On March 16, 2015, Tzu Chi Foundation, one of Taiwan’s foremost humanitarian NGO, announced in a press conference to rescind its appeal on development project in one of Taipei’s nature reserve. Since the controversy saw its heated public debate since late-February, Tzu Chi has faced widespread public criticism, and more recently, accusations of financial activities that may violate regulations.
Interestingly, the issue has a long history dating back to 2005. In a decade of legal controversy, there was never as much public attention gathered previously. The interplay between the new city administration and social media clearly helped the event to develop.
In 1997, Tzu Chi purchased a land in Taipei’s Neihu reserve and planned to change the property name to social benefit property to accommodate recycling factory. However, due to the fear the construction may affect water drainage that create potential hazard, Tzu Chi faced strong opposition from environmental groups. Tzu Chi officially made appeal to Taipei City government in 2005 for environment safety review, and had been under review since.
As soon as Taipei City Mayor Ko was elected in December 2014, he openly expressed that he was against Tzu Chi’s development project appeals. In an interview on February 23, 2015, Mayor Ko criticized Tzu Chi was very “weird”. This immediately triggered a fierce online response.
Nun Shu’s initial response to Mayor Ko’s interview
Nun Tzu-Hui Shu, the spokesperson for Tzu Chi, wrote a post on Facebook denouncing Mayor Ko “returned evil for good” and his actions will ultimately suffer “divine consequences”. This remark went viral in Taiwanese social media. On PTT.cc, a bbs site that functions very similarly to Reddit, the discussions soared to an unprecedented level. Because of Tzu Chi’s religious background (it is founded and led by Buddhist nun), many more posts emerged accusing Tzu Chi acted very cult-like. As one user accused,
The founder recruited doctors not based on merit, but by how much they enact “appreciation” to the founder… once when the founder visited a hospital in Hsin-Chu, when she exited the car, the doctors would kneel as a sign of invitation…
With the growing discussion on social media, many public figures start to cast other doubts on Tzu Chi’s operation. University of Taipei’s urban planning professor Chung-Hsin Yang posted study on Tzu Chi’s property transaction record showing Tzu Chi would purchase industrial properties and rename for residential uses.
Scholars openly criticized Tzu Chi for violating zoning regulations
Amid the public debate, with Nun Shu trying to convince the public that Tzu Chi is abiding to regulations, rumors on social media became viral that show doubts on Tzu Chi’s organizational structure. One notable example was how Tzu Chi deploys a caste system where only people who have donated a certain amount of money can promote up the rank ladder. Some PTT.cc users started sharing a crystal sculpture of a Buddha sold by Tzu Chi costs more than $11,000 USD with suspected production cost of less than $1000 USD, which spurred an outrage in the PTT.cc community, prompting many users posting photoshoped mockups of the sculpture.
Social Media response to Tzu Chi’s crystal sculpture
With a sustained public attention on Tzu Chi’s controversy, people started to provide more cases indicating a potential scandal may be taking place. On Match 10, one PTT.cc user claiming to be an “insider” posted that another Tzu Chi’s development project in Taichung taking place at a historic site was undergoing construction without proper examination of potential damage to historic remains. Other PTT.cc users cast doubts on Tzu Chi’s money flow.
On March 16, Tzu Chi announced to rescind on the controversial appeal on Taipei’s development project, hoping to end the controversy. However, the hosts at one of the premiere politics talk shows quitted in response to Tzu Chi’s press conference, claiming that “Tzu Chi has controlled the media to show only the good sides”. The public onslaught ensued, with more users on PTT.cc producing accusations, claiming Tzu Chi’s portfolio includes foreign stocks, along with notorious companies such as Monsanto. Tzu Chi’s worry is now only a beginning.
Social Media Feedback Loop
In comparison to the past, the Tzu Chi controversy has gathered a lot more attention. It is interesting to see how there is a symbiotic growth between the discussions on PTT.cc and public figures’ Facebook posts. We can see there is a strong autocorrelation between number of posts and attentions on PTT.cc, and Facebook attentions. In the past, either of the two sources were as heavily used so people only chatted controversial topics locally. The figure demonstrates how social media acts as information amplifier.
A typical PTT.cc interface
Data Visualization: http://web.media.mit.edu/~pernghwa/tzuchiviz.html