Taiwan ramps up efforts to raise public's media literacy to fight fake news

Many civic groups have started fact-checking services to help Taiwanese discern fact from fiction. ST PHOTO: KEVIN CHNG

TAIPEI - A video of Taiwan's Health Minister Chen Shih-chung singing into a microphone at a dinner party drew criticism from netizens and an opposition leader when it started circulating online last Wednesday (Nov 10) night.

Main opposition party Kuomintang chairman Eric Chu hinted that the minister should resign for being frivolous during the Covid-19 pandemic.

People who shared the video alleged that the minister was enjoying himself, mask off, in June this year, when the island was suffering from a number of local outbreaks and was subsequently locked down.

But they got one fact wrong.

Last Thursday, before his daily Covid-19 briefing, Mr Chen said the video was taken in June last year, when Taiwan was still seeing low case numbers and there were no restrictions on people's usual activities.

While the misunderstanding was quickly rectified, the incident showed how fast disinformation spreads in Taiwan.

"Taiwan needs to up its efforts in educating its people on how to identify false information," said Professor Hung Chen-ling, the director of National Taiwan University's (NTU) Graduate Institute of Journalism.

She told The Straits Times: "The rampant spread of fake news and disinformation has grown especially bad in the last few years, and 2018's Kansai Airport incident has shown how harmful fake news can be."

In that incident, Mr Su Chi-cheng, the director of Taiwan's representative office in Osaka, hanged himself after being wrongly accused of neglecting Taiwanese passengers who were stranded in Kansai Airport during a typhoon, while travellers from China were taken care of by the Chinese embassy.

Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, reporting on the tragic event, said: "Taiwan is shaken by fake news."

While Prof Hung believes that Mr Su's death has led both the Taiwanese government and public to reflect on how they should avoid such tragedies from happening again, the ongoing pandemic has seen a rise in the spread of disinformation.

A study on disinformation conducted by Sweden's University of Gothenburg names Taiwan as one of the most frequent targets of false news, she noted.

Many civic groups have started fact-checking services to help Taiwanese discern whether information shared on social media sites and via messaging apps is fact or fiction. They include Taiwan FactCheck Centre, Cofacts and News Helper.

"But less than 25 per cent of Taiwanese have used these fact-checking services," NTU's Professor Wang Tai-li said at a journalism seminar on Friday.

"The other 75 per cent may have heard of disinformation, but they may not know how to distinguish and deal with it."

Some elementary and middle schools have incorporated media literacy lessons in their curriculum to help students identify fake news in everyday life.

Meanwhile, journalists and educators are working with tech giants such as Google and Line messaging app to raise media literacy among the Taiwanese.

On Nov 4, Taiwan FactCheck Centre announced that it will hold some 600 media literacy workshops over the next three years, thanks to a US$1 million (S$1.35 million) donation by Google to fund initiatives to combat disinformation.

The workshops will target those who may be disadvantaged by Taiwan's ever-changing online scene, including the elderly, residents living in remote areas and new immigrants.

Taiwan FactCheck Centre chairman Hu Yuan-hui said: "Fact-checking isn't all-powerful. It's more important to raise awareness (among Taiwanese), so that they automatically question the news they receive and check the facts."

As much of disinformation in Taiwan is spread via Line, the company has launched several initiatives to combat false news while vowing to maintain users' privacy.

New features in the app allow Taiwan's 19 million users, who make up a whopping 80 per cent of the island's population, to report fake news stories or disinformation they receive via Line.

In the past two years, some 500,000 reports have been filed, said Line Taiwan general manager, Mr Chen Li-ren.

The app also publishes on its news-sharing platform Line Today stories that have been proven wrong.

"Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the view rate for this section has grown four times," said Mr Chen.

The feature is also available for users in Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia.

Mr Chen added that the company has also been developing interactive lessons and games for teachers to use in media literacy lessons in school, and Line hopes the children will share what they learnt with their parents and grandparents.

Taiwan FactCheck Centre's Mr Hu said: "All stakeholders need to be involved - members of the public, the media, tech companies, fact-checking organisations, academia, the government."

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