Digital Transformation in Taiwan Requires Social and Political Transformation

Digital Transformation in Taiwan Requires Social and Political Transformation
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What you need to know

Digital literacy training can mitigate many problems. But this can't be implemented without a thorough social and political transformation in Taiwan.

One of Taiwan’s most well-known plans to stimulate the economy during Covid-19 was through the “Triple Stimulus Voucher.” But this was not the only Covid-related stimulus offered to the public. The Ministry of Culture (MOC) also separately introduced arts-and-culture vouchers to encourage Taiwanese citizens to spend money at museums and similar institutions.

Despite the good intentions behind these vouchers, the public had to use different mobile apps to access the various vouchers issued by government ministries. 

The various apps and their different design interfaces are needlessly confusing and time consuming for the public, particularly for those who are not tech-savvy. What could have mitigated this problem is digital literacy training.

Digital literacy was one of the main themes discussed at workshops organized by the Risk Society and Policy Research Center (RSPRC) last year, where around 60 Taiwanese were invited to brainstorm the future of Taiwan in 2050. The workshops were conducted in August and September 2020, bringing in young people, academics, and startup founders to develop broad strategies for Taiwan’s digitalization, sustainability, and long-term care. 

Participants pointed to how digital literacy needed to be enhanced in Taiwan if Taiwan’s goals for digitalization are to be achieved. We also found that this not just a technocratic fix. Plans for digital literacy training can't be implemented without a thorough social and political transformation in Taiwan.

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People register their names to watch the New Years countdown concert in Taipei, Taiwan December 31, 2020. 
What is digital literacy?

The European Commission incorporates digital literacy under the Digital Competence Framework 2.0, which includes the ability to critically evaluate data and information, and problem solve using digital technologies. It also includes the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively via different digital tools. Digital literacy means awareness of data privacy protection, as well as that of physical, psychological, and environmental well-being when using digital technologies.

Taiwan’s lackluster digital literacy program

Data from V-Dem found Taiwan to be the country most vulnerable to the dissemination of “misleading viewpoints or false information” by foreign governments — predominantly from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was an especially salient concern during Han Kuo-yu candidacy for president, viewed as having backing from pro-Beijing media.

Nonetheless, a survey released last year by an RSPRC center affiliate, the Science Media Center, found that only 32.8% of Taiwanese “often” consulted other sources to verify the news they read, with 22.6% who never did so.

A 2019 LINE study also found that only a quarter of Taiwanese proactively fact-checked the information they receive via the LINE chat application, before sending the information to other users.

Seeing people as more than consumers

To combat disinformation, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has included as part of its goal to “expand media literacy amongst all age groups and cultivate critical thinking skills so that the public will not take false information at face value.”

Digital Minister Audrey Tang was instrumental in developing Taiwan’s media literacy curriculum, pointing to how it is intended to “help students develop critical thinking when using social media” and discern truth. The curriculum also focuses on “competence” rather than “literacy,” which Tang explained goes beyond seeing people only as “readers, viewers, [or] consumers of content,” but also as producers.

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Photo Credit: CNA
Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s “Digital Minister” at a conference in October, 2020.

Tang explained, “Children have to learn that they are data producers, media producers. Only this way will they be able to truly understand what framing and other effects mean and become contributors to collaborative fact‐​checking. ”

“In the long run this is the real way to counter disinformation,” she said.

While setting up the literacy curriculum is welcomed, participants at RSPRC’s workshop felt that the government’s initiatives still fall short.

Taiwan’s students have remarked how the new competency education “existed in name only,” because the new curriculum teaches students only “what they should do to pass competency tests,” instead of actual competency skills, National Taitung University lecturer Shiao Fu-song explained. 

In addition, participants highlighted the fast-changing environment of tech development and how digital literacy training needs to keep pace — digital literacy as well as regulations should be updated every few years.

Digital literacy should include psychosocial skills

A 2019 survey revealed that 30.58% of Taiwan’s junior and senior-high school students have experienced bullying either as victims or have seen or heard them, among which 18% occurred online. Another survey in July last year found an even higher 47% of junior, senior and vocational high-school students were involved in cyberbullying — 18.1% as victims, 10.7% as perpetrators, and 18.2% as both. 59.2% of the students were worried about being bullied.

The most common forms of cyberbullying were “being attacked, mocked or bullied while playing smartphone or computer games” (94.4%), having private information “shared publicly by others without their consent” (61%), and “receiv[ing] malicious, hostile or offensive private messages” (49.9%), which resulted in students feeling “anxious or nervous about interpersonal interactions” (24%), having sleep problems (12.4%), and even engaging in self-harm (7.9%) and having suicidal thoughts (7.6%). 

Digital literacy should therefore involve providing students with social and psychological coping mechanisms to deal with online transgressions, participants said.

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Students in Kaohsiung leave school and prepare to cross the zebra crossing, April 29, 2020.
Bring in the community

Instead of monotonous courses, several participants suggested teaching hands-on skills, such as using sandbox experiential training, in which students undergo simulated experiences of bullying or being bullying, so as to develop strategies to cope with their situations.. Exercises need not only be done via digital mediums, but can also be conducted via role-playing and anonymized. Schools could also collaborate with existing human rights organizations with the relevant expertise and resources to do so.

There is, however, the question of whether teachers are equipped to teach digital literacy. A 2013 study of 2,821 Taiwanese teachers found that teachers tend to overestimate the willingness of students to report cyberbullying, while teachers were also not confident about handling cyberbullying incidents. Participants therefore highlighted that digital literacy should not only be taught to students, but also to teachers. To this end, sandbox experiences have also been conducted with teachers in countries like Australia, to teach for digital and literacy learning.

The responsibility for digital literacy should however not only lie with teachers. Participants suggested how it would be more effective engaging existing NGOs, community organizations and companies which specialize in teaching the various aspects of digital literacy to do so, so that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The Taiwan Gazette at the University of Toronto has compiled a short list of some NGOs which engage in fact-checking disinformation, such as Rumor & Truth, MyGoPen, CoFacts, and the Taiwan FactCheck Center. 

We also suggested something along the lines of what National Taiwan Normal University professor Chen Ping-hung proposed, for media literacy to be conducted at social education halls, libraries and community colleges, under Taiwan’s Lifelong Learning program. 

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Hsu Kuo-yung, Taiwan’s Minister of Interior.
Teach the government

Digital literacy training in the government is necessary as well, participants said, as can be illustrated by the lack of inter-ministerial digital integration vis-à-vis the stimulus voucher distribution, as well as with the launch of the electronic identification card (eID). 

That the government brushed off the data privacy concerns of Taiwanese with regard to the eID and lacked urgency in addressing them clearly reflects the lack of digital literacy over data privacy and security. NGOs also pointed to the lack of data regulations and independent transparent oversight to protect against the government’s data abuse, especially with how the eID will integrate data from various public databases. 

Former director at the Ministry of Finance’s Financial Data Center Chen Chuan-his also pointed to how government officials lack the capabilities to “supervise the development, quality and security of new software” due to a legacy of “outsourcing too many projects.” Digital talent development within government agencies is therefore important, TEDxTaipei founder Jason Hsu said, pointing to how the knowledge to “use digitization as a management tool is key.”

Digital literacy should be incorporated as a regular component of government trainings, and stronger inter-ministerial coordination to enhance digital literacy is also needed — something participants said the new digital ministry currently being set up could focus on. 

Educate the people

Digital literacy among the public at large should also be enhanced. 

With how foreign-produced fake news is finding itself into Taiwan’s media, Michael Cole, Senior Fellow at the University of Nottingham, the Global Taiwan Institute and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, also highlighted how even journalists should be trained to identify “credible” online media outlets, so as to prevent disinformation from being amplified. 

In fact, Open Knowledge Taiwan Ambassador T.H. Schee has explained that while Taiwanese tech users are more savvy than those in other countries in terms of how to navigate app and gaming ecosystems, they are still “not very privacy-oriented or data protection-oriented.”

The lack of cross-disciplinary skills such as communication and its lack in Taiwan is something participants at the workshops highlighted in unison. For example, effective communication is required for data experts to communicate the importance of data privacy to government agencies — as the example of the eID has shown — as well as to even companies, the latter of which participants point out might not realize the importance of data analytics toward enhancing their business processes and competitiveness. 

The lack of cross-disciplinary skills in Taiwan could be due to the rigidity in Taiwan’s education system, participants pointed out. The current education system is predominantly focused on training workers for the manufacturing sector at the expense of digital and other skills, such as cross-disciplinary thinking.

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Protesters from labor unions take part in a Labor Day protest in front of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei May 1, 2013.
Low wages are sabotaging digital transformation

The fundamental question as to whether Taiwan can become successful in its digitalization strategy lies in whether it can hire the right talent — an issue participants flagged as a sticking point.

The reason why government agencies lack digital literacy is due largely to the inability to hire talented tech personnel who would rather go overseas for a similar job that pays several times the salary in Taiwan, while the low wages in Taiwan drive away motivation to contribute more than what one is paid to do.

While younger people might be more digital-savvy, the superiors making the decisions within government agencies and the hierarchy have prevented digital innovations from being implemented within government.

The discussion over the low wages and hierarchical decision-making are issues that have been making their rounds in Taiwan’s society, for which there does not seem to be enough political will to address.

A Willis Towers Watson survey has found fixed wages in Taiwan slipping to be even lower that of Vietnam last year, while Thailand and Indonesia are catching up. News of the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau paying only NT$58,000 to hire senior cybersecurity analysts was also ridiculed by both locals and foreigners. Commenters online point to how the low wages reflect the “total disregard of professionalism of all sectors” in Taiwan, and “why Taiwan [therefore] has so much trouble obtaining talent, domestic and foreign.” 

Indeed, Taiwan’s students have been ranked among the best globally by the OECD Program for International Students, and yet its workers are paid only half or less that of workers in other wealthy advanced countries — there is simply no impetus for talented workers to stay when they can find better paying jobs elsewhere.

Digital transformation requires social and political transformation

While Taiwan has ambitions to transform into a digital economy, the challenges it currently faces is a lack of digital literacy training across the public and private sectors. There is an overreliance on using legacy structures to teach literacy. More innovative methods and educational reforms are required if Taiwan’s digital expertise is to be enhanced, and increasing wages is a crucial element in ensuring success for Taiwan’s digital development. Taiwan’s strategy, otherwise, will be crippled.


Roy Ngerng is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Risk Society and Policy Research Center (RSPRC) at National Taiwan University. He researches sustainable digitalization and foresight research for Taiwan's 2050 future. He also writes on social protection issues.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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