Taiwan is Restricting Chinese Video Apps Like TikTok for Fear of Disinformation
Chinese-owned video apps are taking over the world — but some countries are worried about that
For years, it has been widely known that Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo are heavily censored and subject to direct control by the state. But as relatively few used those platforms outside of China’s Great Firewall, they were not considered a threat to global discourse.
Then came TikTok. ByteDance’s video streaming app has become of one the first Chinese platform to go global. Alongside other Chinese streaming apps including Tencent’s DouYu or Baidu’s iQiyi, Chinese tech companies are, finally, innovating instead of imitating and tapping into the growing global mobile video market. It’s not just the United States — India, Turkey, Russia, and Mexico are seeing Chinese apps gain millions of users.
With this growth, through, comes concerns about the role of the Chinese government. The lines between China’s tech giants and the state or the ruling Communist Party are blurry.
And as The Guardian reported today, ByteDance appears to limit the reach of videos on TikTok that contain information deemed sensitive to Chinese interests.
“The Chinese government controls the business model and platform operation platforms of these private tech companies very tightly,” said Titus Chen, associate professor at the National Sun Yat-Sen University’s Institute of Political Science in Taiwan. “This control… gives the Chinese government power that any dictator or leader dreams about.”
Moreover, China is not shy about its ambitions to control media narratives globally.
“The Communist Party seeks control over key nodes of information, increasingly outside of China,” said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House. “At some point it will be in their interest to shift the public debate in a certain direction. Governments should be aware of that, and should be paying attention.”
There is evidence this might already be happening. Hong Kong has seen consistent agitation since the introduction of a controversial extradition bill in June, and video platforms have become a battlefield between pro-democracy protesters and the Chinese state. But there is evidence that TikTok is showing users a distorted version of the protests.
“Platforms are playing by different rules, and are specifically designed for broadcasting the Chinese government message”
The hashtag #HongKong shows nothing of the protests, and even more specific search terms, such as 反送中, #HKProtests, #AntiELAB, pull up just a few protest videos with relatively few views. The Washington Post found similar results in their own recent investigation.
Contrast this with what is happening on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, all of which are seeing active debate, engagement, and attempts to spread disinformation. Last month, networks of bots and fake accounts promoting Chinese propaganda were discovered and shut down by Facebook and Twitter. Twitter took an additional step to clamp down on rampant ad spending by Chinese state media, promoting their interpretations of the protests, mostly through news clips. YouTube followed with a similar move, disabling 210 channels that were spreading disinformation.
Would TikTok, even under pressure, shut down a pro-China bot network, or limit the spread of state-backed media on its platform? Requests for comment from ByteDance went unanswered, though in a statement to The Guardian they said that while initially they did have some form of censorship, they “recognized that this was not the correct approach, and began working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market.”
So how can foreign governments respond to Chinese platforms being a tool for disinformation? Taiwan took possibly the harshest step earlier this year. The island nation, which has long dealt with China, which considers it a “renegade province,” announced that it would be restricting iQiyi and DouYu streaming platforms from getting business licenses in the country. When asked about the move, Taiwan’s deputy minister for mainland affairs, Chiu Chui-Cheng, clearly stated: “If Tencent’s streaming video service is trying to enter the Taiwanese market, it’s very likely that it’s a part of Beijing’s propaganda campaign.”
“It was the right move,” said Caleb Chen, a Taiwanese-American privacy advocate and contributor to Privacy News Online. “Those platforms are playing by different rules, and are specifically designed for broadcasting the Chinese government message.”
India took a different route ahead of its own elections earlier this year, after finding evidence that TikTok was being used by domestic actors to spread disinformation and political messaging through the campaign period. A court order forced the app to be blocked from being downloaded for about a week. In the end, TikTok removed over six million videos, added a public service announcement around political content, and even joined a state-led effort to limit fake news around the campaign period. Legislation is still being considered that would further the ability of India to control content on video streaming and chat apps.
“TikTok’s growth is a legitimate concern, not only for Taiwan, but countries around the world”
“I think it’s reasonable for Taiwan to approach Chinese technology with heavy suspicion,” said Nick Monaco, research director at Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab and an expert on disinformation around elections. “This is an ever-evolving problem, and new platforms represent new vectors of disinformation.”
Taiwan is the focal point due to Presidential elections in January, which are spurring active efforts to limit the impact of Chinese disinformation. Later next year are, of course, the 2020 US presidential elections, just four years after disinformation on social media platforms, most notably Facebook, played a potentially key role.
What role will video streaming play in coming elections? One thing is certain. TikTok isn’t going anywhere. There was a strong Chinese presence at VidCon 2019, with the app widely considered the star of the event, gathering some of the biggest influencers at their headline party. There was little talk there about its potential political use, but as America’s own recent history, and Hong Kong, Taiwan, and India show, it might be only a matter of time before a platform considered playful and harmless becomes host to disinformation.
“TikTok’s growth is a legitimate concern, not only for Taiwan, but countries around the world,” said Monaco. “The thing about online disinformation is that it’s an ever-evolving problem and for people who are working on solving the problem, it’s a moving target as well. It’s up to governments and citizens to make their level of concern aware.”