“Governing by Memes”: COVID-19, Conspiracy, and Digital Democracy in Taiwan 

Written by Wen Liu and Hsin-I Sydney Yueh.

Image credit: Maintain social distancing ( July 10, 2020) by MOHW of Taiwan 衛生福利部/ Twitter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly rearranged our social relations and affective connections. Amid disinformation and virus-origin conspiracy theories circulating across the social landscape, governmental responses to the pandemic have included various public health measures, such as lockdowns and mask mandates, and political measures, such as escalating geopolitical conflicts between the United States and China. Around the world, fear has been one of the most prominent affective responses to the pandemic, as driven by disinformation practices, intensified geopolitics, and our raw psychic fear about the unknown.  

Despite the intensified conflicts in our geopolitical, national, and interpersonal spheres, social media uniquely elicits immediate emotions. Humorous memes, especially, render reparative potential through palpable affects. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, in Wen Liu’s chapter, “Beyond Critique and Conspiracy: COVID Memes as Reparative Practices in Digital Taiwan,” I analyse how memes were effectively used in Taiwan to fend off the perils of misinformation in cyberspace. 

In Taiwan, memes are not only ways in which Taiwanese netizens challenge the international exclusion of the country from global health dialogues and China’s continuous annexation threats but also tools of the government to combat disinformation about the virus. Taiwan provides a distinct case of communication practice that simultaneously generates identification with the state and critical intervention in governmental policy via internet memes.   

Rather than simply taking hegemonic control over information flows, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre was responsive to public concerns and criticisms​ by holding press conferences every day for two consecutive years. In addition, the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) utilised memes to correct misinformation and disinformation, such as “Zongchai” (總柴), the MOHW’s Shiba Inu mascot that features in memes offering various suggestions on how to stay safe during the pandemic. These MOHW memes include the graphic below, which portrays multiple “​Zongchai” standing in a line to demonstrate social distancing standards both indoors and outdoors. 

​​Not merely an internet phenomenon, the MOHW’s “Zongchai” Shiba Inu messages are a common feature of multilingual public announcements in places such as government buildings, shopping malls, and convenience stores. The media has called the clever utilisation of social media by state institutions “Governing by Memes” (迷因治國), which different government agencies have adopted to spread information during COVID-19.​ 

In the midst of the scholarly debates around whether authoritarian or democratic governments deal with COVID-19 better, Taiwan stands out as a critical case that has implemented both a strong form of state governmentality and a flexible process of transparent democracy.  

In an invited speech with Ireland’s Construction Industry Federation on October 1, 2020, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, discussed “how digital innovation can fight pandemics and strengthen democracy.” Tang particularly emphasised how the Taiwanese government adopts a transparent communication approach built on “fast, fair, and fun” principles to combat the pandemic. The designated phone line for all questions related to COVID-19, the daily press conference hosted by the CECC, and a citizen-initiated interactive map about mask distribution were all central aspects of daily life during the height of the pandemic in Taiwan. In addition, they created a collective bonding experience among Taiwanese residents.  

On a similar note, in an attempt to reduce toilet paper panic hoarding, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has produced a meme of a cartoon version of Premier Su Tseng-chang shaking his buttocks with the text, “We only have one butt. Don’t hoard. Don’t Trust rumours,” which plays with the homophony between the pronunciation of “hoard” and “butt” in Mandarin. Furthermore, as one of the few countries that hosted in-person classes during the 2021 spring semester, the Ministry of Education also created iconic memes tailored to college students in Taiwan.  

The memes imitate well-known Taiwanese astrologist Jesse Tang’s weekly horoscope by featuring an astrologist figure that dresses in the same way as Tang alongside twelve horoscope forecasts that playfully address how people of different astrological signs must pay attention to epidemic prevention. For example, the meme reminds Pisces to remember “washing hands after holding hands with others” and warns Leos that “wearing face masks even if lining up to buying the masks may easily agitate you.”  

Instead of sending dry statistics on toilet paper usage and storage or the risks of attending in-person classes, these memes utilise humour to raise public awareness and spread coherent messages about epidemic prevention. In addition, these memes turn state institutions into figures that ordinary citizens can relate to and localise their content to fit into Taiwanese popular culture preferences for cute animal characters and astrology.  

The Virality of Memes 

Memes today are complex cultural practices that are fundamental to our digital experiences and indicate what Limor Shifman calls “deep social and cultural structures.” Memes connect what is already known and circulatable within a given culture, revel in potential linkages, and thus produce different meanings and affective responses to an event. However, memes are also self-deprecating. They do not take the information they generate too seriously; their goal is humorous or pleasurable release. 

Interestingly, Shifman observes that successful memes are positive, simple, and humorous, with memes that feature ordinary people and flawed masculinity being the most successful. This attribute of content spreadability leads to the surprising finding that relatively unrefined memes are more popular than ones that have been over-interpreted or over-determined by existing meanings. Shifman observes this finding because “the ostensibly unfinished, unpolished, amateur-looking memes” appear more welcoming and inspire people “to fill in the gaps, address the puzzles, or mock its creator. 

Indeed, in Taiwan’s case, we can see how the discourses of warnings and risks often associated with public health measures are transformed via memes into forms of cultural communication that spark interest and dialogue in and beyond the digital sphere. In an era of attention scarcity, memetic communication effectively attracts attention in its fast circulation cycles. Moreover, the highly specified contents that require complex “meme literacy” of a given subculture also enhance its bonding experience in a country facing challenges over its national status. 

As the COVID-19 virus quickly transmits and mutates across national boundaries and populations, memes in the digital sphere have displayed a parallel contagion process, constantly taking new shapes and affecting social discourses in new ways. While memes cannot replace carefully crafted scholarship and cautious criticism, they must be understood as an emergent form of sociality that has resulted in political shifts and consequences on the ground. At its best, the meme genre has shown its potential to forge reparative and pleasurable forms of sociality: from the democratic biopolitical community against viral pandemic proliferation to the imagined digital community against rising authoritarianism. 

The digital culture and sociality of Taiwan, as Liu has demonstrated in the examples above, have created spaces for generating what queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, terms a reparative practice based on “weak theory.” In contrast to strong theory, weak theory rejects the paranoid mode of analysis that tends toward universality and prodromal diagnosis. Further discussion of how Taiwan’s digital culture can elaborate Sedgwick’s theory as a queer intervention can be found in Liu’s chapter “Beyond Critique and Conspiracy: COVID Memes as Reparative Practices in Digital Taiwan” in Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms: Performing Identities in Taiwan and Hong Kong

Wen Liu is an assistant research professor at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Trained as a critical social psychologist, her research investigates diasporic Asian American subjectivities, queer geopolitics, and Taiwan’s security during US-China inter-imperial rivalry. 

Hsin-I Sydney Yueh is Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, Columbia, U.S.A. She is the author of Identity Politics and Popular Culture in Taiwan: A Sajiao Generation (Lexington Books, 2016). She serves on the board of directors (2020–2023) for North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) to promote Taiwan studies in North America.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms.”

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