by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Twitter

CONTROVERSY ERUPTED earlier this month after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MOFA) Twitter account shared an article from far right-wing media outlet Breitbart. The incident reflects badly on MOFA, regardless as to what the explanation for why MOFA reshared the article is exactly. Unfortunately, all this goes to show how much Taiwan’s diplomatic establishment has yet to master the art of social media.

The offending Tweet was MOFA’s Twitter account sharing an article about riots in China which have broken out after it came to light that 145 children were treated with expired vaccines. In the past year, MOFA has taken to criticizing China by posting stories critical of China on social media.

The Tweet originally pointed out by blogger Tricky Taipei, who also noted that tweeting the story in itself would not have necessarily been controversial, except for that MOFA decided to share an article about the incident from Breitbart in particular. Had MOFA shared an article about the protests from another news source, there would have been no such controversy. Although criticisms of MOFA began almost immediately after the article from Breitbart was posted, it took over 24 hours of outrage on Twitter and Facebook before the Tweet was finally deleted, and MOFA has made no statement on the matter.

Tricky Taipei’s post on the incident on Facebook

Breitbart, which rose to prominence during current American president Donald Trump’s election campaign, is a far-right news source with ties to contemporary American neo-Nazis, among others. Apart from that Breitbart is not a reliable news source, it does not reflect well on Taiwan, which has sought to build a politically progressive image internationally, to share articles from Breitbart.

Given the close ties between the Trump administration and Breitbart, with former Breitbart editor-in-chief Steve Bannon serving as a key advisor for Trump early in his administration, it may be that MOFA deliberately retweeted the article in an attempt to appeal to Trump. As some have pointed out, however, given Breitbart’s antagonism with traditional Republican supporters of Taiwan, it is actually somewhat illogical for MOFA to risk alienating previous supporters of Taiwan in order to appeal to Trump.

Alternatively, it is possible that MOFA simply was unaware of Breitbart’s checkered reporting record, despite the fact that as the government bureau responsible for handling international diplomacy for Taiwan, a knowledge of international media outlets should be expected. If so, apart from demonstrating incompetence, this would certainly go a long way towards explaining the haphazard way in which much of Taiwan’s international diplomacy is conducted.

Again, this would be far from the first time that MOFA has found itself embroiled in controversy due to tweeting. In general, MOFA has sought to be more proactive in its social media presence in the past year, perhaps finally having realized the value of social media for international outreach in the age of Donald Trump, a world leader who commands much of the world’s attention through Twitter.

Controversy has resulted from trolling directed at China that has been criticized as unprofessional, such as poking fun at China for banning Winnie the Pooh in a Tweet that was later deleted. This was been criticized as unprofessional by some, although others praised this as taking a more assertive stance for Taiwanese diplomacy. Yet other times, Tweets have reflected badly on Taiwan by making Taiwan seem as it were far from a liberal democratic country, such as Tweets lashing out at The Guardian for negative press.

With Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu taking a more proactive role in managing Taiwan’s Twitter presence, however, such issues have grown decidedly worse in the past month. On January 11th, for example, MOFA retweeted an article from the New York Times about the detention and torture of Twitter users in China with the Tweet personally signed by Wu which stated: “I can’t stop myself from asking: What on earth are you afraid of? Come on! Tweeting is fun.”

Indeed, while American president Donald Trump has certainly spotlighted the uses of Twitter to communicate political ideas to the world in past years, taking a page from Trump’s playbook to engage in childish trolling hardly seems befitting of a government institution such as MOFA. It does not surprise that this may be another way in which Taiwan is either blindly imitative of the United States, or simply fails to understand the means by which international diplomacy is conducted. Either way, whatever their cause, such actions do not reflect well on Taiwan.

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