Asia Politics

Taiwan's presidential hopefuls turn to YouTube and Facebook as elections draw closer

Key Points
  • In a bid to reach out to younger voters directly, Taiwan's presidential candidates have ramped up their online presence.
  • In particular, President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party has ratcheted up her social media campaign in the last year, playing catch-up to her main presidential competitor, Kuomintang's Han Kuo-yu.
  • Tsai has appeared in videos of popular YouTubers, helping her shed some of her staid and distant image, said Li Jung Chang, founder of QuickseeK, an online public opinion database in Taiwan.
A supporter of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party holds a national flag during local elections in Taipei.
Chris Stowers | AFP | Getty Images

Political campaigning in Taiwan has reached fever pitch ahead of Saturday's presidential and legislative elections, as candidates take to social media to bring their messages to voters.

Other than online discussion boards, the two dominant social media outlets in Taiwan are Facebook and Alphabet's YouTube — both of which have seen considerable activities in the past year surrounding the three presidential candidates, said Li Jung Chang, founder of Quickseek, an online public opinion database in Taiwan.

Out of 19 million eligible voters in self-ruled Taiwan, under 7 million of them are between the ages of 20 and 39, according to data from the Central Election Commission cited by Taiwan's Central News Agency. About 1.2 million young people above 20 years old will be voting for the first time at the January 11 polls.

We can see in this election that the candidates are actively driving coverage and pushing their messages out on social media platforms...
Li Jung Chang
founder of Quickseek

Taiwan is an aging society and securing youth vote is particularly important as youth turnout have historically been lower than those in the older cohorts, analysts say. Younger voters are more likely to turn to online media for information.

"We can see in this election that the candidates are actively driving coverage and pushing their messages out on social media platforms through livestreams, posts and discussions with their followers," Li told CNBC in Mandarin.

In contrast, election campaigns in the previous polls in 2016 were more traditional with engagement largely done through the mass media, flyers and websites, Li pointed out.

Taiwan's Digital Minister Audrey Tang told CNBC that messages this time round are built around narratives offered by everyday people.

Tang said that there is now a lot more focus on how to package a message to make it go viral.

In particular, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen — who is seeking a second term — has ratcheted up her social media presence, including active management of her YouTube channel in the past year after her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party lost mayoral elections in several cities in late 2018.

Tsai was playing catch-up as her main presidential competitor, the Kuomintang's Han Kuo-yu made waves on social media during his mayoral campaign in 2018, and appeared in YouTube videos of online influencers. He also boasted online fan clubs, added Li.

Tsai's aides likely advised her to bolster her online presence to help boost her campaign against her rival Han in the upcoming elections, said Li.

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Tsai works with YouTube, influencers

Tsai admitted to feeling nervous during her first YouTube video with a Taiwanese influencer, but appeared to have become more comfortable with the format as she continued to work with YouTubers.

Tsai was even game enough to appear in the video of a Taiwanese YouTuber Chen Chia-chin, also called Potter King, who is known for his humorous pick-up lines. Chen was later dropped by his mainland Chinese agency for refusing to delete the video in which he referred to Tsai as "president" in the video.

Mainland media refer to Tsai as Taiwan's "leader."

"The YouTube videos have definitely helped Tsai bridge the distance between her and voters, as her image was of someone who was somewhat distant and not very friendly," said Li.

"Through the videos, she came across as not being arrogant and pampered," like some thought she was, said Li. Tsai is a former bureaucrat from a wealthy family — in contrast to Han's "regular Joe" persona.

Tsai has also actively engaged online influencers both within and outside Taiwan and has taken on a more international direction with her Twitter account to reach a wider audience.

"She often Tweets in English and in Japanese, underscoring, among others, Taipei's very close ties with Washington and Tokyo," said Sean King, who a former U.S. trade official who is now a scholar at University of Notre Dame's Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies.

As for charismatic Han, who known for his folksy appeal and stirring eloquence, is seen to be toning down on engaging online influencers although his Facebook and Youtube campaigns are still going strong.

This time, "engaging online influencers doesn't help Han as much as Tsai — because Han himself is already more well-known than the YouTubers," said Li.

As for the third presidential candidate James Soong (who only announced his intention to run in November), his social media reach has been relatively more limited, although his supporters have been backing him up, with Foxconn founder Terry Gou being one of them.