A Sketch of Taiwan’s Digital News Media Landscape in the Twenty-first Century

Written by Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley; Yuan-hui Hu; Victoria Y. Chen; and Lihyun Lin.

Image credit: 媒體小農,灌溉心中好新聞/ Facebook.

Introduction

We have been working on the ‘Media Section’ as co-editors and contributors for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Taiwan Studies (Editor-in-Chief: Professor Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, to be published by Brill in 2022). Therefore, we must declare upfront the sources of information in this article. Here we shall focus on the material which may be less known to the scholarly community outside of Taiwan, namely, Taiwan’s digital news media and journalism-related initiatives in the twenty-first century.

From the latest statistics, Taiwan has an internet penetration rate of 92%. Out of 24 million people or 8,934,000 households, there are 4,867,591 digital media service subscribers nationwide. The government started the universal service before the 2010s to lessen the divides between gender and between rural and urban areas. Yet digital divides still exist, especially related to age, education, income, and living environment.

Facebook and Social Media

More than two-thirds of Taiwanese use social media (including LINE, Facebook, and YouTube) for all purposes and most of them use social media as a primary news source. Almost every news outlet in Taiwan has a Facebook page and posts news content to direct traffic to their website home pages. In addition, it is estimated that Facebook and Google receive the most digital advertising revenue, dwarfing that of legacy news publishers. In sum, social media, as a distribution channel of news content, now dwarfs news media outlets in digital revenue and user engagement.

The extensive use of Facebook as a news distribution channel presents two challenges for journalism: (1) news media loses control of news production, and (2) news media loses control of its readers. Understanding the dominance of Facebook, media professionals have devised several strategies to alleviate its influence on their business. For example, diversifying the sources of traffic by using aggregators (e.g. Yahoo! News, which became the most used digital news source at 39% weekly use, and LINE News at 34%), other social media platforms (e.g. Instagram, Twitter), and mobile messaging apps (e.g. LINE, WeChat, WhatsApp). In addition, some media publish newsletters to build relationships with readers, while others adopt a subscription model. Despite these various strategies, they cannot afford to dispense with Facebook entirely because it remains the most effective traffic referral source in Taiwan. Hence the dominance of Facebook is stronger than ever, and it has the bargaining power to force news media to pay for reach. The independence of Taiwan’s news media from big technology companies has still a long way to go.

Disinformation/Misinformation and Fact-Checking Initiatives

A serious problem with using social media as a primary news source is disinformation and misinformation. Studies suggest that Taiwan’s media and political ecosystems appear particularly vulnerable to disinformation from foreign forces. For example, research discovers that only 24% of the Taiwanese public trust the news. A 2019 report published in Sweden also revealed that out of 179 countries analysed, Taiwan was the country most affected by foreign disinformation campaigns in 2018. Hence, fact-checking initiatives have become increasingly important for Taiwan.

Taiwan’s fact-checking projects are undertaken by civil society groups or interested activists alarmed by the harm that dis/misinformation inflicts on public life and democracy. The first fact-checking project, News Helper (新聞小幫手), was launched in 2013 by Ronny Wang and other contributors to g0v (gov-zero), a decentralised civic tech community. Although the service was suspended in 2018, various other fact-checking projects came into existence, including MyGoPen (麥擱騙) and Rumor & Truth (蘭姆酒吐司) in 2015, Cofacts (真的假的) in 2016, and the Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC, 台灣事實查核中心) in 2018, which is a non-profit organisation made up of journalists and educators. In addition, Watchout (沃草), a citizen organisation, also runs a special programme that focuses on fact-checking election candidates’ speeches during political rallies and debates, starting with the mayoral municipal elections in 2018.

The Taiwanese government favourably responds to the fact-checking initiatives even though there are no direct partnerships. Some government agencies that are less politically oriented, such as those in healthcare, encourage the public to read the reports released by the fact-checking organisations. In contrast, fact-checking organisations that emphasise their independence strive to maintain a proper distance from government agencies not to violate the public’s trust. Meanwhile, the government proposes regulation via a new communication bill, requiring platforms to consult local fact-checking organisations, tell the public about false information circulated, and publish annual reports on handling disinformation and misinformation.

The impact of the fact-checking projects in Taiwan’s societies is growing, as are the numbers of their social media followers and visitors. The fact-checking and investigative reports released by the projects are frequently cited by many news media. Being International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) verified signatories, the TFC and MyGoPen have been selected as the third-party fact-checking partners of Facebook and Google. LINE also launched the ‘Fact Checker’ platform in collaboration with the TFC, MyGoPen, Rumor & Truth, and Cofacts in July 2019. The partnership enables the results of fact-checking to reach a broader public.

Crowdfunded Journalism

Another development which counters the inadequacies of Taiwan’s news media is the growth of crowdfunded journalism. Crowdfunded journalism first took place in Taiwan more than 20 years ago against a backdrop of the questionable quality of journalism despite the proliferation of outlets in the news industry. Improving the news ecosystem and counterbalancing the mainstream media were its main appeals to the public.

Long before the sprouting of internet-based crowdfunding platforms, a few non-profit media organisations conducted individual public fundraising on their own as a way of crowdfunding to finance their operations. For example, the media website Coolloud Collective (苦勞網, founded in 1997) provides a platform for activists to share their activities and publish news and in-depth reports relating to Taiwan’s social movements. The Reporter (報導者), a non-profit media outlet for investigative reporting launched in December 2015, is the most successful example of the micro-donation model [1].

Like in other countries around the world, in Taiwan, several internet-based crowdfunding platforms have been created since 2011. They aim to provide services for various innovative commercial and social cause projects seeking funding from the general public. The earliest crowdfunding platform was weReport in December 2011, which specialises in fundraising for investigative and in-depth reporting. After February 2012, many crowdfunding platforms were ushered in (such as Zeczec [嘖嘖] and FlyingV). In 2021, a new platform called WaBay (挖貝) was up and running. Most of these crowdfunding platforms are broad-based and pursue a more general variety of proposals with innovative ideas, although journalism-related projects are not excluded.

In 2015, Taiwan’s second journalism fundraising platform, SOS, was launched. The independent publication Decode Magazine (眉角雜誌) successfully raised more than NT $5 million through SOS and immediately gained public attention. However, SOS was renamed SOSreader in 2016 and transitioned to a platform for creative content developers for the company’s financial sustainability. The new version focused on crowdfunding subscriptions to works written by specific writers, not limited only to journalists. In 2018, SOSreader was renamed again to Vocus and transformed into an even broader-based platform for artists and creatives.

In 2017, a non-profit platform, Media Farmers (媒體小農), was launched and set out to support quality news reporting through a donation mechanism similar to tipping for a single article. Unfortunately, although this innovative crowdfunding approach was received with great expectation, Media Farmers fizzled out at the end of September 2020.

The trajectories of weReport, SOS, and Media Farmers seem to indicate that journalism-specific crowdfunding platforms may be unstable in Taiwan. However, while some broad-based crowdfunding platforms have declined, ceased to operate, or transitioned to other forms, the total amount of funds raised has been increasing over the years. Statistics show that Taiwan’s crowdfunding figures hit a new high in 2020 regarding the number of proposals (1,137) and the number of funds raised (exceeding NT $1.8 billion).

Crowdfunded journalism is no longer unfamiliar to Taiwanese people who care about the media ecosystem. Although journalism in Taiwan has been challenged by the powerful influences of political and business alliances in the news industry and the constant impact of ever-changing technological advances, crowdfunded journalism has provided a fresh possibility and lent financial assistance to independent media organisations and citizen journalism. All these undoubtedly positively affect the reconstruction of Taiwan’s news and media industry.

[1] Although The Reporter is supported by one major donor, Tzu-Hsien Tung (童子賢), a co-founder and former vice chairman of Asus. It has also attracted a group of donors, who are firm supporters of this news outlet. This is another value of the crowd funding model. Moreover, as stated in the Principles of Donation of The Reporter, all donors can not intervene or influence the governance nor the editorial policy of The Reporter. Donations of more than one million NTD (about 26986.5 GBP) will be reviewed by a Review Committee from the Board of Directors and must be open to the public.

Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is a Research Associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme, University of Nottingham. She is a co-editor of the ‘Media Section’ in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Taiwan Studies.

Yuan-hui Hu is a Professor at the Department of Communication, National Chung Cheng University. He is a contributor of the ‘Media Section’ in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Taiwan Studies.

Victoria Y. Chen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication, National Chung Cheng University. She is a contributor of the ‘Media Section’ in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Taiwan Studies.

Lihyun Lin is a Professor of the Graduate Institute of Journalism, National Taiwan University. She is a co-editor of the ‘Media Section’ in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Taiwan Studies.

This article is published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Media Landscape.

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