KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — It might seem hard to believe right now given the hysteria around the COVID-19 outbreak and China’s efforts to prevent Taiwan’s government from buying the vaccines it needs to protect the Taiwanese people, but Taiwan is actually experiencing another pandemic that poses a bigger long-term risk.
The avalanche of fake news in the country has been a problem for some time, but during the recent COVID outbreak, it has really come to a head.
In Taiwan, much of the problem is on the ubiquitous social media platform LINE. Fake and misleading news is circulated in huge volumes in LINE groups, often targeting KMT supporters, elderly people angry about their pension cuts, and some who have previously shown little interest in politics and how their nation is governed.
A fake news epidemic
Such is the scale of this fake news that it is hard to describe it in general terms. But it tends to have been written in simplified Mandarin and be shared in private groups and between friends.
The target audience for these often ludicrous stories is a generation that grew up when Taiwan was a single-party state, long before digital communications technology entered the public sphere. Research shows that in general, senior citizens struggle more with assessing news critically and judging whether it is credible.
Instead, because it comes from friends and fits into their narrow echo chamber, many share it themselves, and so the problem continues.
There are a few official LINE groups which cooperate with the government to fact-check news, but these are outnumbered by the tsunami of false stories out there. It is a passive measure that barely scratches the surface of the problem.
LINE quite simply has to do more to tackle the issue of fake news on its platform. The question is — what?
Facebook has mechanisms to detect fake accounts as well as allow users to report fake news so it can be removed. Neither of these tools is perfect by any means, but at least it is something.
A real impact
Perhaps LINE should introduce something similar. Perhaps they could do more?
Perhaps the more tech-savvy readers of Taiwan News have some ideas about what steps Line can take. One thing is for sure: the time has come for something to be done.
The simple fact is that the fake news swirling around on LINE is having a real, serious impact on Taiwan’s pandemic response and Taiwan's society more broadly.
Fake news is stopping people from getting vaccinated on the premise that Western vaccines are unsafe (they aren’t – millions have gotten them worldwide, with only a handful of adverse reactions).
It has also stopped them from following official advice and policies put in place to help save lives and limit the spread of the virus. This has likely contributed to the local cases over the past month and therefore been responsible for at least some of the deaths we have seen here.
To their shame, the KMT party has only made matters worse by politicizing and criticizing every government action.
A call to action
Of course, the government needs to prioritize tackling the COVID-19 outbreak and source vaccines as a matter of urgency. And at the moment, they are having to spend too much time responding to fake news-driven media reports.
It is not an easy issue for the Taiwanese government to tackle. Freedom of speech is rightly prioritized here, and the government has been wary about intervening in the vibrant, outspoken, and often hostile domestic media industry. Certainly, social media has been largely a no-go area.
But the time has come to stem the flow of fake news. Dealing with this issue will make the country's pandemic problems much easier to tackle.
The government needs to compel LINE to take action and promise firm penalties if it does not act now. If it cannot make the necessary changes, the authorities may end up having little other choice than to slap fines on the social media giant.
This may seem extreme, but at the moment the platform is doing more harm than good to Taiwan. And let's not forget, it has already been in hot water for exposing users' data to a Chinese company.
To tackle fake news successfully, the government needs to bring LINE in line. If this can be done successfully, Taiwan has a much better chance of emerging from the pandemic successfully and heal some of the social wounds the fake news epidemic is causing.