Su Chii-cherng, Taiwan’s representative in Osaka, committed suicide on Sept. 14. He left behind a letter saying he was deeply pained by a flood of criticism accusing his office of not assisting Taiwanese tourists stranded at the Kansai International Airport in the wake of Typhoon Jebi.
At least 11 people were killed and hundreds of flights canceled as a result of the worst hurricane to hit Japan. Su was the chief of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Osaka at the time.
What happened was that some netizens, claiming to be among the more than 1,000 Taiwanese trapped at the airport, posted on the Professional Technology Temple (PTT), a popular online bulletin board in Taiwan, that mainland China’s embassy in Osaka had dispatched 15 buses to move mainland tourists out of the airport. By contrast, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Osaka had not done anything to help the stranded Taiwanese.
Several mainstream media outlets in Taiwan picked up the story without verification, further stirring up public outcry on the island.
It emerged later that the blog post was fake news. The Chinese embassy never dispatched buses to evacuate tourists trapped at the Kansai International Airport.
All evacuation buses were arranged by the Kansai International Airport, and all passengers, regardless of nationality, were allowed to board.
Su was found dead after hanging himself in his official residence. A friend revealed that Su had phoned him several times a day before he committed suicide, asking him to track down the source of the fake news.
After Su’s suicide, several online organizations in Taiwan signed a joint statement vowing to fight fake news; they pledged never to repost unverified news.
In the past, traditional media outlets controlled the main channels of spreading news. It was routine for them to verify the basic facts before disseminating a news item, lest they be held accountable for providing inaccurate information.
But in the internet era, anybody can post information online and pass it off as a fact. Some online media outlets would then pick up the post in the hope of driving traffic at little or no cost at all.
Sadly, the existing rules and regulations are designed for the old era. These rules cannot effectively crack down on fake news in the internet space.
Besides, measures that would curtail press freedom and the freedom of expression remain a sensitive subject, and most policymakers are very cautious about treading on the issue.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 18
Translation by Julie Zhu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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