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French documentary reveals TikTok's attempts to influence Taiwan elections

There are more than 5.5 million TikTok users in Taiwan, nearly quarter of population

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Chinese flags surround TikTok logo. (Reuters illustration)

Chinese flags surround TikTok logo. (Reuters illustration)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A French documentary is examining how TikTok is being used to sway Taiwan's voters away from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the coming 2024 presidential elections and mold young minds to embrace a Chinese annexation of Taiwan.

The documentary, titled "TikTok, l'ombre chinoise" (TikTok: The Chinese Shadow) partially focuses on the Taiwan elections and shows how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) undermines the credibility of the "enemy" to divide the people, per CNA. Taiwanese youth interviewed expressed openness to closer relations with China, and experts say TikTok may become a tool for China’s “unification" efforts.

France 5 aired the latest documentary in the "La fabrique du mensonge" (The Factory of Lies) series on Monday night (Dec. 4). In the 70-minute video, the director interviews dozens of experts and journalists from France, the U.K., the U.S., and Taiwan to show how China uses TikTok to monitor, manipulate public opinion, and spread disinformation. He also interviewed young users to provide viewers with insights into the influence of TikTok.

One section of the video focuses on Taiwan, pointing out that TikTok is trying to influence the presidential and legislative elections. Hung Tzu-wei (洪子偉), a scholar at Academia Sinica, said in the documentary, "China's goal is to counteract Taiwan's independence and prepare for and promote future unification." Vincent Chao (趙怡翔), a DPP Taipei City Councilor, said that TikTok delivers "the threats and challenges brought by fake news."

There are more than 5.5 million TikTok users in Taiwan, which is nearly a quarter of the population, the documentary said. It added Taiwan's government is beginning to become concerned about the power of TikTok, which is gaining popularity among young people.

Documentary analysis indicates that with the election approaching, China’s online political propaganda is primarily targeting DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te (賴清德). Tim Niven, a researcher at Doublethink Lab in Taipei said the CCP, which aims to annex Taiwan, is attacking Lai, as it considers him an enemy, and is seeking to undermine his credibility.

Examples of Chinese political propaganda on TikTok, include a prediction that if Lai is elected, the U.S. will launch a war. TikTok videos also claim that Lai will lead the country to disaster, spreading the message about Taiwan's alleged shortages in electricity, water, vaccines, and traditional Chinese medicine, creating the impression that Taiwanese are in dire straits due to the ineffective governance of the DPP.

Cabinet spokesperson Lo Ping-cheng (羅秉成) was quoted as saying, "This is a method used to divide and weaken the people's will to resist ... The disinformation attack Taiwan faces is very serious. It is no longer at a laboratory level, but a war."

The documentary interviewed two Taiwanese middle school students who are heavy TikTok users. A student named Ja said that he uses TikTok to look for news "following relatively famous people with some opinions that ordinary news media do not report."

The documentary said Ja is watching an increasing amount of content from China. Ja said, "There is indeed some content that shows that China is actually not as bad as imagined," and added, "I would not be very worried if Taiwan's relationship with China gets closer."

The documentary also details the tactics used by TikTok in a narrative war, including spreading peaceful images of Uyghurs singing and dancing, stigmatizing Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, criticizing Western COVID prevention failures, and disseminating conspiracy theories about the virus originating from Bill Gates or U.S. military bases. Other tactics promote official accounts of journalists conveying Beijing’s narratives in French, like labeling Ukrainian President Zelensky a neo-Nazi, among other strategies.

TikTok collects personal information, and according to Chinese regulations, companies must cooperate with the government. Therefore, this data is essentially in the hands of the CCP government, argued the documentary.

Paul Charon, Director for Intelligence, Strategic Foresight, and Influence at the Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School (IRSEM), said what makes TikTok questionable is its relationship with the CCP and the undemocratic nature of the Chinese regime.