Taipei, Taiwan – The office of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is probably one of the most secure buildings on the island, but Tsai has opened its doors to social media influencers from around the world, inviting them to stay overnight.
With Taiwan facing a drop in Chinese visitors, many see it as a strategy to woo more tourists.
But in the run-up to January’s presidential election, in which Tsai hopes to win a second term, she also wants to showcase Taiwan to the world as a progressive and democratic society.
“Why don’t you be my guest, and spend a night at the Presidential Office building?” Tsai asked in a video for the project.
The campaign came as a surprise to many influencers. “I can’t believe that President Tsai welcomed us in person. She introduced herself in sign language to show her respect to us,” signed Calvin Young, an American deaf traveller and one of 10 people chosen out of 167 applicants.
Thai travel influencer Kanisorn Pringthongfoo told Al Jazeera he thought the campaign was “very wise”. Pringthongfoo has 80,000 followers on his Facebook fan page ibreak2travel.
“It’s the first time in history that a government invites foreigners to stay at the most secure place in their country,” he said. “It is impossible in some countries. Taiwan pays a lot of attention to the people and this can help Thai people understand the differences between Taiwan and China.”
As an island existing under the shadow of China, Taiwan has had to find more creative ways to enhance its international visibility and boost relationships with other countries. It does not have a seat in the United Nations and, under Tsai’s administration, the island’s limited diplomatic space has continued to shrink. It now has only 15 formal diplomatic allies after seven switched their allegiance to Beijing.
Tsai, who leads the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, has chosen to emphasise Taiwan’s “soft power”, and is eager to show how Taiwan is different from mainland China.
“We aim to promote diverse values of Taiwan to the world through the eyes of these foreign influencers,” said campaign organiser Evangeline Tang, “Public diplomacy has been a major concern.”
Brian Hioe, founding editor of New Bloom, which reports on Taiwan’s social movements and politics, said Tsai wants to go beyond economic ties to nurture people-to-people connections.
Tsai also uses multiple social media channels including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to reach out to people at home and abroad. While Twitter has relatively low penetration domestically, the president uses it to target an international audience with updates in English and Japanese.
She has not always been so adept at social media campaigns.
Elected in 2016, Tsai was once described by local media as “the missing president” for not making swift responses on controversial policies, including labour law reform.
A landslide defeat for the DPP in municipal elections in November last year focused minds.
“President Tsai had her own YouTube Channel and Facebook page for a long time, but it was not until January this year we started to make some changes,” said Sidney Lin, deputy CEO of the media department of Tsai’s campaign office.
‘Coolest politician in Taiwan’
A core team of 10 young people now designs creative campaigns and shares videos of Tsai chatting casually about her government’s policies with some of Taiwan’s most popular social influencers.
“She went from being a lame-duck president after the DPP’s disastrous midterm to the coolest politician in Taiwan, especially among Taiwan’s younger generations,” said Lev Nachman, Taiwan-based Fulbright Research Fellow and doctoral candidate.
Tsai’s cooperation with influencers has given her a foothold to make a comeback.
“Social influencers have become people’s main source of daily information. We need to enter their echo chambers,” said Lin.
Tsai’s YouTube followers have surged from just 6,000 nine months ago to 265,000 today. According to Lin, new posts on Tsai’s official account are now receiving at least twice as many likes on average as they used to in the past.
Tsai currently has an edge against rival Han Kuo-yu of the China-friendly opposition party Kuomintang (KMT). While many argue that Tsai’s stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty and her support for the Hong Kong protests are the main reasons behind the rise in her approval rating, she has also been able to marshal social media in a way her rival has not.
“If one compares the DPP and the KMT, the KMT is not social-media savvy when it comes to creating a distinct image,” New Bloom’s Hioe said.
Han’s YouTube channel has 128,000 followers compared with Tsai’s 265,000 and his Facebook page has 890,000 followers to Tsai’s 2.55 million.
Social media vs real world
Tsai’s growing social media presence – and the inevitable cat memes – as well as her social influencer techniques are not without risks.
“It does carry a tinge of trying almost too hard at times to appeal to Taiwan’s younger generation in a somewhat shallow way but, given the difficult position Tsai was in, she needed to regain her popularity and mobilise young voters into supporting her – even if that meant sometimes posting too many cringe-worthy cat photos,” said Nachman.
There is also the risk of mistaking social media popularity with real-world support.
In the first presidential debate this month, Han attacked Tsai and her administration over economic and trade policies.
Whether or not Tsai’s social media approach helps her win the election, Tsai’s flexibility and ability to dominate different social media platforms have made her a political pioneer.
“Every place has its own story,” Kanisorn concluded.
“Taiwan, with its young democratic history, showing the world that this country is open to everyone and for the people.”.