“The events the Taiwanese media did not let you know” — The disinformation alleging “censorship” in Taiwanese media during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election

“The events the Taiwanese media did not let you know” — The disinformation alleging “censorship” in Taiwanese media during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election

By Wei-Ping Li, Ph.D.

(This article is part of an analysis series of disinformation trends during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election.)

One of the intriguing themes spreading during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election is one alleging censorship by Taiwanese media. The information manipulators take advantage of Taiwanese people’s suspicion of the media, seeking to suggest that political factors interfere with the media environment and conceal the truth, such as citizens’ protests or people’s discontent toward the government. Weeks before the election, this “media cannot be trusted” disinformation also tries to sway audiences’ perceptions of the popularity of the presidential candidates. 

The disinformation that damages the credibility of Taiwanese media is no stranger to fact-checkers. Over the past few years, disinformation pieces purporting to “reveal the truth that the media don’t tell you” appeared every now and then on social media platforms frequented by Taiwanese. Some of the pieces claimed that the media disregarded social protests, while other pieces said the media was facing pressure from the government or political parties. For example, one piece surfaced after the tragic crash of a military fighter jet, asserting that none of the Taiwanese TV news dared to broadcast the accusation by the mother of a downed pilot on the problems of military jets. 

The texts in these disinformation pieces explicitly said or hinted that Taiwanese media were not free to disclose the truth. However, these claims contain inaccurate information. In some cases, mainstream media outlets did cover the events. In other cases, information manipulators used irrelevant videos to fabricate an event that had never happened and then maliciously claimed that the media attempted to bury the truth from the public. 

Months before the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election, fact-checkers observed another surge of similar false statements about “the events that the media did not let you know.” Among these disinformation pieces, the old theme that the media ignored social protests returned. 

In December 2023, a Facebook post claimed that firefighters rallied outside the office of the ruling party’s presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te. The post, which included a YouTube video of the event, claimed that Taiwan's National Communications Commission (NCC), a government organization in charge of regulating telecommunications and broadcasting services, ordered all TV news stations to suppress the information about the protest. This assertion is untrue. Not only did TV news cover the protest, but print and online media also reported on it. Moreover, the NCC does not have the power to impose prior restraints on the media’s coverage of news events like protests. 

Other disinformation pieces aim to convey the notion that the media are reluctant to report crime problems in Taiwan. In October 2023, a group of gangsters surrounded a police station in Kaohsiung and raged against the arrest of their member. Several Taiwanese mainstream news outlets carried articles about this incident, but false social media posts still circulated on Facebook and LINE, claiming that coverage of this incident was not seen in the media. The narrator of the posts again blamed the government for controlling the media and “suppressing the information” because of the upcoming presidential election: “The authorities that control the news... are they worried that [the news about this incident] would harm their chances of winning the election?... The corrupt government blocked the media. That is abhorrent!” 

A screenshot of a videoDescription automatically generated
A screenshot of a Facebook post claiming that mainstream news outlets did not report the news of gangsters surrounding the police station. It further asserts that the corrupt government has “blocked” [封鎖] the media.

Perhaps the most direct attack from this kind of disinformation during the election is about the popularity of the presidential candidates. These disinformation pieces discredit mainstream media for not accurately portraying the level of popularity of candidates during the campaigns. 

For example, social media posts that feature images or videos of massive rallies have been used to complain about the “unjust exclusion” of news about the Kuomintang Party candidate’s rally from mainstream media. The event was, in fact, timely covered by a number of major print, broadcast, and online news outlets.

In addition to the above disinformation closely relevant to Taiwanese election campaigns and society, there are also other pieces that incorrectly allege Taiwanese media for “blocking the information” of large rallies in other countries, such as protests in the United States and Spain. A post shared on LINE and Facebook showed a Douyin video clip about the protest against the war in Palestine and wrongly asserted that the Taiwanese media have been controlled to censor information about the protest that “condemned Biden.”

These disinformation pieces mostly consist of text with accompanying videos or pictures that serve as “evidence” of the events that mainstream media allegedly omits. While most videos correctly present authentic events and do not show signs of images being edited (with a few exceptions that use irrelevant events to falsify the claim), the texts falsely claim that the incidents shown in the video or picture are not covered by the media and, thus, are less known to the public.

Why would these information manipulators promote the “media censorship” narrative in Taiwan, especially during the presidential election? In discourses of disinformation, sowing distrust in the media with the conspiracy-styled narrative that “the media have hidden things from you” is common. Researchers have found that in democratic countries, particularly in the West, some audiences have seen the media as accomplices of elites or the establishment, with whom the media voluntarily conceal information from the public or frame narratives to serve the interests of elites.

What distinguishes this type of disinformation propagated in Taiwan is that the creators of the disinformation emphasized the pressure of “censorship” from the government or political parties rather than the collusion between the media and the elites. Despite the fact that Taiwanese media and society have long enjoyed free speech and the press, numerous posts allege that political parties or the government have prevented the media from publishing unsettling occurrences or news regarding the popularity of opposition party candidates. 

More notably, some disinformation creators demonstrated a lack of grasp of Taiwan’s democratic systems, claiming that Taiwanese government agencies had the right to dictate when the media should remain silent or spread fake news. One piece even claimed that the Taiwanese Financial Supervisory Commission (which, as the name indicates, is an independent government agency in charge of overseeing and regulating financial sectors) spent a large sum of money buying off the media to propagate fake news.

In Taiwan’s case, there are several possible reasons that information manipulators resort to the rhetoric of “information is censored in the media.” First of all, Taiwan had experienced decades of strict censorship before the 1990s. However, even after Taiwan transformed into a democracy, the shadow of censorship still lingers in the minds of Taiwanese people. Constantly, incidents have reminded people of possible censorship incarnated in other forms, such as media owners’ control in the newsrooms and social media’s removal of posts. Plus, political and economic reasons have contributed to media bias in Taiwan. As a result, Taiwanese audiences are still concerned about the possibility of censorship or influence in the information environment.

As Taiwanese scholars have pointed out, messages claiming that the media conducts “censorship” could garner attention from audiences in Taiwanese society. Moreover, since Taiwanese people have had low trust in the media for a long time, warnings of censorship can even deepen people’s distrust in the mainstream media and drive them to seek alternative information sources. 

Meanwhile, these disinformation pieces can, in turn, erode people’s confidence that Taiwan is truly a democratic and free society. Even though Taiwan’s democracy is currently robust and press freedom in Taiwan has ranked well in the international press freedom index, the allegation of censorship could nevertheless impact people’s impressions of political parties and candidates, as well as the election outcomes.  

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.

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