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Taiwan, on China’s Doorstep, Is Dealing With TikTok Its Own Way

As it is 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 shopping for trendy clothes, dressing up as video game characters and playing pranks on their roommates. Influencers share their choreographed dances and debate whether the sticky rice dumplings are better in Taiwan’s north or south.

Taiwanese users of TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance, are also served the kind of pro-China content that the U.S. Congress cited as a reason it passed a law that could result in a ban of TikTok in America.

One 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 flood of American weapons to aid the island democracy in a possible conflict with China, which claims it as part of its territory. The video was flagged as fake by a fact-checking organization, and TikTok took it down.

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

But unlike Congress, the government in Taiwan is not contemplating legislation that could end in a ban of TikTok.

Officials in Taiwan say the debate over TikTok is just one battle in a war against disinformation and foreign influence that the country has already been fighting for years.

Taiwan has built an arsenal of defenses, including a deep 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, which is also owned by ByteDance, and Xiaohongshu.

The political party that has governed 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 campaign season, over concerns about its data collection.

Here in Taiwan, lawmakers say, they do not have the luxury of thinking of TikTok as the only threat. Disinformation reaches Taiwanese internet users on every type of social media, from chat rooms to short videos.

“If you say you are targeting China, people will ask why we are not also talking about others,” said Puma Shen, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “That’s why our strategy needs to be that we are regulating every social media platform, not just TikTok,” said Mr. Shen, formerly the head of Doublethink Lab, a disinformation research group in Taipei.

Taiwan has a deeply ingrained culture of free political speech, having taken the first steps to democracy only about three decades ago. Debate thrives across a huge variety of social media platforms, including on Taiwanese online forums, such as Dcard and Professional Technology Temple.

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

Legislators in Taiwan are considering measures that tackle internet threats — fraud, scams and cybercrime — broadly enough to apply to all these existing social media platforms, including TikTok, as well as whatever might replace them in the future.

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

“We currently think that TikTok is a product that endangers national information security, but this designation does not target TikTok specifically,” said Lee Huai-jen, the departing spokesman for the Ministry of Digital Affairs. The ministry slapped the same classification on 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 and political officials in Taiwan. The company talked with officials to “seek their feedback on our platform and for us to detail the many ways in which we keep our community safe,” a TikTok spokeswoman said. She added that the app’s data collection policies were in line with industry practices.

When Taiwan went to the polls in January, multiple organizations and government agencies were on call to make sure the conversation on TikTok stuck to the facts.

TikTok communicated with Taiwan’s election commission, police agency and interior ministry to flag potentially illegal content. TikTok said it had removed almost 1,500 videos for violating its policies on misinformation and election integrity, and took down a network of 21 accounts that were amplifying pro-China narratives. It also worked with a local fact-checking group to tag election-related videos with resources about misinformation.

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

Many had seen videos on TikTok and YouTube showing volunteer poll workers making errors in the vote count and questioned the results of the election, Ms. Chiu said. Some of these videos were real, she added. The problem was that viewers were primed to think the scale of error was much larger than it was.

While Taiwan’s ruling political party did not use TikTok to campaign, its opponents, who are viewed with less antagonism by Beijing, did.

But some worry that this 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 confront the persistent threat of foreign influence online.

“In the U.S., the target is very clear — this one platform — but in Taiwan, we don’t know where the enemy is,” Ms. Chiu said. “It’s not just a cross-strait issue, but a domestic one.”

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