Part of a continuing series, Lighthouse: Dispatches on Taiwanese Democracywhere we explore how democracy has deepened its roots on this island nation.


 

#4. Digital technologies are utilized for the common good

Citizens were active on the streets and in polling stations, but amazing public-spirited initiatives have also been taking place online. Taiwan is, after all, one of the most high-tech and digitally connected nations on earth, leading worldwide in semiconductor production. Taiwanese companies ship over 80% of laptop computers globally (the factories are not necessarily on the island, but Taiwanese firms own the production lines), and the public generates innumerable petabytes of social media traffic.

One platform called g0v.tw focuses on government transparency and accountability, publishing the text of laws and meeting minutes of public hearings, paired with a system for robust public commenting. These digitally savvy activists also helped the Sunflower Movement protesters reach the public during their occupation of parliament. Online outlets for citizen opinion, such as 破土 “New Bloom” magazine are also flourishing in the wake of the pivotal student protests.

The election monitoring results described in an earlier dispatch in this series could be instantly reported to a nationwide database run by grassroots groups, while numerous other digital technologies are rapidly scaling up, activated by a civic hacker community interested in questions of democratic governance.

Some of the world’s highest levels of Facebook usage among the populace also result in unprecedented levels of communication among activists using online tools, as well as critical—even real-time—social engagement by the public. Certain politicians’ Facebook pages can generate thousands of comments in a single day. Youth activism surrounding the Sunflower Movement, the 2014 election of an independent mayoral candidate in Taipei, and the excitement around the most-recent elections, can be linked to Facebook.

One pitfall to avoid is the digital echo chamber: a student from National Taiwan University said, “I definitely thought the Greens-SDP [an alliance of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party] were going to win seats in parliament, because all of my friends were voting for them. My Facebook feed was inundated with messages of support for Greens-SDP.” The party under-performed nationally, not reaching the minimum threshold for a legislative seat, but it was indeed the first- or second-place vote-getter on many college campuses, boding well for the future.

The general consensus is that a huge political shift linked to demographics is underway, and one of the most salient features is this generation’s use of new channels not easily influenced or controlled by the state.

Kevin Hsu

Kevin Fan Hsu is Lecturer in Urban Studies at Stanford University and co-founder of the Human Cities Initiative. He crafts open online courses and designs other educational experiences with a social mission at Skyship Design (www.skyshipdesign.net)