Politicians often use the phrase “fake news” to oppose criticism from rivals.
One false comment causes no harm, however, with the widespread social networks, anything online could easily go viral.
Both media and audiences should learn to accept different ideas even if they conflict with their beliefs.
On September 6, two days after Typhoon Jebi hit Japan, stranding tourists at Kansai International Airport, a comment was left on PTT (PTT Bulletin Board System) accusing the Taiwan’s representative in Japan of inaction and negligence in Osaka toward Taiwanese tourists. The complaint instantly aroused anger among netizens and led to heavy criticism toward government officials. The incident also resulted in the suicide of Su Chi-cheng (蘇啟誠), director of the Taiwan-Osaka representative office; assumptions were made, such as people claiming the tragedy resulted from fake news, government pressures and Su’s depressive disorder. Su’s relatives responded to false accusations saying the diplomat didn’t suffer depressive disorder, and chose to end his life simply not wanting to be assaulted.
The incident resulted from a range of “misinformation”; false information spread across the nation regardless of the intention to mislead. Reports based on online information are commonly seen in mass media, and issues arousing a wide internet response often make headlines and are emphasized to raise public awareness. However, the lack of confirmation of online information could mislead viewers and cause devastating results.
A convenient scapegoat
Since the 2016 U.S presidential election, the term “fake news” has been widely used by politicians, media, and many among the ordinary crowd. In fact, the term was so widely used that it slowly grew meaningless. Any false information, mistake, or a simple opinion could be labeled as “fake news”; politicians even use the phrase to oppose criticism from rivals and avoid admitting their mistakes. As a result of the phrases common use, information categorized as “fake” today is often disliked or unwanted opinions rather than actually “unreal”.
“Whether it’s a sponsored post, an ad, a visual meme, a bot on Twitter, a rumour – people just use it against any information they don’t like,” says Clare Wardle of First Draft News, a truth-seeking non-profit based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre.
One false comment causes no harm, however, with the widespread social networks, anything online could easily go viral. People receive tons of information with hardly any time to assess its factuality; despite actually pursuing a fact check, information online isn’t always reliable and could further lead viewers into accepting false beliefs. Viral information not only resembles public interest but also represents a widely accepted view; with an exploding amount of information increasing the difficulty of confirmation, anything the public believes simply becomes the “truth.”
Who’s to blame for “fake news”?
Paul Chadwick wrote in his article on fake news, “While netizens are to be criticized for not being sufficiently critical of the matter, much of the blame returns to the actions of irresponsible media outlets which care more for driving up hits or views, rather than reporting on the truth.” Despite the recognized imprudence of Taiwan media outlets, coverage by them still adds credibility to reported issues; media should keep note of its significant influence and treat its responsibility with extra care.
An article by the American Citizens for Taiwan agrees: “Taiwan’s already highly partisan and sensationalized media and social media environment […] an easy mark for fake news. Moreover, […] the island is flooded with politically slanted commentary and outright false claims across every media platform.” Every media outlet spent a majority of time and effort reporting political issues during elections, which is also one of the few periods in which reporting on online information decreases. However, viewers should still be aware of the political influence hidden behind reports that tempts to sway viewers’ political stance.
The media is able to affect their viewers’ stance and therefore use this power to evaluate the government’s performance. People rely on the media for information; therefore, despite the difficulties in becoming an neutral, neutrality isn’t a responsibility that should be taken lightly.
The importance of critical thinking and skepticism
Besides having disciplined media, viewers should also consume received information with extra skepticism. “True news tends to be met with sadness, joy, anticipation and trust. Humans are more likely than automated processes to be responsible for the spread of fake news,” says Paul Chadwick. Both media and audiences should learn to accept different ideas even if they conflict with their beliefs. While viewers blame the media for the spread of false information, but are unwilling to accept the discovered truth, incidents caused by misinformation will only continue to increase.