Taiwan Manages TikTok Independently Close to China's Doorstep

Democratic island Taiwan has taken early and proactive steps to mitigate potential risks posed by ByteDance’s independent TikTok.

Democratic island Taiwan, has taken early and proactive steps to mitigate potential risks posed by ByteDance’s independent TikTok, including banning its use on government-issued phones.

In Taiwan, the popular social media app, used by a quarter of the island’s 23 million residents, finds itself at the center of a national security debate. Owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, TikTok has become a battleground for digital influence, particularly as Taiwan faces continuous threats of disinformation, largely traced back to mainland China.

Unlike the U.S., where Congress has moved towards potentially banning TikTok citing national security concerns, Taiwan has not legislated against the app but recognizes its potential for spreading geopolitical propaganda. This recognition came to a head with a video that falsely portrayed U.S. political stances, which TikTok later removed after it was flagged by fact-checkers.

Despite the proximity – just about 80 miles from China’s coast – and the heightened risk of influence, Taiwan’s approach has been notably different. The government has taken preemptive measures by banning TikTok from official devices since 2019, a restriction that also applies to other Chinese short-video apps like Douyin and Xiaohongshu.

“The debate over TikTok is just one aspect of a broader war against disinformation and foreign influence that Taiwan has been combating for years,” said a government official.

The country has fortified its defenses with a robust network of independent fact-checking organizations and a dedicated ministry for digital affairs.

“If you say you are targeting China, people will ask why we are not also talking about others,” Shen remarked, underlining the importance of regulating all social media platforms uniformly,” said of Taiwan’s legislators, Puma Shen of the Democratic Progressive Party.

In response to the pervasive challenge of misinformation, Taiwan has been proactive, not only in labeling TikTok a national security threat but also in enhancing its legislative framework. Recent proposals aim to cover all major platforms by requiring them to register a legal representative in Taiwan, a move that underscores the government’s intent to hold these platforms accountable without singling out TikTok specifically.

Despite these measures, the effectiveness of Taiwan’s strategy remains under scrutiny, especially following elections where misinformation was rampant on social media, including independent TikTok. The Taiwan Fact Check Center, overwhelmed with queries post-election, pointed to real videos misinterpreted by the public, highlighting the nuanced challenges of digital misinformation.

The broader use of TikTok by opposition parties, less criticized by Beijing compared to Taiwan’s ruling party, has also raised concerns about the unchecked spread of pro-China narratives. This situation illustrates the complex dynamics of foreign influence and the need for a vigilant and adaptive regulatory approach.

As Taiwan continues to navigate these digital minefields, the question remains whether its comprehensive yet cautious approach to social media regulation will suffice in shielding its democracy from the sophisticated digital influence operations orchestrated by its powerful neighbor.

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