Written by Sam Robbins.
As someone who has studied Taiwanese politics, I have come across my fair share of seemingly unusual election campaign strategies that have been used in Taiwan over the last few decades. For example, I vividly remember my teacher showing me a rap song produced by the KMT in the 2000s, and the DPP turning their key politicians into cartoon superheroes in their 1997 campaign. More recently, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je combined with Taiwanese rapper Chunyan to create the rap song “Do Things Right” as part of his 2018 re-election campaign. Perhaps because competitive multi-party elections are still so new in Taiwan, there seems to be a willingness from all major parties to experiment with new campaign techniques and find new ways to communicate their messages to voters.
The most recent trend that has emerged is that Taiwanese candidates have begun collaborating with youtubers. President Tsai Ing-wen begun appearing in a series of youtube videos created by a range of different creators. Tsai has taken tests of her Taiwanese Hokkien ability; participated in muckbangs (videos of people eating large amounts of foods); and invited a popular English educator onto her airplane to discuss her travels. Tsai has also engaged in somewhat more traditional interview-style collaborations, but the topics tend to be a mix of lifestyle and light policy questions. Tsai has also started her own vlog series on her own youtube channel titled “Where is Tsai now” (小蔡去哪裡？), which are highly produced, part-cartoon videos that follow her on her travels.
Of course, politicians promoting themselves online is nothing new: many Taiwanese politicians had blogs in the presidential race in 2000, and now almost all politicians have either a facebook fan page, twitter, or an official website. What is different about these youtube collaborations is that they aimed almost exclusively at young voters. Indeed, judging by the comments, many of the viewers are not even of voting age yet. It is also unusual to see politicians appear in such unofficial, unpolitical contexts. For example, many of these interviews take place in the youtubers’ houses. The question should thus be asked, why are politicians putting effort into youtube?
Part of the reason lies in the fact that these interviews always make the politicians look good. It gives them a chance to express their political values without being challenged; to talk policy in a casual way; and perhaps crucially, to appear approachable and human. This issue of approachability has been an acute concern for president Tsai, who has used a range of tactics over this election campaign to seem more fun or relatable. Tsai has faced the same criticism that many female politicians face the world over, which is that she is seen as being somewhat robotic, cold, and perhaps even boring. To tackle this, Tsai has started making more appearances in colourful clothes, her campaign has started to use new nicknames for her, and she even published a full game in which she is depicted as a high-school student in an anime style. These youtube appearances seem to be part of a concerted effort to seem approachable, fun, and perhaps crucially, not-boring, to younger voters. These videos make Tsai seem much less distant and can give you the sense that you are seeing the real Tsai Ing-wen, even if they are highly produced, edited, and planned.
It is not just Tsai who has taken to Youtube to engage with voters. For example, the Minister of Education, Pan Wen-Chung, has also appeared in certain youtube videos where he discussed his life and work and explained reforms to the high school curriculum in Taiwan. It seems there is a broader push within the DPP to present themselves as more reachable, or at least to be more visible. Tsai’s 2020 rival, Han Kuo-Yu has also tried this strategy, but with somewhat less success. For example, twenty-year youtuber Chung Ming-Hsuan famously posted a video explaining why he refused to accept an invitation to collaborate with Han, citing the homophobia of the KMT as his main reason. Most of the youtubers who did collaborate with Tsai or other DPP figures did not collaborate with the KMT, though it is not clear whether this is because the KMT did not contact them or because they denied in private.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these youtube collaborations has been Tsai’s willingness to collaborate with non-Taiwanese youtuber. Tsai has appeared in videos from American and Japanese youtubers where she took the same kind of half-politics-half-lifestyle interviews as she did in appearances with Taiwanese youtubers. Tsai has seemingly decided that this visibility can boost her image abroad. These videos have even been picked up by official Taiwanese tourism agencies in different agencies, which have promoted these videos. The tourism board in Taiwan has often invited foreign vloggers to Taiwan, and recently even created a contest to allow vloggers to stay a night in the presidential office. But it is only recently that Tsai herself has appeared in the videos of foreign vloggers. In these videos, Tsai touches on her somewhat usual themes of Taiwan as a progressive, advanced, democratic country with a female head of state and legal gay marriage. It seems that these collaborations are the newest innovation in the constant struggle to create soft power for Taiwan and make Taiwan visible.
Taiwanese politics has been digital as long as it has been democratic. Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996 was hotly debated on popular BBS systems of the time. More recent elections have been fought on blogs, PTT, facebook and elsewhere. Taiwanese politicians have always been looking for new methods to connect with voters and make themselves visible in an ever-changing digital landscape. As well as many of the more conventional online platforms used by politicians the world over, Taiwanese politicians have also employed a much more uncommon digital strategy. Collaborating with youtubers has given these politicians a way to seem approachable and relatable to young Taiwanese voters, and has even been used to promote Taiwan internationally.
Sam Robbins is studying for a masters degree in Sociology at National Taiwan University, he focuses on digital society and digital politics in Taiwan. He is also a researcher for the English-language, Taiwan current affairs podcast “The Taiwan Take”, which can be found on all major podcast platforms or here.