, 26% online) and Apple Daily (38%/31%) are more popular but less trusted. Some commercial print media are polarised, with the China Times, for example, adopting a pro-China editorial policy as the influence of powerful Taiwanese tycoons with business interests in China grows.
To tackle Taiwan’s media problems, low trust in commercial news companies, and the weakness of public media, several actions have been taken. The first has been to establish fact-checking mechanisms. Some politicians considered fake news to be a danger to national security and proposed legislation, though this was abandoned because of widespread concern over curbing press freedom. Instead, the government set up a ‘rumour rebuttal’ service which runs on its agencies’ websites. Non-governmental organisations have also set up fact-checking projects, and an independent third-party verification mechanism was set up in April 2018.
The second action is to strengthen public media, something campaigners have long called for. The culture minister has promised greater support for public media, and for its part, PTS is running an ‘omnipresence’ project to distribute its content in more places. It has even been suggested that as a tactic to counter the negative effects of social media on journalism — loss of ad revenues, imposition of censorship, selling of users’ data to advertisers and political parties — PTS should develop into a ‘public information platform’ of its own, as an alternative to existing unaccountable social media.
Independent media are an important part of the media scene in Taiwan with digital-born sites like Storm Media (19%) and New Talk (10%), founded by well regarded journalists, attracting dedicated audiences online. The Reporter (3%) is a non-profit news organisation, dedicated to investigative journalism.
More and more Taiwanese (from 65% to 75%) say they use smartphones for news in the last week. By contrast, the use of traditional media has gradually declined.
Flooded with misinformation in social media and via mainstream media, Taiwanese people have low trust in the news they use. Yet, more and more Taiwanese (from 15% to 18%) are willing to pay for the news they read, supporting an emerging independent news sector.
- For the discussions of PLA’s warfare against Taiwan, please see Ying Yu Lin, ‘China’s Hybrid Warfare and Taiwan’, The Diplomat: Know the Asia-Pacific, 13 Jan. 2018: https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/chinas-hybrid-warfare-and-taiwan; J. J. Kung, ‘Invisible Black Hands: Pan Blue Groups are Attacked by Contents from China’, Business Today, 27 Mar. 2018. ↩