Taiwan, on China's doorstep, is tackling TikTok in its own way

As in the United States, TikTok is popular in Taiwan, used by a quarter of the island's 23 million residents.

People post videos of themselves buying trendy clothes, dressing up as video game characters, and playing pranks on their roommates. Influencers share their choreographies and discuss whether sticky rice dumplings are better in northern or southern Taiwan.

Taiwanese users of TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, are also being served the kind of pro-China content that the US Congress has cited as a reason to pass a law that could lead to a ban on TikTok in America.

A recent example is a video showing a Republican congressman, Rob Wittman of Virginia, stoking fears that a vote for the ruling party in Taiwan's January election would prompt a surge in American arms to help the island's democracy in a possible conflict with China, which it claims as part of its territory. The video was flagged as fake by a fact-checking organization, and TikTok removed it.

About 80 miles off the coast of China, Taiwan is particularly exposed to the possibility of TikTok being used as a source of geopolitical propaganda. Taiwan has been bombarded by digital disinformation for decades, much of it traced back to China.

But unlike Congress, Taiwan's government is not contemplating legislation that could end up banning TikTok.

Taiwanese officials say the debate over TikTok is just one battle in a war against misinformation and foreign influence that the country has been fighting for years.

Taiwan has built an arsenal of defenses, including a dense network of independent fact-checking organizations. There is a government ministry dedicated to digital affairs.

And Taiwan was early to label TikTok a national security threat. The government issued an executive order banning it from official devices in 2019, along with two other Chinese apps that play short videos: Douyin, also owned by ByteDance, and Xiaohongshu.

The political party that has ruled Taiwan for the past eight years – and is set to do so for another four when Lai Ching-te is inaugurated as president on Monday – does not use the app, even during election season, due to concerns about its data. collection.

Here in Taiwan, lawmakers say, they don't have the luxury of viewing TikTok as the only threat. Disinformation reaches Taiwanese Internet users on all types of social media, from chat rooms to short videos.

“If you say you're targeting China, people will wonder why we're not talking about others too,” said Puma Shen, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “That's why our strategy needs to be to regulate every social media platform, not just TikTok,” said Shen, former head of Doublethink Lab, a disinformation research group in Taipei.

Taiwan has a deeply rooted culture of free political speech, having only taken its first steps towards democracy about three decades ago. The debate thrives on a wide variety of social media platforms, including Taiwanese online forums, such as Dcard and Professional Technology Temple.

But the most used platforms have foreign owners, and TikTok is not the only one. YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, run by publicly traded US companies, are even more popular than TikTok in Taiwan. And Line, a messaging app owned by a Japanese subsidiary of South Korean internet giant Naver, is commonly used in the country as a source of news and as a means of making payments.

Taiwanese lawmakers are considering measures that address Internet threats – fraud, scams and cybercrime – broadly enough to apply to all of these existing social media platforms, including TikTok, as well as anything that might replace them in the future .

A proposal introduced this month would require influential platforms that feature online advertising, which effectively includes all of them, to register a legal representative in Taiwan. Officials said these restrictions were not aimed at TikTok.

“We currently consider TikTok to be a product that endangers national cybersecurity, but this designation does not specifically address TikTok,” said Lee Huai-jen, outgoing spokesperson for the Ministry of Digital Affairs. The ministry has applied the same rating to other Chinese short video apps, including Douyin and Xiaohongshu, which have large audiences in China.

In March, executives from TikTok's Singapore office met with government officials and politicians in Taiwan. The company spoke with officials to “seek their feedback on our platform and for us to detail the many ways we keep our community safe,” a TikTok spokesperson said. He added that the app's data collection policies were in line with industry practices.

When Taiwan went to the polls in January, several organizations and government agencies had stepped in to make sure the conversation about TikTok was true to the facts.

TikTok has communicated with Taiwan's election commission, police agency and Ministry of the Interior to report potentially illegal content. TikTok said it removed nearly 1,500 videos for violating its policies on misinformation and election integrity, and removed a network of 21 accounts that amplified pro-China narratives. It also worked with a local fact-checking group to tag election-related videos with misinformation resources.

But the day after the election, the website of the Taiwan Fact Check Center, a non-governmental organization that works with tech companies including Google and Meta, was flooded with thousands of visitors, according to its chief executive, Eve Chiu.

Many saw videos on TikTok and YouTube showing volunteer poll workers making mistakes in vote counting and questioned the election results, Ms. Chiu said. Some of these videos were real, she added. The problem was that viewers were led to think that the scope of the error was much larger than it actually was.

While Taiwan's ruling political party has not used TikTok to campaign, its opponents, who are viewed with less antagonism by Beijing, have.

But some worry that this has made it easier for pro-China views to spread on TikTok and that Taiwan's approach to regulating social media is not robust enough to address the persistent threat of foreign influence online.

“In the United States, the target is very clear — this platform — but in Taiwan we don't know where the enemy is,” Ms. Chiu said. “It's not just a cross-Strait issue, but an internal one.”

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