Digital disruption is undermining democracy—but also holds the power to save it. In Taiwan, civic hackers are demonstrating how.
In the background of 2020’s constant, all-consuming state of emergency—the pandemic, ongoing racial injustice, ongoing climate warming, intensifying inequality, economic crisis—global freedom continues to churn downwards, marking the trend’s fifteenth consecutive year. Open society and the civil liberties on which it rests are in accelerated retreat, squeezed by the intensification of authoritarianism in non-democratic states, the rise of populism, and the dilution of constitutional principles in democracies old and new.
While each state faces its specific challenges, some far graver than others, some common elements of populism apply across the board: economic hardship, rising inequalities, and unemployment compound dissatisfaction with political actors and the systems in which they operate, according to Freedom House. Dissatisfaction breeds mistrust—66 percent of those surveyed in the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer stated they lack confidence that “our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges”—and mistrust calcifies either into apathy (as evidenced by low voter turnout) or anger (exemplified by the intensification of citizen protests around the world).
The channels of civic communication necessary for constructive dialogue between states and citizens are eroding. While “mechanisms are in place for systems to be more democratic than ever…there’s a disconnect between citizens and the officials that represent them,” notes a 2019 IDEA report on the state of democracy. Were these mechanisms not meant to include the internet? The neoliberal trajectory on which digital technology has been set over the past decade has arguably done more to widen the divide than bridge it. While politicians have used the media to further their agendas since time immemorial, the more recent phenomenon of social media’s algorithmic infrastructure offers uniquely powerful tools for targeted messaging in real-time. In our post-truth landscape, where the real and the fake dance in tandem, social platforms have become the battlegrounds of information warfare.
The limits of the neutrality defense that search engines and social media companies have used—when convenient—to eschew responsibility since the early days of the internet have been laid bare, though little has changed in response to the revelations. While lawmakers languish, Facebook’s prioritization of paid speech—and its inaction on misinformation and hate speech—is undermining the concept of freedom of expression, in the very country that claims to hold it so dear. The algorithm-driven hyperpersonalization that inflated filter bubbles has also bulldozed the public square. Hashtags are subverted, weaponized. Accounts are hacked, surveilled, overrun by bots. There is no longer a common point of reference; no shared foundational understanding of reality on which pluralistic, open, and free civil society can play out.
Many of those working in the tech industry even consider technology as bad for civil society’s health. In a Pew Research Center survey that asked tech experts whether digital disruption would help or hurt democracy by 2030, 49 percent leaned towards “hurt.” Zizi Papacharissi, a professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Illinois-Chicago, commented: “The technology we have created was designed to generate profit, not to support democracy. It is possible to do both. We just have not designed it that way. Most technology is designed, implemented and/or deployed through mechanisms that support a strong capitalist model. This needs to be updated in order to be compatible with contemporary societies.” The potential for governments to leverage technology in service of strengthening their democratic processes is vast. Yet few have harnessed it. As a World Economic Forum report on the weakening of representative democracy states, “We have nineteenth century institutions with twentiety century mindsets, attempting to communicate with twenty-first century citizens.”
Out From Under China’s Shadow
One country whose citizens and government have awakened to the opportunity’s scope is an unlikely success story in an ocean of dashed hopes and reversed progress. Only thirty-three years ago, in 1987, Taiwan was still ruled by a military dictatorship, devoid of free elections, an independent media, or strong civil liberties. Upon the lifting of martial law, the country made swift and dramatic gains towards openness. By 1996, Freedom House ranked it as “Free,” and, despite the challenges of warding off China’s influence, it has continued to improve its “freedom” score ever since, currently standing at 93/100.
A turning point came in 2014, when the so-called Sunflower Movement (named after its members’ chosen floral symbol of hope) saw young activists protesting a proposed free trade agreement with China temporarily seize control of the country’s legislature. Not only did they succeed in having it overturned, they also ushered in a new activist-led era in Taiwanese politics. In her book “Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement” (2019), Ming-Sho Ho explains how this action sparked renewed political engagement across the country, including an NGO-led campaign for constitutional reform and the establishment of a watchdog called Watchout [wocao] that leverages digital tools to enhance public understanding of parliament’s workings.
One of the most notable outcomes from the post-Sunflower Movement landscape was the ascendance of g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”), a non-hierarchical group of independent hackers that had been established two years prior. Motivated to improve communication and trust between citizens and the government, they deployed their expertise to create open-source software tools for democratic purposes, holding regular open-to-all hackathons during which the public was invited to share ideas that could then be coded into being.
In late 2014, then-digital minister Jaclyn Tsai dropped by with an idea: a digital platform that would foster constructive communication on matters of public interest, allowing citizens to share their opinions with the government. The resulting vTaiwan—a collaboration between the government and g0v’s hackers—was based on a four-part process: proposal, opinion, reflection, and legislation. The vTaiwan website is often the initial interface: agendas are crowdsourced and determined online before relevant stakeholders are identified and offline meetings are organized around the country, conducted according to the Focused Conversation Method and broadcast in real-time.
The year 2016 saw national elections lead to a change of government, which also resulted in the appointment of g0v member Audrey Tang as digital minister—the country’s youngest minister without portfolio and the world’s first openly transgender minister (she also has an IQ of 180). Right from the start, her role was founded on transparency and collaborative decision-making—a remarkable stance for a government minister to take. As she told Wired in 2018, she sees her ministerial role as “service-based leadership, in the sense that I don't command it to do anything. If they need a facilitator, we provide the facilitator. If they need us to handhold them through talks with angry stakeholders, we do that too. The idea is that we lower their fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” That same year, vTaiwan’s process was applied to twenty-six issues, including the regulation of UberX and a crack down on the posting on non-consensual intimate images. In 80 percent of these cases, the process led to government action.
While vTaiwan has taken on a life of its own—some members of g0v are still involved in elements of its process—it’s only one of many initiatives that have emerged from g0v’s work. I was invited to virtually join their 40th hackathon, held on a Saturday evening in late July. By way of a Jit.si video call, Lisa Lin, a g0v community organizer, conducted a guided tour via laptop around the meeting rooms, which could accommodate 100. Small groups of hackers clustered around laptops, while two large cakes waited to be cut. The mood was jovial, celebratory; social distancing was no longer protocol; Taiwan stymied the spread of COVID-19 early on, and at the time of writing, has experienced no community transmission for over 100 days.
The facilitatory nature of Tang’s role as digital minister—a bridge between civic hackers and the public sector—has been instrumental to the country’s successful curbing of COVID-19. A variety of digital tools to address different aspects of public health were quickly rolled out, including a real-time alert of destinations that had been visited by passengers who disembarked the Diamond Princess cruise ship, a COVID-19 hotbed; a mask supply tracking platform allowing citizens to see which pharmacies have them in stock; and a chatbot in the popular messaging app Line to answer COVID-related queries.
As she wound her way through the mini hackathons taking place in the brightly lit rooms, Lisa explained that g0v’s initiatives can be divided into two main categories. There are public service-related projects which align with government aims, or are created in collaboration with the government, and then—for those projects where g0v may see things differently from the government, often involving enhancing transparency and accountability—there are the projects that push a little harder. “If you’re not going to do it, we’ll do it for you,” she said, a smile playing on her lips.
This is where the emphasis tips from the civic mentality to the hacker mentality. Lisa gives the example of the issue of campaign funding transparency. In Taiwan, government candidates are required to declare all donation and funding sources, but until recently, these records were housed deep inside government buildings, and could only be accessed by presenting an ID card, rifling through paper archives and making photocopies. In 2014, a proposal was raised at a g0v meeting to digitize the records, using a gamified process of optical character recognition—which only took the decentralized group a single night’s work. The government, which had been reluctant to make this information public, was nudged into accountability, and eventually created its own official version of the website in 2019.
In moving flexibly at a speed much faster than the government, yet staying fully transparent—and therefore accountable—g0v provides important checks and balances to government power. The space it has created to allow citizens not only to have a say, but also to potentially have their opinion acted on, has earned it broad international praise. Yet its initiatives aren’t without its shortcomings. Lisa admits that the initiative’s success can be difficult to quantify, noting, “If you ask me what kind of impact vTaiwan has had, I couldn’t tell you,” adding that under the current government, vTaiwan is far less active than it was in 2016. Jason Hsu, an opposition politician and former activist who helped build vTaiwan, laments the non-binding nature of its outcome, telling MIT Technology Review in 2018 that it was a “tiger without teeth.” The impact of g0v’s work is often hard to quantify; often inextricable from other forces at play. This is where the challenges of crowdsourcing consensus reveal themselves. To the group’s members, participation and transparency within themselves cannot be the end goal; the measure of its success will always be decisive action.
Of course, democracy is inherently messy, iterative, and often disappointing. It is a shared belief in the sanctity of its cornerstones and processes—rather than the outcomes it may lead to—that prop it up. Strengthening ties with other countries in similar situations, sharing knowledge, and learning from each other can help bolster motivation to continue. “We used to look at how other countries made laws,” Lisa says, explaining it was common practice for the group to translate legislation into Mandarin and use the framework as a model. “But when we did, it often didn’t fit the culture here. Now we encourage stakeholders to fit the needs of users in Taiwan.”
Today, other countries are looking to Taiwan as a model. Relations with South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan are especially productive. Hackers from all countries often meet together to share knowledge, prototype, and work on country-specific issues, like a Japanese COVID-19 data monitor website created by the international network Facing the Ocean, which was crowdsourced through GitHub and informed the Japanese government’s decision to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Though it is the evolution of unique conditions—and the tireless and selfless work of many individuals—that are molding Taiwan into a high-functioning democratic state with strong accountability, transparency, and public discourse, there is much to be gleaned from its example. The technology—and smart minds who are willing to use it to build things they believe in—already exists. To take advantage of its potential will require paradigm shifts as to the role of government, and the foresight of governments to invest focus, time, and resources into developing digital systems that will facilitate constructive public debate and pivotal action.
For many of today’s declining democracies and their citizens, this will feel Herculean; a nice-to-have agenda item drowned out by the constant flashing of immediately prescient problems. But it’s in times of seismic change that new possibilities can begin to emerge—if only because the status quo is beyond repair. As hegemonies old and new continue to jostle for power at the expense of all else, the smaller and nimbler states once thought to be in their shadows will light the way.
Cover image: Young activists occupied Taiwan’s legislature in 2014 to oppose a new trade pact with Beijing. Photo courtesy of Artemas Liu. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
Anna Dorothea Ker