You are the minister of information, I think at some point, described as minister without portfolio and also minister for information in the Taiwanese government, right? Could you just quickly tell us again about your role there?
Right. [laughs] During this COVID crisis, because even though you guys have handled it, as we’ll be hearing, incredibly well, it still counts as a crisis for Taiwan as well. What has your role been in helping address the COVID-19 situation in Taiwan?
As the digital minister in charge of social innovation, that is to say, people who participate from all walks of life in order to publicly benefit the society, we have three principles. Fast, fair, and fun.
The fast one is the collective intelligence. Whereas many countries began countering Coronavirus this year, we started last year. Last December, when Dr. Li Wenliang, the PRC whistleblower, posted that there were new SARS cases, he got inquiries and eventually purged from police. At the same time, the Taiwan equivalent of Reddit, the PTT board, had somebody with the name “nomorepipe” reposting Dr. Li Wenliang’s whistleblowing.
Our medical officer immediately noticed this post, and issued an order that starting the next day, all passengers flying from Wuhan to Taiwan need to start health inspections. That was January the 1st.
From an angle of social innovation, this is two things. First, the civil society trust the government enough to talk about possible new SARS outbreaks, and the government trusts the citizens enough to take it seriously and treat it as if SARS is happening again, something we’ve always been preparing since 2003. That’s the social innovation part.
Also, anyone can just call 1822 and see their idea turned into policy in the daily briefing, Central Epidemic Command Center press conference, which was set up before we have the first locally confirmed cases, and for, I think, more than three months now.
For example, back in April, there was a young boy who refused to go to school, because his schoolmates may laugh at him, because all he has is pink medical mask. When you issue medical mask, there is no choice of color.
His friends called 1822 saying that I think you should all wear pink medical masks as a show of solidarity. All the CECC officers the next day in the live stream conference all wear pink medical masks. The journalists, of course, went wild with that.
It ensure that social innovation gets spread very quickly. My work throughout all this is not just to keep this fast, collective intelligence going, but to make sure that everybody can see that, for example, the rationed medical mask is fairly distributed. We use distributed ledgers for that.
Everybody can see every 30 seconds at that time – every three minutes now, because there is no queuing anymore – which pharmacy has how many medical masks in store for adults and for children. If you’re adult, you go there, use your National Health Insurance card, you can purchase 9 per two weeks, and if you are a child, 10 per two weeks.
It doesn’t just sound like you’re living in a different country. It sounds like you’re living in a different universe, to be frank. I’m listening to you talking about, you’ve mentioned at least four things that I wanted to stop you and say, “How the fuck?”
Here the first “how the fuck?” How the fuck would you get the news from China, instead of immediately launching into an argument about, “You’re an op. You’re a bot. This is a Chinese CCP lying. You can’t trust this information.”
Part of it, of course, is the inoculation of the society and the yearly drills that keeps the institutional memory fresh. We decided post-SARS in 2003 that 37 people dead is 37 people too many. There’s that.
Also, there’s because, according to the CIVICUS Monitor, we are the only country in Asia – in the whole of Asia – that has a completely open civil society, Meaning that the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the press, and so on is on-par or exceeding every other liberal democracies in our region.
We’re one of the only two, if you count New Zealand, in Asia-Pacific. Because of that, the people who look at Dr. Li Wenliang’s postings contributed their medical expertise, their science expertise, and so on, and did basically a collective fact-finding to say that this really is something that looks genuine.
Our CDC, Center for Disease Control, medical officer – also part of the online Reddit-like discussion board – immediately escalated it, because sufficient people upvoted it and see that it is really something that truly like SARS.
Basically, our idea is that our medical officers, our scientific authority, is also political authority. Our vice president at that time, Dr. Chen Chien-jen literally wrote the textbook on epidemiology. He is our top academician on epidemiology.
And governmentality. Let’s say in the West, generally speaking, what you see is an almost complete division between what people are talking about in the social forums and then the electoral process and governmentality.
People chat. At some point, they get the chance to vote. Then they vote, and there appears to be a more or less complete detachment between the people who were voted for, the representatives, and the populace, who go on chatting.
My second “How the fuck?” question is how and why are you able to take feedback from a Reddit-like forum, PTT, and quickly absorb it into your governmentality? What is the context behind that? Why is that able to happen? Do you have thoughts on why it’s not able to happen outside Taiwan?
I just reply using my own ID. I’m not alone in this. Many government officials, especially post our Sunflower occupy in 2014, where we occupied the parliament, essentially saying that the decision-making is in a black box. There is no way for people to understand the drafting stage of policymaking context. All we get is the result of policymaking. There should be more real-time response, where the people are held the government accountable in the here and now.
Basically, the political norm changed because of that occupy in March 2014. All the mayors that supported this kind of rapid response to collective intelligence gets elected, sometime surprisingly, even to themselves.
What I’m trying to say is that, when there is an obvious social norm that prefers the government respond in the here and now, I think this sends a direct signal to the politicians that, unless they do that, they risk being rendered irrelevant.
Tell me about that. Tell me first, how are you using pol.is? Briefly, what’s important about it? Are you able now to say what it is about pol.is that is enabling consensus to form, and how are you using it in the COVID situation?
I think we talked about a little bit in the previous episode, where we had no reply button in pol.is. Without the reply button, there is no room for troll to grow. That is really the main thing that makes it a prosocial media.
If you see something that you disagree with, you’re prompted then to propose something that resonates with more people. With a real-time visualization, people can see which clusters of opinions and feelings are there, but they cannot actually directly attack one another. They have to provide more nuanced arguments that convince more people.
The themes that they are working on ranging managing community resources, smoothly transition to the post-pandemic world, protecting vulnerable groups, predicting future outbreaks, supporting frontline essential workers, proper data-driven risk communication.
These are the six pol.is topics that we ask the people how to do it. The people, because they have different value system – it’s an international hackathon, after all – people propose things that are not considered the social norm in Taiwan.
For example, there was a proposal that said that we should build an AI system at the ICU. Instead of on a first-come, first-served basis, we need to evaluate their remaining contribution to the society through various indicators to determine the priority. That’s actually illegal in Taiwan.
There’s a human right assessment, a regulatory assessment, impact assessment service provided by our National Development Council that associates with each and every opinion the legality and the human right assessment of it.
We make sure that the people focus on things that are of broad consensus of all the municipalities and epicenters involved so that the top five winners now all work on, for example, there’s one called Logboard that allows the user to log all their contacts, their travel history, their temperature, and so on.
It’s never transmitted anywhere. There is no Bluetooth or whatever. It’s an airplane mode tool. When the contact tracers come and ask you questions, it generates this one-time URL that provides precisely the contact tracers’ needed information, but does not compromise anybody else’s privacy.
It’s a privacy-enhancing tool for individuals. There is also a team who does that for community and team do that for the digital storytelling, visualization, and things like that. Basically, we’ve strengthened democracy and the cultural norm around privacy while countering the coronavirus.
We see this type of quick iteration. This sounds like stuff companies could do. Twitter could do this, or Facebook could do something like this and do it fast, or Google. To hear a government doing it, it’s just unheard of.
Definitely, because we see democracy itself as a social technology that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation struggled to win. I still remember the martial law. I don’t want to go back to the martial law.
Of course, when we innovate – for example, when we counter the infodemic – we cannot resort to takedown, because takedown reminds us of the martial law, and we never go back there. The same way, we must counter the pandemic without going to lockdown, because lockdown reminds us of the martial law.
This is a stressful time, of course, and people feel anxious, so there is a lot of conspiracy theories. That can prompt, for example, panic buying. In Taiwan, we have a counter-disinformation strategy to counter this infodemic, that is to say, toxic antisocial ideas that spread.
When there is a panic buying, for example, of tissue papers, there was a rumor that said, “We are ramping up production of medical mask,” 2 million a day to 20 million a day, and there is a rumor that it’s the same material as facial mask.
There was panic buying of tissue papers, because people were saying, “Oh, we’re going to run out of tissue papers soon.” We posted this within a couple hour when we detected that this rumor was trending.
This is very interesting, because this is our premier, Premier Su Tseng-chang. He is showing his buttocks, wiggling it a little bit here. A large title said, “Each of us only have one pair of buttocks.”
This table says, “The tissue paper are made out of South American material and medical mask of domestic material. Ramping up one production doesn’t actually render the other out of stock. Please do not spread that tumor.”
This is shaped like a tissue paper box. This went absolutely viral, like an Internet meme. The rumor died down within 24 hours, and people don’t panic buy anymore. We discovered the person who spread the rumor in the first place was a tissue paper reseller.
In the UK, we’ve seen people burning down 5G masts. I think Vodafone alone had had 14 masts burned down because people believing that 5G activates various things, activates coronavirus, or is causing radiation sickness.
In the United States, you’ve got plenty of people just refusing to wear masks, because they say, “Well, pick your poison. COVID, it doesn’t exist. It exists, but it’s no more serious than the flu. It’s a Democrat hoax,” blah, blah, blah.
You mentioned one piece of infodemic, which is this idea that too much toilet paper was going to eat into the mask production and causing people to stock…That seems a very benign piece of conspiratorial thinking, of panic thinking.
First of all, I think if you have a live-streamed CECC conference where the medical officers answer not only all questions from journalists, but actually all the trending questions from 1822 hotline, there really is no room for this kind of counterfactual ideas to grow.
It’s just like if you have a good friend where you meet every day at 2:00 PM, I don’t know, for tea or something, you tend not to believe any rumor or conspiracy theory about that friend, because you can just check with them tomorrow. That’s the thing.
Whatever is being said in the press conference, for example, remember to cover your mouth and wash and whatever when you’re sneezing, and don’t put your hand to your mouth, remember to preorder the mask, keep a physical distance of three Dog indoor and two Dog outdoors. [laughs]
You laughed about it, which means that the mental spirit, the energy that channels upset into outrage is gone. In “Inside Out” movie terms, this bubble have been colored yellow, which is fun, humor, and joy in your mind.
Whenever the conspiracy theorists try to mention the same words again, it’s impossible to feel anger when you’re feeling fun. That is the basic idea of an infodemic vaccine or inoculation. This is how humor over rumor works.
Connected question. One of the other big infodemic vectors is people accusing each other of being bots, of being manipulated by some external forces. An idea creeps in, and then you hear someone say, “Oh, well, this is the evil World Health Organization.” Or that you can’t believe this, because X faction is behind this.
Have any of your processes been hijacked? You’ve got a lot of open, or more open processes. Essentially, what you’re saying, it reminds me of Gregory Bateson’s ideas from the 1940s, the essential idea of cybernetics.
Early Bateson, he’s thinking about how you can improve societies by creating feedback loops between the power structure and the civics. It’s like a constant loop, which is what you’re saying, is it’s improving democracy. It’s improving consensus-building.
Gaming the system, so to speak, definitely. That is why we have this system of crowdsourced fact-checking, where when there’s actors with intentional public harm in its intent and spreading untruth, this is called disinformation.
I’ll use one concrete example, because it’s impossible to do so without an example. There was, before our election, the determining factor in our election was the anti-ELAB, the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong.
However, there’s a trending picture which is the same picture on the Taiwanese social media that says, “This 13-years-old bought some iPhones, and with some recruitment of his even younger brother. They were paying actually 20 million for murdering a police.”
This is the kind of thing that you see going viral, because it provokes outrage. Instead of taking it down, which would actually prompt more outrage, we did a notice and public notice. The Taiwan Fact-Check Center, part of the International Fact-Checking Network, very quickly attributed the very first post of this recaption.
There’s maybe copyright infringement involved, and with this essentially propaganda, a malinformation. It’s not just disinformation. It’s an intention operation. Because all the social media then tagged this public notice below this post, instead of takedown, it changes framing.
People seeing it know that this is an intention message by the CCP from the PRC. Then people tend also to spread it, but with a very different frame of mind now. This is how we counter this kind of malicious information operation.
I think journalism is your best friend. It’s not just professional journalists, but also, everybody who make journalistic work. Recording podcasts, for example. We make sure that we make our education curriculum so that people from as early as seven years old start learning about what we call media competence.
It’s not media literacy, which is about consuming information. Media competence is about producing information. From the role of producer, during our election, for example, there was another rumor that says there’s a special ink so no matter who you vote, Tsai always wins because there’s an invisible ink that appears and your ink disappears.
Actually, there is special web apps developed by all the different parties that accounts in real time. If anything happens, this almost like distributed ledger will detect the anomaly, and then people will see that there’s anomalies in the counting process.
It’s another feedback loop, isn’t it? It’s a little bit like a game theory thing, where as I suspect, the more you do things like this as a government, and people see this demonstration of good faith, they’re then more likely to believe you the next time round.
Yet we’re in the opposite loop in many other countries in the world. We’re in exactly the opposite loop. It makes me wonder whether when I see…Again, it’s like this sense that you’re in a new universe.
Is this something that’s only possible in a new democracy which has had a fresh revolution? For example, in the United States, we saw this deeply, deeply sketchy voting process at the Democratic primaries, where there was this software made by some company with some deeply suspicious-sounding name.
I can’t remember what it was like, Blacklist, or Under Cover, or something. The results didn’t seem to represent what people felt they’d voted for. You have this sense of these old, old machineries, like Democrat Party, Republican Party.
The US government with their “intelligence community,” the deep state, all these ideas. I guess my question is can you see the old governments – and I mean the British government, even older – implementing these types of feedback loops into its processes without being forced to? [laughs]
There’s absolutely zero violence – at least no fatality and no missing persons – during the 22-day Sunflower occupy back in 2014. I am not even sure whether it counts as a traditional revolution or not. It’s a very peaceful and funny one, I guess.
The infrastructure of trust, again, there’s bits of pieces of Taiwan model that you can freely take. The daily press conference, certainly. The medical mask, or whatever mask, worn as a social signal of washing your hands properly and not touching your face, and not appealing to any collectivist, altruistic incentives.
Actually, many developers in the UK are now working with Taiwanese application developers on the Bluetooth-enabling, privacy-enhancing technologies, precisely because Taiwan is known for doing privacy-enhancing technologies.
Even though we have not yet found a use for Bluetooth app tracing, because we never enter the community spread stage, we are still very much willing to help. Check out taiwancanhelp.us, get whatever recipe you want from it, and we can help.
Obviously, seven is a tragedy, but in the UK, I think it’s edging in on 60,000. This is a tragedy on an unimaginable scale, one that governments seem to be doing their best to just spin it is what they’re doing.
One of the things I wanted to ask you was just to go through the concrete ways that you managed to…With an early shutdown, an early response to the news coming out of China, what form did that response take?
You can either go to a quarantine hotel, or if you live in a spacious enough apartment, and you don’t live with vulnerable people, like very old people, then you can also choose home quarantine. It’s your choice.
Either way, you get I think â¬30 a day as a stipend. If you choose the quarantining hotel, of course, we also make sure that it’s very convenient and all your feedbacks gets satisfied by local health workers and wardens.
If you choose home quarantine, a similar service is provided. We do ask for your phone number, and if you don’t have a cellphone or a smartphone, we give you one for the 14 days. We use cell tower triangulation to make sure that you don’t, or rather your phone, don’t move out of the 50 meter or so radius.
This is not extra data collected, because the mobile operators are collecting the signal strength, anyway. All they do is to send an SMS to the local household managers or police to check where your whereabouts, if your phone runs out of battery, or if you move out of the quarantine.
After the 14 days, there is no constitutional basis for us to continue this system, so all the data is erased and so on. It’s a narrow but deep restriction on the freedom of movement and so on. The good thing about this is that it doesn’t label people. Once you’re out of the quarantine, then you’re just a normal citizen.
The digital fence is something that’s based on existing technology. In Taiwan, we have a lot of typhoons, earthquakes, or something. If there’s a heavy rainfall, there’s already this kind of geofencing SMS system from the major telecoms.
Where we send a cell broadcast or an SMS so that people have extra seconds to react, if it’s an earthquake, and to just take appropriate action and/or move out of those fence area. It’s essentially repurposing existing disaster management mechanism that’s already built by the CH telecom.
Just for listeners who aren’t aware, Taiwan is the closest country to China, and seven deaths total, free public healthcare. This is a model I think everybody should be…Britain has free public healthcare, but somehow has been completely incompetent in dealing with getting people in and protecting people.
If you go to taiwancanhelp.us, not only do you see the timeline, the things Taiwan can help that are previously mentioned, Vice President Chen Chien-jen recording a crash course translated to many languages, Epidemiology 101.
Also, you can see there’s more than 600,000 citizens which dedicated more than five million medical masks now from their unused, uncollected quota. People used this app, which is also published as open data, to dedicate their name and their uncollected mask and tell our foreign service that you should send this to international humanitarian need.
That’s exactly what we have done. You can go to that website to check. More than 300,000 people chose to reveal their name, me included. The other remained anonymous. We channeled [laughs] our care of other countries into this donation of mask.
We make an additional offering, which is if you give us a parcel of land – some electricity, water supply – then we use the same automation technology, can churn out two million medical mask a day, N95, R95, your call, and with some extra material left for PP-based protection gears.
Two final questions. Which countries do you see reaching out, saying, “We see that you’ve had this amazing success, and your social order isn’t breaking down. People seem to be on more less the same page about what to do. We’d like to learn from you, and we’d like to take some of the stuff, your mask machinery, whatever, and implement that”?
Yeah. First of all, of course, just look at which countries have spoken for Taiwan in the WHA this year. I think there’s more than 22, 23. Anyway, a large number. I think 14 of them actually joined in a Taiwan-hosted minilateral meeting of health officials a couple days before the WHA.
We actually have better broadband connection in that minilateral. We think that this international solidarity is really on the rise. We stand, of course, ready to help through either the Cohack, like collaborative hackathons, epicenter-to-epicenter conversations, and/or any kind of other things.
We look to expand this. We did something like that through the global cooperation training framework for countering disinformation before. We look forward to do that also for, I don’t know, sea debris, managing sustainability in the oceans, or climate change mitigation, or any of the other Sustainable Development Goals.
My final question is, we talked about pol.is. We focused on that a lot more in the previous interview, the nuts and bolts of that, for any listeners who want to go back and look at this decision-making software, consensus-building decision-making software.
Colin Mitchell, cofounder of pol.is, has been working on a knowledge base and on the best practices of how use pol.is. I think pol.is is not just one single tool. It’s a tool in a toolkit that belongs to a methodology about how to do math and democracy reinforcing one another.
I would encourage you to check out this notes, which I just pasted to you on Skype. Feel free to share that. In a more general sense, I think what we’re trying to build in Taiwan is a modular democracy that makes sure that each social innovation ends up being translated into public sector action, which then gets scaled out through the private sector.
This flips 180Â° the traditional PPP model, which is the private sector offering new technology for the public sector to try to convince the social sector to adopt. This is now the social sector demanding the public sector to implement these new ideas.
We become like the social sector’s vendors, which then work with the private sector to make these social ideas a reality. Right this week, we introduced the idea of the so-called revitalization coupon.
You can actually withdraw money from any ATM, two-third of that back, of which, of course, we encourage you to also spend. This is a very interesting stimulus package that is based on digital infrastructure that reuses most of the technology we developed around medical mask.
At the moment, we’re working on the Presidential Hackathon. We still use the voting called quadratic voting. This time, we extend quadratic voting not only to the 10 million people, including citizen residents, on our national participation platform, but we actually make sure there’s an even distribution among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
You don’t have to travel to Taiwan, although we welcome if you can do travel to Taiwan, if you’re a part of that travel bubble. You still have, I think, eight days to participate in the international track of the Presidential Hackathon, of which will align with the open contracting partnership and so on, to focus our energy not only on countering the pandemic and infodemic, but also to build a new norm of international solidarity.
The top winners, as usual with the Presidential Hackathon, not only get a trophy from our president, the trophy is a projector. If you turn it on, the president shows up, promising you your idea will be incorporated into the national policy.