Written by Ben Goren.

The introduction of internet capable portable devices such as laptops and early smart phones in Taiwan in the early 2000s; the explosive growth of participation rates and digital information and communication platforms in the mid 2000s; and the expansion of 3G, 4G and Wifi networks post 2010, have transformed the way Taiwanese relate to and participate in their democracy. The digitisation of communications, facilitating increases in both the speed and frequency of exchanges, has been embraced by Taiwanese of all ages and has produced a generation whose experience of democracy is inextricably linked to freedoms of speech, organisation, and communication. The ubiquity of internet capable devices has allowed Taiwanese to be constantly connected to, communicating with, and participating in a diverse range of both digital and physical communities, involving the daily transfer of a staggering amount of information.

The figures behind this rapid transformation are astounding. Facebook launched in Taiwan in 2009. Only two years later its total number of unique visitors hit nine million, matching Taiwan’s then-dominant local social network wretch.cc. In March 2011 it had achieved a 40% participation rate; by 2012 it had risen to include 75% of all online users. It fell to 66.4% in 2014, which is still the highest rate for Facebook in Asia. A local forum built in 1995, and run from Taiwan National University, called Professional Technology Temple (PTT) (批踢踢實業坊), is the largest single Bulletin Board System (BBS) in Taiwan with more than 1.5 million registered users and over 150,000 active users online during peak hours. A previous Director of the system described how it is a microcosm of Taiwanese youth society. The platform includes over 20,000 discussion boards and hosts more than 20,000 articles and 500,000 comments posted every day. Almost every Taiwanese university student has either used PTT or responded on Facebook to articles and comments from it.

These platforms played a critical role in providing the information communication backbone for both the 2008 Wild Strawberry and 2014 Sunflower Movement protests, and have become indispensable tools for netizens seeking to mobilize individuals and groups. A new communication application, Line, also looks set to play a major role having already reached 17 million users, its highest penetration rate worldwide, in Taiwan. In addition, major newspapers and cable TV stations all have digital and social media platforms that supplement and support their core business. There is a substantial number of Taiwanese users of foreign platforms such as China’s Weibo, Linkedin, and Twitter, allowing for connections between Taiwanese and international netizens. As a site for evaluating the emergence and survival of a feedback-driven participatory digital democracy, Taiwan is a good choice.

Since the penetration rate of digital social media platforms has been so extensive in Taiwan, news and information travels fast and draws a high volume of responses. The ease of access to social media tools has led to an exponential increase in user generated content and traditional media struggled to remain relevant.  Liberalisation in the 1990s allowed for greater diversity of content and paved the way for round-the-clock news. The constant need to find stories to break or report has exerted great pressure on traditional media outlets. It is far quicker and cheaper to search online for an opinion than send a person ‘into the field’ to gauge the public mood. For traditional media, content on social media and communication platforms can be a goldmine of feedback to exploit. Since people make stories, the cable TV stations, and their cousins in the print industry, have increasingly gone online to where people are interacting most often.

Following topics trending with netizens gives news media organs the ability to quickly collate and disseminate new information. In doing so they inadvertently offer netizens access to an established audience. For netizens, having their input on social media and communication platforms relayed via traditional media can generate a sense of substantively contributing and participating in the news rather than just being a passive observer. It allows an individual to play a more active part as a citizen in painting the canvass of their nation’s political, economic, social, and environmental landscape, and national memory. For netizen activists seeking to appropriate the amplifying and legitimising potential of traditional media outlets, there is potentially great political and symbolic advantage to be gained if they can convince news media editors that their cause is ‘newsworthy’. It should come as no surprise then that getting and maintaining the attention of traditional media outlets was a strategic priority for the Sunflower and Umbrella protest movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong this year, ultimately facilitating the internationalisation of both protests, whilst helping to ‘create facts on the ground’ which institutional authorities were forced to respond to.

Despite this apparently mutually beneficial relationship, one prominent feature of the Sunflower Movement protests was also fierce criticism of traditional media outlets for their often sensationalistic and mendacious coverage. Great efforts were exerted by activists to produce sufficient content to counteract negative framing, and redirect media coverage. These netizens were not waiting for traditional media to report, they were focused on getting their version of the story to the widest possible audience. They sought to frame and lead the debate knowing that they were supported and aided in this by netizens online, with whom they were in constant communication. The relationship between netizens and traditional media appears to be symbiotic, yet also at times an economically and politically dialectical form of mutual usury. One question then is whether this symbiotic relationship between netizens and traditional media could be measured, and if it could, would there be any patterns in how traditional media have drawn upon content published by ‘netizens’, or generated stories directly about them? To provisionally test this hypothesis, I conducted a small study to identify how often Taiwan’s largest English newspaper, the Taipei Times, used the word ‘netizen’ between 2005 and 2014 (raw data available here).

Starting with a simple frequency measurement, the number of times the Taipei Times referenced the word ‘netizen’, showed one article in 2005 (a foreign news wire’s article reprinted), two in 2009 and four in 2010. There was then a substantial increase to twenty-three articles in 2011, and from then on it has grown steadily with thirty-six in 2012, fifty in 2013, and fifty-nine so far this year. There is a clear trend, post 2010, in which the Taipei Times has increased the amount of ‘gross’coverage it gives to Taiwanese netizens activities and opinions. Of this coverage though, how much of the content published by the paper was, for example, printing unverified opinions of netizens on a related topic, and how much was concerned with something specific netizens had done and said (‘net’ coverage if you like)? The results suggest that net coverage comprised on average about half of gross coverage, with a downward trend. Netizens, it appears, are getting far more ‘gross’ than ‘net’ coverage from the Taipei Times suggesting that their opinions, and responses to other news, are of more interest to traditional news media. How the netizen responded was more important than the original news, activities, and campaigns they generated or initiated. This may be why only 13.7% of the articles contained the word ‘netizen’ in their title.

The subject matter of netizen content which traditional media deem newsworthy might also be used as a crude barometer of the integrity of Taiwan’s digital democracy. Greater netizen content reproduced by traditional media touching on political, environmental, and economic, issues might for example indicate a strengthening of some of the core indicators underpinning a healthy democracy, namely rising levels of awareness, discussion, participation, and representation. Breaking down the results by subject matter of the article, whilst it was clear that social cultural news stories (such as gossip about the love lives of entertainers) were most often the reason for reporting netizen’s activities or opinions (31%), a considerable number were also devoted to subjects related the health of the economy (13%), the state of democracy (13%), elections and election candidates (16%), freedom (11%), identity (9%), and environmental issues (6%). This suggests that the Taipei Times found netizen produced content to be valuable not just for reactions to cultural news but also as contributions to the nation’s democratic discourse covering a wide range of social, economic, and political issues.

Examining the trend of the frequency of articles by subject matter seemed to confirm this. Although the Taipei Times has referred to netizens more commonly when covering social cultural news stories, the past two years have seen a significant rise in stories featuring netizens and issues of identity, democracy, the economy, and elections. This may be because the opinions of netizens are useful for news organs seeking to create a partisan narrative. If an election candidate from a less favoured party makes a mistake, a newspaper such as the Taipei Times might seek ‘online opinion’ to reaffirm the critical subtext of their reporting on it. Netizens’ opinions can be harnessed to create the impression of a unified public voice, disseminate the idea that a candidate or campaign has momentum or not, and ultimately impact voting behaviour. Netizen actions and opinions on issues that impact the wider society are being collected and reproduced because they are considered utile by media, but at the same time they are also adding to a wider conversation, be it industrially produced by media, or a manifestation of Taiwanese digital engagement with their democracy.

Finally, I analysed whether the references to netizens in the Taipei Times were fully sourced, and if so, which sources were referenced the most. Between 2009 and 2014, an average of 52% of all articles per year which referenced netizens did not state where the information came from. Of those articles where a source was provided, Facebook was clearly the preferred source of information for the Taipei Times, followed by PTT and then Youtube. Worryingly, the fact that over half of all articles failed to cite a source at all indicates both a lack of rigorous research and professionalism within the journalism industry. ‘Opinion trawling’ is a dangerous strategy because an over-reliance on unverifiable sources can easily become a liability, especially considering the size and frequency of online fraud that is perpetrated. Citing anonymous sources also does little to enhance democratic participation and should only be considered in situations where revealing a person’s identity might put them in danger.

What this exploratory study seems to confirm is that the news media industry and online communities do have some kind of a symbiotic relationship of information exchange and promotion, and it is one that is thriving in Taiwan’s relatively liberal media climate. Whatever the reason traditional media values netizen content, its reproduction of it increases the frequency of opportunities for public opinion to contribute to a wider democratic process. At a previously unseen rate, more and more Taiwanese are getting their voices heard, and their collective output is capturing more print and online prime media ‘real estate’than ever before. This is, in essence, an example of Taiwan’s digital democracy in action. The digitalisation of communication has allowed Taiwanese to augment their formal and ‘static’ democratic institutions, and modes of representation and participation, with ‘dynamic’ and transient platforms and spaces. It is in these spaces that ‘viral’, dissenting, or counter-cultural, content can be produced and quickly shared providing the raw materials for influencing wider public opinion. Digital communications allows Taiwanese the time and capacity to multi-task, including participating in, or contributing to, opinion and events of civic importance. Taiwanese now know they can be workers, students, officials, businesspeople, academics, or tradespeople at the same time as they can be active citizens. Informational communication technology has turned them from citizens to netizens.

To conclude, one of the foundations of Taiwan’s digital democracy is not so much the strong presence of traditional media outlets online but their willingness to put the netizen at the centre of their stories, to shift the focus from Government institutions and formal modes of consensus building and participation towards digital arenas. If the voices of elected representatives are muted, then the constituents will find other ways to be heard. Taiwan’s ‘2D’ democracy is arguably being reshaped by active netizens, and they are making it of, by, and for themselves. The ease of using social media platforms and their seamless and updated integration into handheld communication technology has already changed the political landscape. Taiwanese citizens who have become netizens could yet evolve their use of social media and communication tools to become net-i-zens of the country’s, and the world’s first, ‘4G’ digital democracy.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan. He tweets @BanGaoRen. Image credit: CC by We Make Noise!/Flickr