Several years ago, I spent an evening in a restaurant with a group of long-term resident foreign bloggers, reporters and academics, chewing over the news of the day and prognosticating on the likely electoral fortunes of the nation’s political parties.
I remember at one point, a few drinks down the line, vaguely enthusing about what I had dubbed in 2014 Taiwan’s “Digital Democracy.”
I remember it mostly because of the way one of the country’s most accurate psephologists [political scientists who analyze elections] scoffed at me.
Admittedly, as I had not presented my case succinctly or in sufficient detail, it did rather invite the skeptical response it earned. Nevertheless, it highlighted how wary academics were, rightly, about the coming convergence of democratic practice and institutions with digital means of communication and data sharing.
They were justifiably not going to welcome a lemming-like rush over a digital cliff for ill-defined advantages when its negative consequences could potentially be destructive to the integrity and the viable functioning of democracy itself.
At the time digital democracy was mostly synonymous with electronic voting. They could not be blamed if their first thought was “Danger, Will Robinson!”
As hackers at the DEF CON convention in Las Vegas demonstrate with alarming alacrity each year, modifying and falsifying the results of elections tabulated using electronic voting machines is absurdly easy.
The now two years of hysterical squawking in the US about alleged “Russian interference” in the 2016 US presidential election, including rumors of vote-machine tampering — in an election lost to catastrophic hubris, the precoronation of a weak and universally disliked candidate, and Beltway contempt for voters — is comical, given the elephant in the room that nearly all states in the US had long abandoned paper ballots in favor of a reliable and untraceable means to rig every election.
If we add regular gerrymandering and active attempts at voter disenfranchisement, both often with overt racist intentions, the biggest problem of that abject (s)election was not outside interference, but that the entire process was an unethical spectacle of pure power projection led by people who clearly had no actual respect for the concept of democracy and no desire to let it prevent them from winning.
No wonder then that once the votes were counted, the largest “electorate” by far was “did not or could not vote.”
If that was an example of digital democracy in practice, it is no wonder that those concerned with making contemporary democratic participation more robust using digital technology are hesitant.
However, the first mistake would be to be burdened with the illusion that “the empire” is either a global beacon of democracy or a leading practitioner of it. The second is to focus on the casting of votes as the defining and most important feature of democratic participation and accountability.
Indeed, when I first wrote about digital democracy, I intentionally excluded electronic voting as a feature of it. Instead, using Taiwan as a leading example of the development of digital democracy in the world, I argued that one of the early signs of Taiwan’s digital democratization was how traditional media outlets increasingly put “netizens” at the center of their stories, thereby “upgrading” focus on public expressions of physical confrontation with government institutions and elected officials to include less traditional ways of expressing opinions, building consensus and participating in digital arenas.
As Chris Horton’s excellent article “The simple but ingenious system Taiwan uses to crowdsource its laws” published on Tuesday last week in the MIT Technology Review illustrates, the digital democracy that I anticipated would evolve in some way is very much starting to come to pass.
Last year, the Guardian ran an article that explored the role of tech in democracy and elections.
It said that “the ... technique has been employed by Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos, but the example the techies all use is Taiwan, where the government does real-time consultation with its citizens using the pol.is platform.”
Taiwan is leading the way, but as Horton wrote, there is only so much that can be done before the government, local and central, become both a facilitator and an obstacle to further progress.
As [Sunflower movement activist] Wu Min-hsuan (吳銘軒) said in Horton’s piece: “The experiment is important and has value, but the platform has its limits. It needs real power.”
There is an old cynical joke about elections that goes: “If voting made a difference, they would make it illegal.”
Thus it is with the nature of power.
In 1857, Frederick Douglass delivered a West India Emancipation speech at Canandaigua, New York, a speech that has now become famously summed up in the quote “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
However, sometimes an electorate votes for a government that is more sensitive to the concerns of the public, respects the democratic process and its necessary “uncertain outcomes,” and seeks to enhance democratic participation.
It might do this in good faith, or — more cynically as an electoral calculus — to improve public engagement with its policies to improve its polling, but if it is willing to go that far, as the government has over two administrations, it deserves and needs an extra push — a “demand” — to concede actual power to [e-government] platforms like Join and vTaiwan [outlined in Horton’s article], a move that would exponentially motivate public engagement with them.
More importantly, these platforms are set up to generate consensus, not conflict, which one would think would be very attractive to governments, which regularly fall back on tepid, anecdotal statements about a policy going against public consensus, more often than not wielded as an excuse for inaction out of fear of an assumed media backlash.
Join, already large and growing in membership, contrasts sharply with the validation harvesting, confrontation and echo-chamber-inducing models of Twitter and Facebook.
Both these world-dominant platforms have been demonstrated to be completely susceptible to “astroturfing” [the creation of fake grassroots groups by corporate and special interests] and both are utterly riven with both covert state actors, extremists and false-flag operatives.
While Twitter is not popular in Taiwan, Facebook is and represents the opposite of Join and vTaiwan — Facebook is a force that destabilizes, not enhances, Taiwan’s robust democracy.
The government should give power to platforms like Join, transforming policymaking to make it truly inclusive, thereby giving participants a sense of ownership of policies outside of just voting for an official and hoping that they will decide, or endlessly lobbying them, to push for a bill or policy they like.
This might help prevent the kind of backlash that the government experienced over its incompetently handled and promoted labor and pension reforms.
Who knows what other progress could be made with such a model? It could mean an end to the death penalty and the expensive failure of the war on drugs, for example.
The international angle cannot be neglected. It would highlight the growing and irreconcilable difference between the two nations on either side of the Taiwan Strait.
One an authoritarian police state spying on every keystroke and battling to control all information its citizens consume while instantly muzzling, to absurd degrees, any kind of criticism or protest; the other a democratic nation that not only allows protests, but gives power to its citizens to actually debate and shape the policies they want via consensus building, not hampered by reactionary social conventions and hierarchies.
If Taiwan wants to make the case that it is not China, this is one way to do it, simultaneously undermining and dissolving the myth the People’s Republic of China likes to propagate that Taiwan is an example of democracy being too messy, conflictual and inefficient.
Finally, by digitizing some of its democratic deficits, once Taiwan has gained sufficient experience and developed expertise in this area, it could begin to export models of digital democracy worldwide. That is potentially a revenue stream, if not a source of soft power.
Government institutions face daily digital attacks from state actors and they struggle to influence opinion on forums that they rightly do not control.
Defending and reinforcing a sense of national cohesion and identity while China and its allies in Taiwan try to eliminate online the presence and sense of Taiwan as a nation — and divide Taiwanese by tapping into their fatalism about the nation’s diminishing international visibility — should be seen as priority and a legitimate part of the nation’s defense.
It is an accepted correlation that the post-1996 rise in Taiwanese identity came as the nation democratized. It is time to use information technology to continue that process, not only through transitional justice, but through continually “upgrading” democracy to make it something that every Taiwanese feels they own and will passionately defend.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident in Taiwan.
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