What you need to know
Many Taiwanese politicians have invested in professional social media managers. The memes and tweets are for branding — and not necessarily reflective of the politicians' personalities.
Taiwanese politicians can perhaps make a living out of being full-time influencers — that is, with the support of a creative social media guru.
Whenever President Tsai Ing-wen posts cat photos online, the internet goes through a meltdown and hails her as the “Cat President.” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also causes a Twitter retweeting storm whenever he writes about Taiwan’s diplomatic achievements.
Behind these viral photos and tweets, though, are creatives who were hired for their talent in digital marketing and copywriting.
Upon taking up his post as premier in 2019, Su Tseng-chang said he wanted to form “a cabinet of internet celebrities.” All the government departments have since poured resources into curating and growing their internet presence. During Covid-19, this internet-centered strategy has expanded.
In Taiwan, the discussions of these government-produced memes and jokes sometimes overshadow the news itself. The masterminds behind the posts are called “Little Editors” (小編) and sometimes they’re asked to handle much beyond what a typical social media manager does. They do everything from copywriting, generating memes, and designing posters to managing the online community and editing short videos.
Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control, for instance, announces confirmed cases of Covid-19 in well-designed, readable graphics. The Ministry of Interior also maximizes virality with the well-loved “Emperor Cat” while the Ministry of Health and Welfare references doge memes to package its policies. The Hakka Affairs Council posts memes about Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang. Sometimes, the “little editors” from different departments would leave witty comments on each other’s posts, further entertaining the netizens who are paying attention.
Although the social media teams have sometimes gone overboard with their creativity, most of the feedback has been positive. These social media posts are not problematic if they’re used only for policy promotion. But the local media and fan pages tend to draw too much attention to the creative content itself, causing the public to imagine an entirely different personality for a certain government minister.
When the Executive Yuan leaves a comment on a post, does anyone really think this comes from the mind of Su Tseng-chang? Every government department has a public relations budget, used to hire a PR company or team to craft a likable personality and create the aura of authenticity. The “little editors” can sometimes even try to alter general opinion of their boss on forums like PTT, as well as monitoring their boss’s reputation on social media.
Do social media posts really reflect what the government official thinks?
Government ministers’ demanding work schedule makes it impossible for them to approve every social media post. They usually assign a few staff members to monitor external teams, ensuring that the message has not lost its focus. As they build up trust with each other, the social media specialists would enjoy greater freedoms in expressing their creativity.
We have to hand it to the Democratic Progress Party: the leaders of the DPP are relatively more down-to-earth and willing to give the younger talent space to shine. During the election campaigns, the DPP savored its victory in winning the internet battles over the Kuomintang, which was less inclined to fully hand over the keys to “little editors.”
From another perspective, the more lenient the authorities are, the memes and humor may deviate farther from the real persona of government officials. Yet, most people learn much of what they know about their government leaders through these social media posts. Day after day, the public might mistake the personalities of the “little editors” for the ministers’ themselves and develop an inaccurate impression or expectation.
For example, the Hakka Affairs Council created a Parasite-inspired promotional image during the Oscars season. It went viral and received much praise. Ironically, not that many people realized the person featured in the photo was Lee Yung-te, a politician infamous for negative press. Would people still have said he deserved to stand in that Parasite poster if they had noticed who it was?
It’s the “little editors” you love — not the officials implementing the policy.
Looking at the “little editors” phenomenon across the different government departments, Premier Su’s internet celebrity cabinet was a success. There’s no harm in dressing government decrees in a playful manner, as long as the government also makes corresponding efforts in implementation.
Otherwise, the social media marketing strategy might backfire. A fiasco ensued when Su’s office posted on May 4 a cute picture announcing a NT$10,000 cash subsidy for workers affected by the pandemic. Long lines of people at government offices expecting the subsidy came home empty-handed even two days later.
At the core of public relations is just advertising, and policies and politicians are the product. Consumers who are only looking at the ads would not realize any issues with the products until they are directly impacted by the policies. And only then will the consumers reflect upon whether they love the “little editors” or the actual politicians.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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