Campaigns and New Media: Government by Facebook?

One day after Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had won her Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) nomination poll, Taiwan’s special relationship on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, issued a short reaction. It didn’t sound exactly congratulatory, and either way, it was a political, rather than a personal message.

From A-Gu‘s translation of the People’s Daily article:

People’s Daily, BEIJING  — The Democratic Progressive Party recently held its fourth televised policy session as part of its primary process for selecting a candidate in the 2012 presidential*) election, and Tsai Ing-wen and Su Chen-chang both brought up cross-strait relations.

In response, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Yang Yi said at a TAO press conference today that if a cross-strait policy is built on the splittist “Taiwanese independence” position of “One side, one country,” no matter how clever the packaging of the policy, it will inevidably disturb cross-strait exchanges, impact cross-strait negotiations, destroy the peaceful development of cross strait relations and effect the stability of the situation in the Taiwan Strait. (人民网北京4月27日电(记者刘洁妍 方晔云)日前民进党就2012年的选举,党内初选部分举行了第四场政见发表会,蔡英文和苏贞昌谈到了两岸关系。对此 国台办发言人杨毅在今天上午举办的国台办发布会上指出,如果把两岸关系政策建立在“一边一国”的“台独”分裂立场上,不管作了多么巧妙的包装,都势必干扰 两岸交流合作、冲击两岸协商、破坏两岸关系和平发展,影响台海局势稳定。)

The BBC’s Cindy Sui believes that the presidential race – Tsai vs. Ma – will determine Taiwan’s ties with China over the next four years.

The Wall Street Journal quotes Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College, as saying that

“Fundamentally, the KMT always has an advantage on the China issue because they have credibility as being the party of reason and prudence. […] Ms. Rigger said that if the DPP can “hit a golden mean” on the China issue, the debate could shift to economic issues, where the KMT is much more vulnerable.

Huang Shunjie (黄顺杰), the Morning Post‘s (早报, Singapore)  correspondent in Taipei writes that Taiwan’s some one million first-time voters (or 1.2 million, according to a ministry of the interior’s estimate) have become a key target group for both the ruling KMT’s and the oppositional DPP’s presidential and legislators’ campaigns. New media and social media had therefore become the latest battlegrounds. Given that some eighty per cent of first-time voters had participated in previous presidential elections, this was a group of voters which couldn’t be taken lightly by the campaigners.

Dennis Peng Weng-Jeng (彭文正), associate professor at the National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism, is quoted by Morning News as noting that neither incumbent president and KMT nominee Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), nor DPP chairperson and presidential nominee Tsai Ing-wen, had yet made full use of the new medias’ strengths (未充分发挥新媒体的特长), and their language had so far been too conventional (制式) and official (官方化), and therefore not sufficiently familiar for the internet users. Facebook was no longer the best way to garner votes there, and more mobile platforms such as smartphones (智慧型手机), and more interactive tools [this blogger has no idea what 游戏软体传播信息 means] could be more effective.

The Morning Post cites statistics according to which there are some 9.19 million Taiwanese Facebook users, 29 per cent of whom are eighteen to 24 years old. Ma Ying-jeou had attracted some 610,000 fans there since its start in January. However, after criticism by the Liberty Times (自由時報) that Ma appeared to be “ruling by Facebook”  (靠面簿治国) and a corresponding inquiry by the paper, presidential spokesman Luo Jhih-ciang (羅智強) clarified that the president wasn’t solely relying on netizens’ views in his decision-making.

Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) had accumulated some 240,000 Facebook fans to date, and Tsai trailed both Ma and Su, with only some 200,000 fans. Fortunately, the numbers are expected to pick up now, that it is a double-(y)ing race (双英 – Ma Ying-jeou / Tsai Ing-wen) race.

If either Ma or Tsai should take the new media experts’ advice to heart, the public should prepare for embarrassing performances. Neither of the two candidates seems to be good at “laid-back” forms of communication – and neither of them should take the interaction at the – supposed – young-voter terms too far. Huang, the Morning Post reporter himself, ends his report by quoting a 22-year-old first-voter student who hopes that the campaigns will be about politics, rather than about packaging.

Meantime, a United Daily News survey reportedly suggests that

(t)he category in which Ma fared most poorly was in “resolve to put policies into practice, ” with Tsai obtaining 36 percent support against Ma’s 21 percent.

Maybe Facebook – or smartphones – won’t matter that much after all.


*) [Update, April 30, 2011: As you can probably tell, People’s Daily referred to the presidential elections as elections, not as presidential elections.]

Democracy over Idolization, March 11, 2011

7 Responses to “Campaigns and New Media: Government by Facebook?”

  1. Tsai was the best choice, although I’m no fan of her nuclear policies though. I think the role that bullying from the mainland plays in elections is very much exaggerated – in the past it’s worked as much for one side as for the other. This election will be decided on domestic issues.


  2. I think it can be misleading to make assumptions about the electorate based on fan numbers or friends on Facebook. Remember that the Internet has no national boundaries, therefore, Ma’s inflated numbers may include many Chinese and many non-Chinese Asians who favor closer ties between Taiwan and China for the sake of stability yet have very little to lose in the event of a unification. Tsai is much less likely to attract fans from outside Taiwan because she is not as well known and because international media outlets and many academics constantly portray the DPP position as unwise.


  3. Fortunately, the numbers are expected to pick up now, that it is a double-(y)ing race (双英 – Ma Ying-jeou / Tsai Ing-wen) race.

    That line in my post was really meant ironically, Tommy – basically, I doubt that “social media” are all that important even if we take the possible distortions you mentioned out of the account. The Economiust cited a study some time last year, or one year earlier, which suggested that Facebookers who organize in all kinds of political online groups are not very committed to their online issues in the real world – not even to the degree that they would donate real-world money to the causes they are supporting online. Seems plausible to me when looking at my everyday environment. There are links between the parallel internet universe or media world and the real world for sure, and politicians can make some use of social networks when interacting with supporters who are committed in the real world already, but such links bewteen the internet and genuine public life are probably weaker than bloggers or online activists may want to believe.
    I also doubt that you can get a huge number of commitments from people online that they will actually go and cast their vote on election day.

    The Zaobao / Morning News reporter is sort of hedging his bets. He quotes the media experts who recommend stronger use of social media to reach out to the first-time voters, but he also quotes people who are less enthusiastic about these technological opportunities.



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