Photo credit: 反馬英九聯盟
Formosa Ex Machina is a column about Taiwanese netizens, and the intersection of politics and the internet in Taiwan.
“LOOK AT FRANCE. Look at Syria. Do we want peaceful cross-strait relations? Or do we want hostility? If you want peace, vote for the Kuomintang (KMT)! Vote Eric Chu (朱立倫)!”
At a time of global solidarity and mourning for the victims of the Paris terror attack, KMT legislator Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) had decided to play the fear card at a campaign event for KMT legislative candidate, Shen Chi-hui (沈智慧). The comments could at best be seen in bad taste,and at worse be seen as insensitive, ignorant, and unsympathetic.
With her remarks coming in less than 24 hours after the tragedy, a number of prominent Taiwanese social media personalities reacted with horror at Lu’s audacity.
“We should be mourning those who have lost their lives today, offer aid to the injured, and work towards resolving and reconciling the hate and enmity of the situation,” said Wang Yi-kai (王奕凱), a prominent Sunflower Movement leader.
“An election campaign that’s fought like this, where voters are menaced to consume the dead unscrupulously, makes me despise the KMT even more,” he added.
Popular Taiwan BBS messaging board PTT (批踢踢) also seized on Lu’s comments, with hundred of PTT-er’s (鄉民) lining up to let Lu and the KMT have it.
“Does she mean that China is a terrorist organization? So what does that make the KMT?” asked one PTT netizen.
But Lu’s comments received the most attention from a number of Facebook fan groups dedicated to skewering President Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT. With followers numbering in the tens and even hundreds of thousands, Lu’s comments were widely shared and commented on by netizens.
Casting a critical eye at the KMT’s every word and action, these fan groups have enormous potential to influence perceptions of the KMT on Facebook. Many of these groups share news reports that critique the KMT, like the recent report featuring Lu.
These groups are the most effective when they deliver incisive, eye-catching, and humorous messages to their followers in the form of short slogans, or memes (often called KUSOs in Taiwan).
As the number of these Facebook fan pages and their followers increases, so do their power to influence voters in elections, and create new narratives of political figures like Lu Shiow-yen that are outside of her control.
The Rise of Facebook Fan Pages Mocking the KMT
THERE IS CERTAINLY no shortage of social movement groups in Taiwan that use Facebook as a tool to gather support for their cause.
During the March 18th Sunflower Movement, the Black Island Youth Alliance (黑色島國青年陣線) used Facebook as its primary method of communicating with its supporters. The page has attracted over 320,000 followers.
But Facebook fan pages specifically dedicated to skewering President Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT appeared more gradually, with the earliest page being created in late 2012.
That the number of these fan pages increased in Ma Ying-jeou’s second term comes as no surprise. Never-ending political scandals and protest movements have left Ma’s approval numbers constantly hovering in the low 10’s.
But the beginnings of these fan pages mocking President Ma may owe some of their origins to the 2012 United States presidential election, where memes and GIFs were increasingly used to mock Republic presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
During Romney’s campaign, he made a series of political gaffe’s that became cannon fodder for American netizens, including the “binders full of women” comment, the “47%” leak, and President Obama’s “horses and bayonets” burn in relation to Romney’s claim that the US military was not spending enough.
The “horses and bayonets” burn that turned into a popular meme during the 2012 American Election.
These political memes were not only successful in making Romney look silly, but also allowed netizens to create a wholly new narrative of the man, steering his election campaign to defeat.
As Ma’s bungles became more frequent, so did the political memes mocking him. Similar to Romney, Facebook fan pages wholly dedicated to hosting these memes gained popularity, and have created a narrative of Ma that are outside of his control.
Here is a short list of fan pages dedicated to skewering President Ma and the KMT known to this author.
- The Anti Ma-Ying-jeou Alliance, 1st Group (反馬英九聯盟), created on November 18th 2012, with 349,862 followers.
- The Impolite Taiwan Netizen Society (不禮貌鄉民團), created on April 15th 2013, with 88,208 followers.
- The Anti-KMT Alliance (反國民黨聯盟), created on April 22nd 2013, with 53,872 followers.
- The Attack “Intrepid” General Ma Fan Group (打馬悍將粉絲團), created on May 28th 2014, with 34,834 followers.
- The Anti-Ma Ying-jeou Alliance, 2nd Group (反馬英九聯盟), created on May 28th 2014, with 55,404 followers.
- The Papa Money Alliance (父酬者聯盟), created on August 6th 2014, with 44,140 followers.
- Taiwan Fugue (台灣賦格), created on September 1st 2014, with 28,253 followers.
Its important to remember the scale of the Taiwanese Facebook market, compared to its overall population. Nearly 350,000 followers for a fan page that mocks the president may not seem large in the US market, but with Taiwan’s total population only numbering 23 million people, 350,000 followers is a significant number.
For reference’s sake, let’s consider similar sized Facebook markets, and compare similar themed Facebook fan pages that mock unpopular heads of state.
Former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was relatively unpopular with a majority of left-of-centre Canadians, and was voted out in favour of handsome fella, Justin Trudeau. But the largest fan page dedicated to skewering him, called “Stephen Harper’s Dildo’s” has a little more than 1,000 followers.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, has in recent years become well known among Korean netizens for her incomprehensible speaking style, giving rise to the popular “Park Geun-hye Translator” (박근혜 번역기) website, which spoofs her many gaffes. But at 60,000 followers, it still pales in comparison to the sheer number of fan pages dedicated to President Ma or the KMT.
As online media platforms become the main media battleground for political parties to communicate to new voters and their die-hard supporters, it would be unwise to disregard the ability of these fan groups to influence perceptions of the KMT.
The KMT: Cancelling the Apocalypse?
BUT LET’S GET back to Lu Shiow-yen’s decision to the play the fear card at a recent rally. That the KMT chose such a move during the election season should come as little surprise to Taiwan election watchers. In seemingly every election since Taiwan’s democratization in the mid-90’s, Taiwan and the Republic of China has faced certain destruction unless the KMT are voted into office.
That the KMT trots out the “ROC facing extinction” card speaks of its power to rally the KMT base and its ability to put the fear of god into some Taiwanese voters.
By playing the fear card, the KMT gets to tactfully avoid questions that percolate within the minds of the Taiwanese electorate over 8 years of poor economic growth, skyrocketing housing prices, stagnated wages, shady “black box” government dealings, revised history textbooks, and party assets worth billions that tilt election campaigns in the KMT’s favour.
But Lu’s ludicrous comments comparing a potential war between Taiwan and China to violence in France and Syria put her re-election campaign in the media spotlight, with a number of Facebook fan groups taking the chance to expose her comments to a larger audience.
Taiwan Fugue post on Lu Shiow-yen’s comments on France and Syria. The cartoon below reads as follows:
Man in blue: You have to vote KMT! Otherwise we’ll be attacked by terrorists! Just like France and Syria!
Woman in black: Terrorism and violent threats are like the ones you’re saying now! Don’t threaten Taiwanese again!
Boy in green: Why does the KMT use Chinese military force to threaten people?
Popular Facebook fan page Taiwan Fugue (台灣賦格) posted a link to the original Liberty Times article that broke the story, and commented:
“When KMT Legislator Lu Shiow-yen was helping out for a Taiwan election campaign, she used the Paris terror attacks to terrorize Taiwanese. If Taiwan wants peace, it needs to vote KMT and Eric Chu. Does anyone have any gossip about the KMT being more menacing than terrorists?”
Taiwan Fugue also added an additional feature to the story, a cartoon that imagines a family conversation about politics, with a slouching and scruffy man with hands in his pockets proclaiming “We need to vote KMT, otherwise Taiwan will become like France or Syria.” A woman replies “terrorism and threats of force are from people like you.” A young child clinging to the woman asks “why does the KMT use China to threaten us?”
The Anti-Ma Ying-jeou Alliance posting the original Liberty Times article about Lu’s comments on France and Syria.
The article was shared again, this time by the Anti-Ma Ying-jeou Alliance (反馬英九聯盟), a fan page with a massive following of 350,000.
Netizens left dozens of comments satirizing Lu’s comments. “So, the KMT’s Lu Shiow-yen has been colluding with terrorists to intimidate Taiwan all along,” said Facebook netizen Hung Ching-tao (洪敬道).
Another fan page, The Attack the Intrepid General Ma Fan Group (打馬悍將粉絲團) added a new twist to the narrative, with an easy to read, plain text .jpeg image that contextualizes the Paris terror attacks in relation to the response of the French people, and then comparing it to the KMT’s response to threats from China.
““Paris is attacked by IS, the French sing the national anthem, and announce war on the terrorists. Taiwan is threatened by China, rolls up the national flag, and says they don’t want to provoke the CCP,” read the text. The post has since been shared more than 600 times.
The Attack “Intrepid” General Ma Fan Group posting image text about the Paris IS attack. The text reads: “Paris is attacked by IS, the French sing the national anthem, and announce war on the terrorists. Taiwan is threatened by China, rolls up the national flag, and says they don’t want to provoke the CCP.”
But Lu is running in Taichung 5, considered a safe blue district. Polling at 57%, her chances of being re-elected (for a fifth time), are high. Her opponent, Taiwan Solidarity Union legislative candidate Liu Kuo-lung (劉國隆) is polling at 42%.
Lu will depend on traditional forms of KMT voter support for re-election, in the form of KMT party cadres rallying support, and through the aid of community ‘pillars’ (樁腳), who help solicit votes.
Her Facebook fan page of 6,000 followers would likely not have played a role in her re-election.
However, shortly after the news of Lu’s remarks began to be widely shared by Facebook fan pages skewering Ma and the KMT, netizens have begun to re-purpose Lu’s dedicated fan page to become a place to express dissatisfaction about her comments and the KMT.
“Please don’t use the tragedy of others to help your election campaign.” said Susan Lin. “Last time it was Sean Lien [Former mayoral candidate for Taipei], this time its you using the Paris terror attacks. This isn’t moral. As an independent voter, I can’t stand to look at this any further”.
Certainly comments like the one above, are not what Lu is looking for. Like many legislators during an election campaign, Lu is seeking to create the image of a person actively involved in her community. But Facebook fan pages and their netizen supporters are creating a new narrative for Lu; a narrative that questions her sensitivity as a human being, and questions her suitability as a legislator.
Taiwanese Netizens leave comments on Lu Shiow-yen’s facebook page, criticizing her remarks on France and Syria.
1st commenter: You grabbed IS and used at as a metaphor for cross-strait relations. Is your brain ok?
2nd commenter: To the person above (not commenter one), please go and see what Legislator Lu said at the event, does this kind of image help Chairman Chu during his campaign? Taiwanese people are brave, and aren’t afraid of threats. Legislator Lu, please don’t try this kind trick hoping to fool the ignorant masses again. It hurts your image. What a pity.
3rd commenter: Please don’t use the tragedy of others to help your election campaign. Last time it was Sean Lien (former mayoral candidate for Taipei), this time it’s you using the Paris terror attacks. This isn’t moral. As an independent voter, I can’t stand to look at this any further.
Most importantly, the story will create a small ripple for an already larger tide of negativity directed at the KMT. Although Lu’s seat is likely safe in next January’s election, the disgust netizens feel towards her statement will contribute to the negative image voters have in districts where the KMT is in a competitive battle with the opposition.
This is the power and influence Facebook fan groups have in bringing down KMT legislators one district at a time.