Toxic practice spreads to Taiwan blogosphere

China has the 50 Cent Party (五毛黨) to regulate and control content on the internet. Now it seems Taiwan has its own version labelled the $5,000 Party (五千黨). The latter term was coined by convenor of the Taiwan Green Party Pan Han-shen (潘翰聲) on his blog in response to an incident where a group of 20 bloggers where paid NT$5,000 to participate in a tour of a petrochemical plant and write about it on their blog. The Taipei Times reports in more detail:

Pan told the Taipei Times by telephone that the Industrial Development Bureau (IDB) had invited 20 bloggers on a trip to visit a petrochemical plant in Kaohsiung and an electronic appliance plant nearby.

“The trip was totally free for participants. They received free meals and a NT$5,000 cash award,” Pan said.

“The NT$5,000 for each participating blogger alone costs NT$100,000 of taxpayers’ money and this doesn’t include the cost of hiring a marketing firm to arrange the trip and other costs of the trip,” Pan said.

Pan Han-shen further describes the practice as greenwashing. It is part of efforts by the government and industry to manufacture public support for the expansion of the petrochemical industry, in particular the proposed Kuokuang petrochemical plant on the coast of Changhua County. Michael Turton has more on the issue with links to some of the posts by bloggers who visited the petrochemical plant.

This event has occured while controversy is raging in Taiwan over the use of “embedded marketing”, which involves television stations and newspapers of disguising paid for promotions as news or normal programming. The National Communication Commission took ERA TV’s variety channel off the air last month for its repeated use of embedded marketing.

While the government has decried the pernicious practice and promised to take action to eradicate it, it now seems to have taken on new forms by shifting into the blogosphere. Of even greater concern is that the practice is not just being used by the government and corporations in Taiwan, but China is also using it to manipulate Taiwan’s media. Michael Turton summarises the impacts succinctly by saying,

This means that outside the Green press the public in Taiwan is getting two types of news about China: news from self-censored center-right mainstream press organizations, and news from totally pro-China propaganda houses.

The paradox of Taiwan’s media is that although it is free is suffers from being highly partisan and polarised. The practice of embedded marketing only further exacerbates the problem by replacing critical reporting with puff pieces. The blogosphere provides an important alternative space for a variety of opinions to be expressed. However, if this space is also discredited then Taiwan’s democracy can only continue to degenerate.