What’s Going on With Taiwan’s Influencers?

What’s Going on With Taiwan’s Influencers?
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

What’s unique about the latest tabloid dramas in Taiwan is the extent to which the medical establishment has taken interest.

The “hidden core of celebrity,” according to the writer Rana Dasgupta, is “always about to die.” This death can be the price stardom exacts on the inner life from having to present an image for the public. Celebrities court social death, too, with crowd pleasing absurdities. The lines of decency or morality can easily be crossed, resulting in public backlash. But once brought low by shame, the stage is set for a dramatic resurrection. This cycle has surfaced twice in Taiwan in recent weeks. What makes these incidents more than just tabloid dramas is the country’s medical authorities taking keen interest.

Last month, a Taiwanese transgender influencer known as Wang Yao — a name in Taiwanese Hokkien for a girl reluctantly raised, meaning “she’ll grow up without my care” — posted pictures on Instagram with ultrasound images of a fetus. The major Taiwanese media outlets reported on the revelation as if Wang Yao believed she had defied biological limits, quoting physicians to explain the pregnancy’s implausibility. Administrators from the Kaohsiung hospital on the ultrasound print denied its veracity, other officials denied that a uterus transplantation could have happened quietly — the procedure hasn’t been sanctioned in Taiwan. Wang Yao initially held firm against the accusations. “I just want to be like a normal girl, and look forward to the birth of my baby every day,” she said in an interview after the initial reports.

It wasn’t just individual physicians and the media involved. The response from Taiwan’s public health authorities went all the way up to a director at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, who called the pregnancy claim “bullshit.” On Wednesday night, the Kaohsiung health department issued a statement that Wang Yao will be referred to police for investigation on disturbing public peace by spreading rumors and “evoking bad memories” in women who are suffering from infertility. 

The official censure of Wang Yao is puzzling in two ways. First, there doesn’t seem to be a criteria for the hoaxes the government considers dangerous enough to issue judgment. YouTube personality Evelyn Chen, who goes by Li Ke Tai Tai, was fined for unboxing a cervical cancer test without applying for permission. There wasn’t, however, a widespread outcry from officials. Also, Wang Yao’s behavior, though misleading, doesn’t appear to have malicious intent. Lost amid the flood of reports is that she has not unambiguously stated that there is a fetus gestating within her. Though the bulging stomach, ultrasound images, and her boyfriend’s comments on her receiving an “experimental treatment” all intimate this, it’s likely that the point is an imaginative performance.

If she expects to have a child through surrogacy or other means in the coming months, she may have wanted to broadcast her pre-childbirth life on social media. It’s hard to see how this undermines public order, a condition rumor mongering would have to meet for it to be punishable by law.

But seeing the pregnancy as a performance doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Harry Frankfurt’s distinction between bullshit and lies is useful here. The doctored images and Wang Yao’s coy responses to questions are, like the Health and Welfare director says, bullshit. They are meant to persuade her audience that she’s “pregnant,” but not lies that attack scientific truth. She’s not concerned enough with concealing facts to be lying.

sasa
Photo Credit: Screenshot from 愛莉莎莎 Alisasa's YouTube
Alisasa in her apology video.

A case similar to Wang Yao’s involved an influencer provoking a response from a high profile medical professional. In November 2020, a YouTuber known as Alisasa documented a one-off diet regime from a book called “The Miraculous Gallstone Flush.” She claims at one point that her video has scientific basis. (Though she does hedge, “If the cleanse has benefits, then these will be benefits I’ll receive. If it doesn’t, then I’ll just toss the book.”) 

A doctor, a pediatrician at National Taiwan University Hospital called Blue Dove on YouTube, made a withering response video in January, listing the errors in Alisasa’s basic biology and the potential harm of consuming the large amount of olive oil called for in the diet. Like Wang Yao at first, Alisasa doubled down on the flush, though this quickly proved to be untenable. As followers unsubscribed from her channel, Alisasa recorded a third video to apologize. The most recent development is that Alisasa’s fans have tried, unsuccessfully, to get Blue Dove fired from his hospital job for violating his contract by working as a streamer.

More than an irrepressible salesperson, Alisasa’s appeal — she has 1.17 million subscribers — lies in her making a spectacle of everyday life, like growing up in poverty in Taiwan, taking a long taxi ride, or dating people of backgrounds different from her own. But there is a dark side to her uninhibited spectacle-making. Her previous brushes with scandal came when she went looking to date someone with Indigenous “flavor,” and a video lacking any awareness of racist tropes, on dating a Black person. 

Influencers and celebrities spreading bullshit and the media fanning the flames are big in Taiwan but ultimately a universal phenomenon. If there’s anything uniquely Taiwanese about Wang Yao, Li Ke Tai Tai, and Alisasa, it may be in the trip wires they hit by challenging Taiwan’s medical establishment, currently held in especially high esteem under Covid-19. That the professionals responded means that they are not taking celebrity encroachment upon their authority lightly. 


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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