Taiwan has become the next battleground in the war against political disinformation with TikTok playing a key role as the island gears up for next January’s presidential election.
While TikTok is not the most widely used social media platform in Taiwan, its Chinese ownership and rapid growth have drawn scrutiny and concerns over whether China’s government can manipulate the popular app to its advantage, according to a report from Bloomberg.
“The risk level of disinformation on a platform comes from its popularity, and for TikTok, that’s only growing,” Billion Lee, co-founder of the Taiwanese fact-checking platform Cofacts, said in a comment.
To address this potential threat, Taiwan’s authorities have already banned TikTok from government-issued devices, following in the footsteps of countries like the US.
In response to these concerns, TikTok claimed that it complies with laws and regulations and has policies in place to combat disinformation and prevent the misuse of the platform.
“We are proactively reaching out to the relevant government agencies to share how TikTok protects user data and counters misinformation,” a TikTok spokesperson reported told Bloomberg.
That includes “confirming the authenticity of accounts of political figures and parties with the relevant individuals and organizations.”
Andy Vermaut shares:TikTok content under scrutiny with Taiwan election heating up: TikTok’s Chinese ownership and its status as the fastest-growing app is drawing scrutiny as campaigning gets underway. Thank you. https://t.co/JlqPMiKJBm pic.twitter.com/ZjgYBMI2VS
— Andy Vermaut (@AndyVermaut) July 12, 2023
The stakes are high for Taiwan’s upcoming election, as the outcome could influence the future trajectory of the US-China relationship.
As campaigning in Taiwan gains momentum, viral videos on TikTok are highlighting the challenges the authorities face.
One particular video, which received nearly 900,000 views, accused Vice President Lai Ching-te, the ruling party’s presidential candidate, of jeopardizing citizens’ lives in a potential war with China.
The video also alleged that Vice President Lai’s children would be safe as they live in the US and hold American citizenship. The ruling party has vehemently denied the video’s claims.
“Taiwanese people, it’s time to wake up,” the narrator says on the video, hosted on an account run by a 32-year-old Taiwanese engineer who posts under the pseudonym “Citizen V.”
Taiwan a Testing Ground for Disinformation Campaigns
Given its geopolitical significance, Taiwan has long been used as a testing ground for disinformation campaigns, according to Robin Lee, project manager of the fact-checking platform MyGoPen.
Tsai Ming-yen, the head of Taiwan’s national security bureau, revealed that his agency has reviewed over 1,800 cases of online disinformation across multiple platforms, including Facebook and YouTube. He expects these figures to continue rising in the lead-up to the election.
Although some officials have argued for a complete ban on TikTok in Taiwan, that sentiment appears to be a minority view at present.
Lo Ping-cheng, the minister responsible for the government’s internal discussions on regulating TikTok, has advocated taking a cautious approach.
“Taiwan must be very cautious when we make this decision,” Lo Ping-cheng said. “There is no timetable set for a decision so far.”
TikTok has already proven itself as a powerful platform in major elections. In Malaysia last year, conservative religious parties effectively used the app to attract younger voters, helping them secure significant unexpected victories.
Similarly, Thailand’s progressive Move Forward party outperformed pre-election polls in May, partly due to their better utilization of TikTok.
The concerns surrounding TikTok are not limited to Taiwan but also extend to the US and Europe.
There are worries that the app’s feed can be manipulated for political purposes and that user data can be accessed by its parent company, ByteDance Ltd., on behalf of the Chinese government.
TikTok has repeatedly denied receiving data requests from Beijing and, in its statement to Bloomberg, emphasized that Taiwanese user data is stored in the US, Singapore, and Malaysia.
TikTok Becomes Hotbed For Misleading Information
Back in May, it was reported that several Joe Rogan clips and related videos promoting a spurious global warming theory about a shift in Earth’s magnetic fields and its catastrophic effects have accumulated more than 20 million views on TikTok.
The TikTok videos were from a Joe Rogan Experience podcast episode, where Rogan’s guests made statements regarding the so-called “Adam and Eve” theory, which reportedly contradicts the mainstream scientific view.
“It’s just unfortunate that these things are being put out there,” Martin Mlynczak, a senior research scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center, told The Verge in an interview. He added:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And there’s no proof and no science and no physics behind any of the claims about the magnetic field change being associated with climate change.”
The popularity of the videos shows how easy it is to spread false information on platforms such as TikTok through emotive short-form videos.
NEW—Members of Congress seek answers from #TikTok after determining that it made apparently false or misleading statements to bipartisan Committee staff.
“information TikTok provided…appears to be untrue or misleading, including that TikTok does not track U.S. user locations” pic.twitter.com/TiWRDFfX5J
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) November 22, 2022
While TikTok has recently announced plans to “ramp up enforcement” of climate change misinformation, the recent videos suggest the social media platform is failing to enforce its own policies.
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