Why fake news is having a major influence on Taiwan’s election

As the day to cast ballots approaches, the malign influence of fake news on Taiwanese voters may critically impact the upcoming election



KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- "The President of France has been assassinated," screamed out a LINE notification on my cell phone earlier this week. I was shocked and fumbled with my pin code to find out more.

What I found, posted by a family member who shall remain nameless, was a link to a YouTube video clip.

The clip explained how the USA and its allies in the world were now hugely unpopular and a bad influence. This, so the clip said, was why the French President had been killed. But it then warned that the USA was still a major global power and the only country that could stop their malign and unpopular influence was… China.

The message behind the clip was clear. China was a force for good in the world and if Taiwan wanted to have any sort of influence in this new sino-centric world order then it needed to move closer to China. Of course, the only way to do that is to vote KMT in this election.

That last bit went unsaid, but even the most politically unsophisticated individual could read between the lines.

That is the whole point of clips like these. They are not aimed at informed individuals who have a grasp of global politics and current affairs. They are aimed at those who have little concept of the world outside their own bubble. This demographic will not look at such a video with a critical eye. They will either accept it or not.

And more often than not these days, people seem to be blindly accepting such sources as fact.

A family debate ensued online after the clip was sent around. I provided links to reputable news sources from the U.K., U.S., and elsewhere showing that what had actually happened was that six far-right individuals had been arrested in France over a "violent plot" targeting French President Emmanuel Macron.

The perpetrators were never remotely close to carrying out an attack, much less actually succeeding in assassinating the president. Indeed, a source close to the police investigation has described the plot as "vague and ill-defined." But this hasn’t stopped the Chinese YouTube Channel in question from twisting the facts to fit its own agenda.

A person might think that falsely claiming a major world leader had been assassinated would be a pointless exercise. After all, such a major story would be the top headline around the world and it would only take a brief glance at any other news source to confirm that it was not true.

But in this age of social media and instant messaging, many people seem to have lost any ability to critically assess information. My family member in this instance had not even considered for a moment that the story might not be true.

They saw no reason to question the validity of the story and their sole focus was on sharing it with as many people as they could as fast as possible. But most worrying of all, they weren’t even that bothered when it was proved to be fake news. "The point it makes still stands" was the gist of their annoyed response.

This is far from the only example of information which was demonstrably false which has been circulating during this campaign. For example, reports of increased Chinese military activity, supported by old footage have been circulated to stoke fears of a possible invasion.

In the aftermath of the recent typhoon in Japan, which caused Kansai Airport in Osaka to be closed, there were also numerous of false reports of Taiwanese citizens being denied help from Taiwan’s government representatives but being supported by the Chinese representatives instead. There will no doubt be many more such fictitious tales making the rounds in the weeks ahead.

Why fake news works

The big question is, why are people to ready to accept fake news and to spread it among their peers? There are a couple of important reasons for this.

In this social media age, there is certainly a sense of satisfaction to be earned by being the first person in your circle to know about and share a relevant piece of information. This means getting there first is more important than sharing accurate information and disincentivizes people from thinking critically about what they read online.

But more importantly, the clip fit perfectly into this family member’s political views at the moment. As a retired public servant, they are deeply unhappy with Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP government for cutting their pensions.

This has caused them to lurch towards the KMT so violently that they will embrace anything that might help get the DPP out of office. Pro-China is pro-KMT, so of course, the pro-China narrative is right up their street.

Much of the fake news which has been swirling around Taiwan during this campaign is focused on doing exactly this. It is not trying to persuade people to switch political allegiances, it is trying to reinforce people’s existing beliefs and suspicions and whip them up into a frenzy to try and get as many of them to the ballot boxes as possible.

My family member is currently enraptured by the bluster and rhetoric of the KMT Mayoral candidate in Kaoshiung, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). His Trumpian approach to campaigning, in which he says what people want to hear, regardless of whether it is achievable, or even within the remit of the Mayor of Kaohsiung has won him legions of fans among Kaohsiung’s mature residents, many of whom are retired public sector workers.

Some, but not all, younger people can see through his web of hollow promises, but many are completely taken in by them. It is for this reason that Han remains ahead in the polls in Kaohsiung and may become the first KMT Mayor of the city in twenty years. But he needs the elderly voters to get out and vote. By using fake news to stoke existing views and prejudices, the KMT has a better chance of achieving that.

Han Kuo-yu on the campaign trail (CNA Image)

A campaign devoid of policy or questioning

Han’s success during this campaign is further evidence of an issue that is intrinsically linked to the fake news problem. It seems these days that politicians can stand up and basically promise anything they like. And people will blindly accept what they say without question. No-one in Kaohsiung is asking Han questions about the details behind any of his ridiculous proposals.

He has promised a start-up fund for young people to create new small businesses in the city. But no-one has asked where the money will come from for this, how it will operate in practice, who will be eligible for funding, or any other basic questions.

Han has also said he wants to search for oil off Taiping Island in the South China Seas. But no-one seems to have asked him how such a policy could possibly fall under the remit of the Mayor of Kaohsiung.

Why can’t Taiwanese people think critically?

The inability to critically assess information is a major problem in Taiwan right now. It is not that Taiwanese people are gullible or stupid, it is just that they are not taught to question authority. And in a democracy, questioning authority is vital.

There are a number of root causes for the problem. The education system in Taiwan is still geared towards training people to retain information and regurgitate it in exams. There is no focus whatsoever on teaching how to analyze and interpret information.

The mainstream media in Taiwan is a dumbed-down mess, with the vast majority of airtime dedicated to viral YouTube clips, dashcam footage of the latest RTA’s, and celebrity gossip. Ludicrous as it may sound, it is quite plausible that, had the French President actually been assassinated, it would not get coverage on TV news in Taiwan. If it did, it is highly unlikely it would be the lead story.

But politicians are just as guilty. This entire campaign seems to have focused on trying to smear opponents and score petty political points. There has been an almost complete absence of genuine policy proposals; policies that have been thought through, planned, and costed.

Instead, candidates are pledging to spend money on just about anything if they think it will convince people to vote for them. But their opponents are just as much to blame, because rather than ask searching questions about these proposals, the response tends to be trying to suggest something even more outlandish.

Political parties and candidates of all colors are guilty of this and it is something which does a huge disservice to Taiwan’s democracy and the Taiwanese people.

It also plays perfectly into the hands of those in China who would seek to undermine and influence the democratic process here. All of these factors have played a role in creating a climate where fake news can thrive. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to anyone that it has played such a fundamental part in this election.

What can be done about it? In this election, it is almost too late to tackle the issue now. Most people have already made up their minds how they will vote and it is only after polling day that we will be able to assess the full impact that fake news has had on the electoral process.

But if the problem is to be avoided in future elections, then there is much that needs to be done. Taiwanese people need to learn to critically assess the information they see online rather than blindly accept it.

Politicians need to start to behave more professionally and focus on policy rather than point-scoring and personalities. The education system in Taiwan needs fundamental reforms to ensure that future generations are equipped with the ability to think critically.

But perhaps most importantly, the malign influence of China in the Taiwanese media needs to be stopped. Chinese ownership of Taiwanese media outlets should be outlawed.

Taiwanese news channels should be obliged to report the truth about the human rights abuses and political actions of the Chinese Communist Party. And Taiwanese people should have a mainstream media that provides them with factual, non-partisan, international news, so they don’t have to rely on the fake news sent to them on social media for their information.

(Image by pexels user rawpixel)