Taiwan’s push for media literacy- is it all “fake news”?

Written by Sam Robbins.

Image Credit: Fake News by Jesper Sehested Pluslexia.com/ Flickr, License: CC BY 2.0

Across the globe, more and more countries have introduced media literacy education into their national curriculum in a hope to make students better prepared for the digital media landscape. Although media literacy is much older than the internet, digital literacy has become inseparable from media literacy over the last 10 years or so. It is over this period that media literacy has also began to receive new attention. In 2013, UNESCO published its “Global media and information literacy assessment framework” to set global guidelines and promote similar education efforts. Recently, Taiwan has also began teaching media literacy, (媒體素養meiti suyang), and it entered the country’s 12-year national education scheme in 2019. Although the overall goals and contents of the new curriculum are generally in line with international standards and conventions it is surprising how much attention the issue of fake news receives in public discussion about this move and on the course’s website . Although more traditional competencies are discussed (understanding the sources of online content, reading critically, etc), it seems that the effort is almost all “fake news”.

Indeed, the push for the new media literacy campaign in Taiwan has in many ways tied to broader, long-standing campaigns against fake news in the country. For example, DPP legislators Huang Kuo-Shu and Yeh Yi-Jin called on the ministry of education to “fight fake news [and] establish a media literacy education committee” . The initial reporting on the curriculum when it was first announced also often focused on the attempt to fight fake news in Taiwan. Over the last few years, the term fake news (假新聞,jia xinwen) has become increasingly commonly used in Taiwan. Since fake news became popularised by Trump in 2016, Politicians of both major parties have begun using the term to denounce what they have understood as false messaging from the other parties. Recently, there has also been an increased awareness of Chinese attempts to produce intentionally fake news with the intent to cause political unrest in Taiwan. This was perhaps especially clear in the recent election cycle, but there have also been confirmed cases of fake news relating to the recent coronavirus outbreak and more.

It is fake news in this latter sense, as a foreign-produced intentional attack on Taiwan’s democracy, that has received considerable attention in the new media literacy campaign, at least judging by the content of the course website and local reports on the curriculum. The site links to many articles in Taiwan’s “youth daily news” to explain the course, all of which explicitly frame the move as a way to tackle foreign fake news. Some discuss the importance of tackling foreign fake news, whilst others specifically name China. Regardless of the way it is referred to, it is made clear that tackling such fake news is crucial to help protect democracy in Taiwan. One is titled “foreign information manipulation is the enemy of democracy”. The website also describes Taiwan as in the middle of an “information war”, and as such framing media literacy as a way to win the fight. The Ministry of Education’s published plan for the development of the curriculum similarly starts by describing media literacy as an essential skill in “fake-news rich contemporary society”. None of these instances provide a clear explanation of what fake news exactly is. There’s an assumption that we’re all on the same page about what it means.

This assumption is problematic. Despite the frequency with which the term fake news is employed in political commentary in Taiwan and abroad, there is no real consensus as to what the term actually means. For example, fake news is often used to refer to a range of phenomenon that can range from the sensationalising of verifiable news stories to the complete fabrication of stories with explicit malicious, political aims. I worry that the current curriculum might not be able to address the grey area that exists between confirmed-true and completely false, at least judging by related promotional material. Indeed, “fake news” is just the tip of the iceberg in media systems that incentivise clicks more than deep engagement as is so often the case on social media platforms. This is the case in Taiwan and abroad. Foreign produced fake news undeniably exists in Taiwan and elsewhere, but so does sensationalist, hyper-partisan and half-true news. Fighting fake news is a good cause, but we must not fail to see the wood from the trees in terms of what Tommaso Venturini has called the broader economy of “junk news”.

It is worth noting that this emphasis comes through less clearly in official policy documents. The seemingly central place of tackling fake news might be more of a marketing strategy to help ally this new curriculum to broader government goals. Fake news is already a well-known problem in Taiwan and using it to explain the new curriculum is likely a smart move to get people on board. This makes sense given the largely nebulous nature of media literacy more broadly. The line between literacy in a broader sense and specific media or digital literacy is often not clear. As mentioned earlier, the broader aims of the course seem to be to equip students with tools to critically engage with a range of different type of sources materials and to be responsible and engaged internet users. There are some somewhat more interesting aspects as well. For example, the educational material provided on the website also includes content on teaching students about citizen journalism and how to produce a range of different types of media. Even though the course is occasionally framed as a way to fight fake news, it will hopefully provide students with a much more diverse set of skills. It is too soon to tell how the course has been rolled out and what material or topics will receive the most attention in class. 

The broader move for media literacy education in Taiwan is much older than the recent election cycle. Taiwan Media Watch was established in 1999 to help consolidate the development of a free and fair press in the country, and they have pushed for media literacy ever since. They, along with other civil society groups, have been deeply involved in the efforts to include media literacy in the curriculum over the last five years, but have also been involved in the broader movement since the government first published a white paper on the topic in 2002. What this history reveals is how media literacy has generally been tied to an effort to promote democratic participation and action. The movement can be seen as a product of Taiwan’s expanding media system and democratic consolidation in the 1990s and 2000s. This is not always the case in other countries, and media literacy education has been promoted in both democratic and more authoritarian states. Perhaps this also explains why fake news has received so much in the most recent iteration of the program: it has been identified by the government and other actors as one of the newest, and biggest, threats to democracy in Taiwan over the last few years.  

Sam Robbins is studying for a master’s degree in Sociology at National Taiwan University, he focuses on digital society and digital politics in Taiwan. He is a production assistant for the English-language, Taiwan current affairs podcast “The Taiwan Take”, which can be found on all major podcast platforms or here. This article is part of the special issue on New Media.

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