How Taiwan used memes to fight pandemic rumours

By Yun Xuan Poon

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, shares three ingredients behind Taiwan’s successful pandemic response.

“We fought off the pandemic with no lockdown, and the infodemic with no takedown,” said Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang. How did the state manage this?

With a good dose of humour. As false rumours threatened to choke up the internet, Taiwan released lighthearted memes to clear the air.

Taiwan has won praise for its successful efforts at combating the pandemic. As of 11 September, it has had a total of 496 coronavirus cases, a relatively small percentage of its almost 24 million-strong population. Tang shared three reasons behind the state’s successful pandemic response at GovInsider Live’s Festival of Innovation.

Keep it fun

First, Taiwan used a “humour over rumour” approach to fight Covid-19 misinformation with merry memes. When the pandemic first hit, some netizens started circulating the rumour that the state would run out of toilet paper soon, since the resources were being used to make medical masks, she shared.

Within hours, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang posted an infographic debunking the rumour and dissuading citizens from stockpiling. The infographic even featured a caricature of him shaking his bum, playing on the similar-sounding Mandarin words for “stockpile” and “bum”.

The government kept its lighthearted tone when giving social distancing guidelines. The Ministry of Health and Welfare used a unique measuring unit: an officer’s pet dog. “For outdoors, you have to keep two shiba inus away, and for indoors, you have to keep three shiba inus away,” explained Tang.


Next, the government was open to citizen feedback and ideas. Even before the pandemic, Taiwan embraced openness and citizen-collaboration in public innovation. Tang’s office is open for citizens to drop by and chat about their issues, or exchange ideas about how to effect change.

The government had plenty of practice listening to citizens, and this paid off during the pandemic. Officials first got wind of the pandemic on a national discussion board, where a netizen highlighted that a Wuhan doctor had reported seven new SARS cases.

This “collective intelligence” led public officials to begin conducting health inspections for flight passengers from Wuhan from the first day of 2020, Tang said. This happened three weeks before Taiwan reported its first Covid-19 case.

The government was also open to feedback, she said. Member of Parliament and data analytics expert Terry Gou pointed out that Taiwan’s mask distribution was not very fair across counties. Instead of defending the system, health minister Chen Shih-chung asked Gou for advice to revise it. “As MP Gou said, ‘yesterday’s questioning is today’s improvement’,” remarked Tang.

Taiwan’s ministers were ready to stand with the people in these tough times. Tang shared how a boy refused to wear pink surgical masks - the only kind in stock in his neighbourhood - to school because he was afraid of being teased. After his parents raised the issue through a public feedback line, government officials turned up on TV with pink masks the next day to show solidarity.

Be inclusive

Third, Taiwan was conscious about making its digital services accessible. Its mask availability map, which shows which convenience stores have masks for sale, features voice assistance for the visually impaired, Tang said.

The government partnered with convenience stores so citizens could pick up masks 24 hours a day. This gave more than 95 per cent of citizens access to masks, and is a crucial reason the state was able to counter the pandemic with no lockdowns, she shared.

Trust between the government and citizens will be crucial in Taiwan’s post-pandemic recovery, Tang believes, especially when it comes to data. The public needs to know their data will not be abused or used against them. “[Data] is about making the state transparent to the people, not the people transparent to the state,” she said.

Citizens also need to know they are heard. “Effective partnership relies on people feeling that they're included and that this system is trustworthy,” she noted. This could mean involving citizens in building digital services, such as the mask availability map, she added.

Tang believes open innovation and collaboration will be important as nations emerge from the pandemic to tackle bigger issues like climate change. “We will learn from this new normal, where we can just have three ministers on a panel talking about the same issue,” she shared.