Tue, May 02, 2017 - Page 3 News List

‘Hacker minister’ Tang reshaping digital democracy


Minister Without Portfolio Audrey Tang speaks during an interview in Seoul on April 12.

Photo: AP

Minister Without Portfolio Audrey Tang (唐鳳), a computer prodigy and entrepreneur who taught herself programming at age eight, says she is a “civic hacker” who, like a locksmith, uses specialized skills to help rather than harm.

Appointed by leaders hoping to better connect with young voters who helped sweep President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) into office last year, 35-year-old Tang is using her expertise to more directly involve the public in policymaking and to counter “fake news.”

“Just by getting people to listen to the ideas that they don’t like, basically, develops their immune systems,” Tang said last month in an interview while visiting Seoul for the annual Codegate international hacking competition.

“If people have already considered carefully even the position of people they don’t agree with, they already have some kind of inoculation in their mind, so that they will not fall victim to rumors,” she said.

One of Tang’s initiatives is an artificial intelligence-powered system called Pol.is that aggregates and shares public views on policy issues to help determine the exact degree of support for a particular position.

The government can use that data, for example, in negotiations over regulating Uber and other taxi services, Tang said.

The approach reflects an effort to encourage deep thinking and listening on a mass scale, unlike the fragmented and “half-baked” ideas often found in social media posts, said Ming-Yeh Rawnsley, a research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London.

“It is important that [the] Taiwanese government is thinking about practicing deliberative democracy,” Rawnsley said. “While the explosion of social media platforms creates many exciting opportunities for public expression and mass participation, it also leads to a phenomenon where everyone wants to talk, but few care to listen.”

Tang’s digital-friendly stance includes allowing top-level computer game players in the nation to serve an alternative form of compulsory military service. That gives professional e-sports League of Legends players the same opportunities an Olympics medalist would get.

Next year, she plans to introduce classes on “information technology and media literacy” for all school years to help students learn to distinguish rumors and falsehoods from facts.

“The idea is not about spotting ‘fake news,’ but about being able to make decisions ... so that people don’t get swayed in one way or another based on rumors,” Tang said.

Taiwanese are keen on online forums like Twitter, whose 140-character limit for posts favors writing in Chinese characters that often can say more with fewer characters than in English.

Tang objected to the term “fake news,” saying it is unfair to journalists.

However, she said she finds US President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic use of Twitter “refreshing.”

Trump’s short declarations, though often surprising, leave little leeway for misinterpretation, she said.

“If I make all my messages self-contained and short, then there’s no danger of being taken out of context. That’s the basic thing I’ve learned,” Tang said. “@realDonaldTrump uses Twitter ... the way it is meant to be” used, she said.

Tang is the nation’s first transgender government minister, a rarity especially in East Asia, where outspoken conservative groups often publicly condemn sexual minorities.

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