Fri, Oct 14, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Talk: An insider’s guide to virtual activism

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff Reporter

Portnoy Cheng, a well-known Taiwanese blogger, will discuss the state of online social activism during a panel discussion in Taipei tomorrow titled Against the Grain.

Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times

When Portnoy Cheng (鄭國威) began his online activism in 2005, there was only a handful of bloggers writing about social issues in Taiwan. Today, he estimates that the number has ballooned to more than 200 activists who use various social media to draw attention to everything from media reform and nuclear power to the environment and land rights.

But Cheng isn’t sure if this is a positive or negative development. In the past, the tiny community could count on support from bloggers who write about other topics — travel, for example, or food.

“Today bloggers outside the field of social activism feel that there are enough of us so they don’t need to give us a hand. They might be interested or care about an event, but might not write a post about it or click ‘like,’” he said.

Cheng is one of three activists who will participate in Against the Grain, a panel discussion about the state of virtual activism in Southeast Asia. He will share the stage tomorrow with Chu Hoi-dick (朱凱迪), a social activist from Hong Kong, and Nicole Seah (佘雪玲), a social media advocate and the youngest female ever to stand in an election in Singapore. The lecture and forum, hosted by the Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation (龍應台文化基金會) as part of its Youth Vision Taiwan (青年視野論壇), will be conducted in English.

Cheng has campaigned against the demolition of the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium (樂生療養院) and the lack of government transparency during the melamine-tainted food scare in 2008. More recently, he protested against “land grabbing” by Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co (KPTC, 國光石化) in Changhua County and the government’s planned science park expansion on farmland in Dapu Borough (大埔), Miaoli County.

He currently works at the Association of Digital Culture, Taiwan (台灣數位文化協會), a non-profit organization of “ambitious and hot-blooded bloggers” whose goal is to “bridge the digital gap between various social issues and groups,” according to its Web site.

Cheng is a vocal critic of the government and corporations, so I asked him if he feared the kind of legal action that resulted in a food blogger being given a 30-day suspended sentence in June for writing a negative review of a restaurant, or the NT$50 million (US$1.7 million) libel suit brought against a blogger by former Taipei County commissioner Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋).

“If you read Taiwanese blogs, there is a lot criticism, but 99.9 percent of us are fine. We will not get into trouble,” he said. He added that he doesn’t think the beef noodle restaurant case “is a symbol as a restriction to freedom of expression.”

He said, however, that politicians

and corporations have become savvy about responding to criticism by

online activists.

“It’s a challenge for us because it’s getting harder and harder to get a reaction from them,” he said.

When asked which was his most successful campaign, Cheng offered a somewhat muted response.

“I can’t say any campaign has ever been successful,” he said. “Even though construction of the Kuokuang Petrochemical [naphtha cracker complex] was stopped, government policy didn’t change. The big direction didn’t change. They still want heavy industry.”

He added that the lack of systemic change within government and industry has left him frustrated — so much so that he has decided to bow out as a frontline activist.

“There is a whole new generation of enthusiastic people who want to be the face of these campaigns and are connected through social media. My role now is to be the supporting army,” Cheng said.

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