The web’s a threat to democracy? Think again, Taiwan says.

The web’s a threat to democracy? Think again, Taiwan says.

Why We Wrote This

Technology and democracy have had a fraught relationship lately, with social media blamed for polarizing and coarsening politics. But Taiwan may point to another path: harnessing the web to foster consensus, not discord.

Ahn Young-joon/AP/File

Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang listens during an interview in Seoul, South Korea April 12, 2017. Ms. Tang, a computer prodigy and entrepreneur, hopes to use the internet to transform public involvement in government.

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April 8, 2020

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Audrey Tang has worn a lot of hats. As a gifted teenager, she won recognition as a software programmer, and founded her own company. She’s been a Silicon Valley worker and a “hacktivist.” She’s a Taiwanese millennial: a technically minded generation, with a strong sense of Taiwanese identity, and the first in decades to be able to express themselves freely. 

And she’s also a minister in the Taiwanese Cabinet – the youngest-ever appointed without a portfolio, and the nation’s first transgender minister. 

Ms. Tang’s ministry, now focused on digital issues, is leading a charge to strengthen the island’s democracy with technology – harnessing digital tools to foster public engagement, seek consensus, and seek solutions in everything from the environment, to national security, to the new coronavirus. An “e-mask ordering system” and online mask map are part of a system that guarantees three masks per week for each of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens, while allowing it to donate millions more abroad. 

Taiwan’s ability to make technology invigorate democracy, not undermine it, holds lessons for other countries, digital experts say. 

“Our democracy is very young” and agile, says Ms. Tang. “We don’t have hundreds of years of proud tradition,” she laughs. “We change very quickly, adapt very quickly.”

Taipei, Taiwan

Audrey Tang moves gracefully through a Taipei convenience store, collecting her pre-ordered face mask. “Thank you,” she says with a Buddha-like smile, bowing slightly as she receives the mask from a uniformed store clerk. It all takes less than a minute.

The mask distribution system demonstrated by Ms. Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, guarantees three masks per week for each of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens. Engineers with Ms. Tang’s ministry developed an online app – “the e-mask ordering system” – preventing panic and long lines at stores, while boosting trust in the government response. In days, Ms. Tang also created a “mask information platform” displaying scores of real-time maps detailing the mask supply at pharmacies across the island.

These innovations mark just one example of how the island nation of Taiwan, with wizard-like efficiency, has so far pulled off one of the world’s most striking coronavirus success stories. Located just 80 miles off the coast of mainland China, Taiwan faced early exposure to the virus: Hundreds of thousands of its citizens work in China, and millions of Chinese visit the island each year. But Taiwan so far has had five deaths and fewer than 400 cases.

Yet the significance of this campaign goes far beyond the current public health crisis. It is further evidence of how Taiwan’s advances in digital self-governance and civic technology are strengthening its democratic system, digital experts and officials say.

The constructive engagement of the public in bottom-up governance has led to concrete advances in areas ranging from the environment to transportation and national security.


In scramble for supplies, states start banding together

To be sure, 21st
-century technologies such as social media have intensified polarization and anger, weakening liberal democracies. But Taiwan has figured out how to make technology invigorate democracy, not undermine it, they say.

“Our democracy is very young” and agile, says Ms. Tang. “We don’t have hundreds of years of proud tradition,” she laughs. “We change very quickly, adapt very quickly.”

Taiwan has emerged as a cutting-edge model – a political laboratory of sorts – for using technology to improve democratic governance. It’s an example other countries are eager to learn from, from New Zealand to Italy to the United States.

One key element of Taiwan’s success is its vibrant tech culture, which sprang into action this winter as the island confronted the potentially disastrous outbreak of coronavirus just offshore, in China.

Taiwan’s “remarkable … culture of civic tech participation” saw software engineers start spontaneously building online tools to combat the virus without waiting for a government go-ahead, says E. Glen Weyl, founder and chairman of the RadicalxChange Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving democratic systems and market economies.

“As soon as people got concerned, it didn’t just get channeled into panic. … They just built the tools,” such as the face mask maps, says Dr. Weyl, who is co-chair of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics’ COVID-19 Rapid Response committee. “They went to the tools instead of raiding their local stores.”

Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Pedestrians wear face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus on the streets of Taipei, Taiwan, March 31, 2020. Digital tools have helped Taiwan’s government distribute masks.

A new generation

In her bright, airy office at downtown Taipei’s Social Innovation Lab in January, Digital Minister Tang, wearing a flowing, dropped-shoulder jacket, is about to launch this year’s Presidential Hackathon.

Drawing on Taiwan’s hacker culture, the event is like a highly transparent national brainstorming and data-crunching exercise to produce creative solutions to priority problems. Most strikingly, the competition has binding results: Winning teams are guaranteed their projects will be put on the national policy agenda, with a budget.

In another display of radical openness, Ms. Tang welcomes members of the public to drop by and trade ideas with her every Wednesday at the lab, a one-stop hub for government services and social entrepreneurs, built in a former Air Force headquarters.

Such scenes would have been unthinkable in Taiwan just a generation ago, when the island was still under a martial law regime imposed by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in 1949 and not lifted until 1987. Since then, though, Taiwan’s democracy has grown up, evolving along with the rise of personal computers, press freedom, the internet, and social media. Taiwan held its first presidential election in 1996, the year that the World Wide Web became popular. In successive elections, candidates “imagined their administration in tandem with … new digital advancements,” says Ms. Tang.

Ms. Tang is representative of Taiwan’s millennial generation, one that is technically minded, with a strong sense of Taiwanese identity, and the first in decades to be able to express themselves freely. A gifted, largely self-taught polymath, she gravitated to computers early. As a teenager, she won recognition as a talented free software programmer, starting her own company at 16 and working in Silicon Valley.

Then politics called. In March 2014, Ms. Tang joined Taiwan’s student-led “sunflower” protest movement, which for three weeks seized control of the national legislature to oppose a pending free trade agreement with China. Students argued the accord would allow Beijing to gain control of strategic sectors of Taiwan’s economy, and demanded an open debate over the agreement, which the government classified as internal. Ms. Tang and other “hacktivists” – tech-savvy activists who design their own solutions to government issues – set up communications and transmitted the debate to millions of people. 

The movement won broad public support, helping prompt a change in government in 2016 with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen. Protests morphed into sustained participation, as “hactivists” joined the government. President Tsai’s administration recruited dozens of young social entrepreneurs and innovators to serve as “reverse mentors” for older ministers, and to broaden public engagement. Ms. Tang became Taiwan’s youngest-ever minister without portfolio, focused on digital governance. She is also Taiwan’s first transgender minister. 

A self-described “conservative anarchist,” Ms. Tang rejects a top-down approach that assumes the government has all the answers, saying her job as minister is to facilitate the marriage of good ideas and execution. “She has a tremendous faith in the capacity of people,” says Dr. Weyl, who has worked with Ms. Tang on several civic technology projects and serves with her on the board of RadicalxChange. Brilliant and empathetic, she inspires people to action, he says, adding, “Audrey is the most impressive person I have ever met.”

Forging consensus

Along Taiwan’s southwestern coast, streams flow through mango orchards and rice paddies toward the sea, some carrying unwanted pollutants. Soon, though, a cheap, solar-powered device called a “water box” will proliferate along Taiwan’s waterways, measuring pollutants. The data will be recorded on a ledger protected by blockchain technology.

The water boxes could prove revolutionary in allowing Taiwan’s farmers, citizens, and industrial plants to detect and stop sources of water pollution, Ms. Tang says. The government will sanction polluters by cutting their electricity and water supply. New Zealand has sent representatives to study the initiative for possible use.

The innovative device – designed by a team from the 2019 Presidential Hackathon – is just one of many examples of the creative power of citizens unleashed by Taiwan’s digital democracy.

Citizens help select the projects on Taiwan’s government-run “Join” e-democracy platform, which has so far hosted more than 10 million unique visitors, using a sophisticated system called quadratic voting. Each person has 99 points to award to their favorite projects based on their preferences, resulting in a more “fair, balanced, and … pro-social” outcome because it more fully captures people’s choices, Ms. Tang says.

“Most people feel they have won after they see the tallying, instead of half the people feeling that they have lost,” she explains. Moreover, anyone can launch an e-petition on the Join platform, and once it reaches 5,000 signatures, the relevant ministries must respond in public.

In this way, Taiwan’s government invites change from the inside out, through transparency, open data, and involvement of the public in solving national problems. Challenges such as bureaucratic resistance and civil servants preferring anonymity are real, Ms. Tang says, but President Tsai’s commitment to act on the grassroots projects helps overcome them.

From the outside in, meanwhile, Taiwan’s civic technology community takes the initiative to improve and demystify government, and organize debates on key issues. A movement called g0v, or “gov-zero” – made up of coders, NGOs, and civil servants – clones government websites and builds better versions, which the government often adopts. It also runs a forum called vTaiwan that has facilitated debate on dozens of heated issues, from Uber regulation to online liquor sales – often shaping government policy.

vTaiwan uses a tool created by the Seattle-based nonprofit Pol.is that applies machine learning to help large groups achieve consensus through civil debate. A key feature keeping the debate constructive is that everyone must offer ideas by posting comments. Others can click “agree” “disagree” or “pass” on these ideas, but there is no “reply” function – a practice that invites trolling. As the debate unfolds, Pol.is creates an interactive map grouping people according to viewpoints and showing areas of agreement.  

Taiwan is “an incredible petri dish for democratic practices,” says Colin Megill, CEO and co-founder of Pol.is. The nation’s advances are spreading overseas, with Italy setting up its own g0v program, for example.

Taiwan’s virtuous circle of public engagement and government action builds trust, which fuels more enthusiastic participation. The work of consensus-building also inoculates Taiwan against political tribalism and nationalist populism, Ms. Tang stresses. People “feel they are after all the same polity,” she says.

Masks and more

Taiwan’s digital democracy activists have often found themselves coming to the island’s defense.

In recent years, they’ve developed instant fact-checking tools that have helped fend off an onslaught of 30 million monthly cyberattacks – much of it disinformation from mainland China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory.

Most recently with the coronavirus pandemic, Taiwan’s “hacktivists” figured out how to help track cases. After Taiwan’s government released locations visited by travelers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, for example, they quickly built a location history tool that allowed people to compare their whereabouts with those of confirmed cases, while also protecting their privacy.

Such pinpoint tools have allowed Taiwan to minimize its outbreak without shutting down the economy.

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Taiwan’s use of technology to enlist its citizenry in collaborative problem-solving also appears to have helped protect the island from polarization, populist movements, and political gridlock. “All of the major things that other democracies have been struggling with, somehow Taiwan has avoided, and COVID is just the most extreme example of this,” says Dr. Weyl. Learning from Taiwan, he says, could “help save liberal democracy.”

Ms. Tang describes Taiwan as “just part of this global movement to try to improve democracy’s relevance.” “As we say, Taiwan can help,” she stressed, quoting her government’s slogan, in an appearance in Washington, D.C., last month. Help indeed: Taiwan donated 2 million surgical masks to the United States, with delivery expected this week.

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