A Tale of Three Cities: Part III – How to Politicize Public Health

In an exclusive three-part series for our blog, UC Berkeley undergraduate and MGP contributor Jezell Lee reflects on a personal experience of misinformation and polarization during the coronavirus pandemic, caught between the gravitational pull of Los Angeles, Berlin, and Taipei and heavily mediated through social media and the particularity of each locale. In the concluding installment, Jezell explains why Taiwan has avoided the worst excesses of pandemic-era polarization on social media and how misinformation in the national news media has nonetheless fueled the belated politicization of the government’s COVID-19 response.

Introduction

Like any start to a new year, the initial hours of a young 2020 were saturated with positive potential, resolution and optimism, as countdowns commenced and clocks struck midnight to hopeful crowds around the world. Social media, on a global scale, was an explosion of picturesque fireworks and encouraging messages spread with wide-eyed hope, from which I was not exempt. January 2020 was a month of excitement for my first solo trip to my mother’s city of Taipei and quiet yearning for February, when I was slated to leave my hometown of Los Angeles for my long anticipated study abroad semester in Berlin.

But as COVID-19 took the world by storm, halting possibilities of international travel and ultimately cancelling my study abroad program in early March, I was faced with the choice of either withdrawing from the university for a semester and retreating back to Los Angeles in bitter disappointment for the rest of the spring semester and the upcoming summer, or staying in Berlin to complete the semester online. So I stayed. As the world shifted its focus to the online digital space, channels of information and news were forged out of this delicate time of minimized physical contact and social distancing.

Zooming forward to the year’s end, social media, especially Instagram and Telegram, depicts a vastly different picture of ordinary life than the one envisioned by January 2020, one fraught with social tension and an avalanche of information surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the viral vaccine’s state of affairs. But what exactly is special about how news travels on social media, Instagram and Telegram in particular? How does it become searchable as an “infodemic” archive, and how does information travel transculturally and translinguistically?

TAIPEI, TAIWAN

Do Place and Language Matter?

 I again browsed the following archives of relevant hashtags surrounding the coronavirus and its vaccines, but this time in Mandarin Chinese:

Taiwan (Mandarin Chinese, traditional):*

#疫苗 (yìmiáo / vaccine) → 8.8k posts

#新冠疫苗 (xīnguān yìmiáo / coronavirus vaccine) → 1.9k

#新冠肺炎 (xīnguān fèiyán / COVID-19**) → 91.3k

#新冠 (xīnguān / coronavirus**) → 13.5k

#新冠病毒 (xīnguān bìngdú / coronavirus sickness) → 14.8k

#隔离 (gélí / quarantine) → 32k

#隔离生活 (gélí shēnghuó / quarantine life) → 20.3k

*Taiwan uses traditional Mandarin Chinese characters, while mainland China uses simplified characters, but occasionally the characters can be exactly the same, as is the case in this specific set of hashtagged keywords. I therefore had to look more closely into Instagram post content, either information written on the posts themselves or in the user-written captions with other characters, in order to discern whether or not the user was posting in traditional or simplified characters. 

**This distinction between the two in Mandarin Chinese is important because 新冠 simply refers to the general coronavirus family comprised of RNA viruses with spike proteins, while 新冠肺炎 specifically refers to SARS-CoV-2, or the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Much of the most popular infographic Instagram content is created and circulated in English, a language that is easily accessible by the English-speaking communities in the United States as well as in Germany. Taiwan, on the other hand, speaks Mandarin Chinese and its users therefore do not have the opportunity to access such information in English and subsequently share it with their peers. Not having English fluency thus leads to the establishment of an information accessibility barrier, and the “virality” of infographics may not actually be a worldwide phenomenon, but one limited to specific circles and communities that have experienced a polarization of news perception.

Because Taiwan has not experienced the same explosion of COVID-19 cases over the course of the ongoing pandemic, there is less of an urgency to vaccinate and a higher focus on enforcing the mandatory 14 day quarantine for the few exceptions who are allowed to enter the country (overseas Taiwanese citizens, essential workers, and the like) as well as more Instagram posts with information on the virus itself and how to protect oneself. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted healthcare systems, politics and economies worldwide; however, despite having similar access to social media, a proliferation in anti-vaccination sentiment and politicization of public health measures and governmental restrictions has not occurred in the Taiwanese polity.

Once predicted to be one of the worst affected countries due to its population density of 1,742 people/mi (673 people/km) and close geographical proximity to China, where the novel coronavirus originated from, Taiwan has implemented effective control measures and seen its citizens enjoy life as normal without instating the stringent lockdowns that have infamously marked American and German responses to the pandemic.

Taiwan’s past experience with containing the 2003 SARS epidemic was ultimately leveraged to create their model for combating COVID-19, setting what should have been the global standard to contain the novel coronavirus. Even before the World Health Organization (WHO) formally declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a pandemic, Taiwan had already taken preventive measures, such as mandating a strict 14 day quarantine from all inbound flights from Wuhan starting December 2019, and boosting face mask production with the help of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Culturally, within Taiwanese society, it is also an ordinary part of daily life to wear a mask outside as a courtesy to others if one is feeling unwell, and to also protect oneself from pollution and potential disease. Pandemic notwithstanding, it is not uncommon to see people wearing masks outside, on public transportation, or even in common office spaces, a vast departure from the politicization of mask-wearing and its perceived infringement on personal freedoms and the protests of “anti-maskers” to the American and German pandemic responses.

The Current State of Affairs

Despite being lauded for its outstanding pandemic response this past year, Taiwan has recently experienced a spike in the number of cases, due to a clustered outbreak found within crew members of the Taiwanese state-owned China Airlines in late April 2021 as well as the sluggish vaccination campaign, brought on by previously low numbers of positive cases. As of July 2021, less than 1% of the Taiwanese population has been fully vaccinated, a statistic that is especially worrisome given that Taiwan has an older population. According to the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), an organization responsible for Taiwan’s coordinated response to the pandemic, vaccinations have declined from 150,000 to 50,000 per day, an indication of vaccine skepticism on the rise, eerily mirroring Europe and America.

Moreover, Taiwanese news and media outlets have the tendency toward shock and sensationalism, linking any deaths occurring after vaccination to the vaccine itself. For instance, an 88-year-old woman made headlines after returning home from being vaccinated and then choking to death two hours later while eating Zongzi in celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival. TVBS, a commercial news network in Taiwan, also made the false claim that the WHO would eliminate the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines next year. The emotionally inflammatory headlines are written to elicit a response extreme enough to capture an individual’s attention, which then further spreads through their circles via word of mouth.

On a geopolitical level, President Tsai Ing-Wen’s government is under extreme pressure to accept vaccine doses from China, a politically unfavorable move that indirectly insinuates that Beijing is more capable of taking care of the Taiwanese people than Taiwan’s own leadership is. It also further undermines the decades-long concept of Taiwanese independence. But if Taipei refuses the vaccines from China, it appears to be that the Taiwanese government holds a flagrant disregard for the health and safety of its people. National sentiment is geared toward general distrust of China due to historical context and political conflict, and thus, any semblance of trust in Chinese manufactured vaccines is bound to be fragmented.


Because my personal narrative encompasses the anecdotal tale of three cities based on experiences of being in three different cities on three different continents over the course of 2020—Taipei, Los Angeles, and Berlin—my fluency in Mandarin Chinese, English and German has fortunately allowed me to peruse physical and digital spaces in all three languages across these three cities. I was unable to find a specific piece of news that traveled across all three cities simply because the vibrant online discourse crafted and spurred on by Instagram’s ability to push certain posts to a specific type of visible virality does in fact depend on each of these locations and the languages they use. However, it is also worthy to note that the establishment of the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “kung flu” within English-speaking spheres has directly manifested into the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes not just in the United States, but also in countries such as Germany, Australia and the UK. 

Conclusion

The patterns of interaction on social media, in conjunction with the interests and age demographics of its audience, contribute to playing a pivotal role in the spread of information and potential misinformation. With the rise of the Instagram infographic as a way to provide cherry picked information in a simplified format with the modern aesthetic design, it is now easier than ever for avid users of the platform to share such information with their peers and isolate themselves in polarized islands of thought.

The easy sharing and swiping through of posts on Instagram allows information to be spread at unprecedented speeds on a global scale within these specific circles, but is still constrained to the limits of grouped echo chamber polarity. Other platforms such as Telegram, easily allow for information and misinformation to be consolidated around a certain channel or topic, with open public access to those with or without a Telegram account and with the capacity to reach much more than just those who are subscribed to its specific feed. Information is also regularly moderated on Instagram to remove or label potential misinformation, as is the case with the accounts of prominent anti-vaxxers who have turned to other channels to sow their seeds of scientific fear and distrust, eerily mirroring the jarring confusion and instability wreaked upon society by the pandemic itself.

But as misinformation is removed, it becomes inaccessible and unsearchable. The ephemeral nature of information and misinformation that arises from moderating runs counterintuitively to the principles of archiving that seek to document, collect and preserve. While this scope of information diffusion focuses on specific platforms, it ultimately suggests that the powerful dynamics behind digital media information consumption across all different types of social media platforms give access to unrivaled amounts of content and have the capacity to be particular to their own built-in ecosystems. The rabbit holes of digital information and misinformation are frighteningly vast, seemingly bottomless, and we may never know exactly where they end and exit. 

About Kumars Salehi

Kumars Salehi is a PhD student in German Literature and Culture.
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