Law, Science and technology | East Asia

28 June 2021

New analysis suggests that negativity on social media affected the democratic process in Taiwan’s 2018 referendums, shifting votes against a same-sex marriage proposal, Shangpo Hsieh writes.

Back in 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. In the year following the change, a total of 4,087 same-sex couples had completed marriage registration in Taiwan.

Now, in 2021, 60.4 per cent of survey respondents in Taiwan agree that same-sex couples ‘deserve the right to legal marriage’, a proportion that increased by 15.1 per cent in 2020 and 7.9 per cent in 2021.

Nevertheless, critics still insist that same-sex marriage legalisation ‘contradicts public opinion’, often referring to the 2018 referendum result to support their arguments.

Among the 10 referendum proposals in the 2018 referendum, three were concerned with same-sex marriage. The two initiated by opposition groups were passed, and the only one initiated by proponents was vetoed.

This meant that when same-sex marriage activists’ succeeded in their struggle in 2019, it required a separate law governing same-sex marriage in Taiwan to achieve marriage equality, rather than an amendment to current marriage laws.

Clearly, the 2018 referendum and its results are crucial to Taiwan’s ongoing same-sex marriage debate – such as what further rights should be afforded to same-sex couples – but understanding of what actually happened in that vote remains limited.

More on this: How the digital age changed Taiwan

The missing piece of the 2018 referendum puzzle is the political and media environment of the time, and this context must be taken into account.

Politically, it’s important to note that Taiwan’s two main political parties’ policy positions on same-sex marriage and other critical social issues often clash.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party has repeatedly stressed its support for same-sex marriage, while the opposition Kuomintang has been more critical, and studies confirm there is an association between attitudes towards same-sex marriage and party identification in Taiwan. In such a context, independent voters matter to elections and referenda on the issue.

The digital media context is crucial too. As one might expect, same-sex marriage was a hot topic online in the approach to voting day. Jennifer Lu, a pro-same-sex marriage activist, complained that damaging rumours and hate speech flooded social media during the referendum, and information widely distributed online to guide voters may have deceived them in the process of making their choices.

More on this: Taiwan’s choice

In such a context, individual media use behaviours can become a massive factor – and there is emerging evidence that such influence may have affected the referendum. Take the tenth proposal of the referendum, for example, which asked whether voters agree that marriage defined in the civil code should be restricted to the union between a man and a woman.

Post-referendum analysis revealed that independent voters who were more likely to access their information online, rather than from traditional means, were more likely to agree with the proposal, meaning they likely voted against same-sex marriage.

This suggests that negativity on social and digital media may have influenced voters on the issues of the referendum in Taiwan. While not all of this content could be considered false or deceptive, government must address digital media use and literacy problems to ensure citizens aren’t getting too much of their information from unreliable or malicious online sources.

It may even separately indicate the proliferation in Taiwan of ‘fake news’ and rumours that have affected elections elsewhere in the world. Citizens being able to distinguish this from reliable information is critical for all democracies.

The importance of media literacy has been recognised in some places, but approaches to the problem primarily focus on cultivating school students’ media literacy through education, leaving the influence of poor media literacy on adults often unnoticed.

Taiwan’s case, however, highlights that digital media use is not just a possible future problem, it is already affecting the electorate’s voting choices on critical policies. Given this, democracies across the region need to cultivate adults’ media literacy urgently, or they risk seeing their own democratic processes compromised.

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