TikTok: An Expanding Front in Cognitive Warfare

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 4

Image of how TikTok influences the Internet and reality. (Source: AI-generated image)

Executive Summary:

  • PRC cognitive warfare strategies now include the cultivation of internet influencers who disseminate rumors and on platforms like YouTube designed to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions.
  • TikTok has become a significant tool in shaping public opinion, exploiting its algorithmic power to spread narratives favourable to Beijing and critical of the United States, especially concerning the 2024 election in Taiwan.
  • Taiwan’s commitment to freedom of speech complicates efforts to regulate platforms like TikTok, with nearly 5 million users exposed to PRC-influenced narratives, posing a challenge to democratic resilience and information integrity.
  • The response to disinformation requires collective action, including regulatory measures, digital literacy education, international investigations into social media platforms’ operations, and global cooperation to uphold transparency and accountability standards.


The Evolution of PRC Cognitive Warfare Strategies

The landscape of the cognitive warfare perpetrated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) against Taiwan is in a state of relentless evolution, adapting and morphing with each passing year. Initially, the conflict was grounded in the physical realm, with Beijing deploying traditional united front tactics to disseminate rumours and sow discord. These efforts were rudimentary but effective, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated operations to come.

The PRC’s strategy underwent a significant transformation with the dawning of the digital age. The battleground shifted from the streets to the airwaves, with Beijing infiltrating media outlets to launch a comprehensive public opinion campaign aimed at the heart of Taiwanese society. Beginning in earnest from the turn of the millennium, this marked a pivotal turn in the nature of cognitive warfare.

Since 2015, the focus has shifted yet again. This time the digital frontier of social media is the target. PRC tactics have become more nuanced and multifaceted, ranging from the operation of content farms to the outright purchase of fan pages and the strategic management of online communities. These methods demonstrate a remarkable adaptability and an unyielding determination to influence public opinion.

Among the most insidious developments in this ongoing campaign has been the cultivation of internet influencers. These individuals, operating primarily on platforms like YouTube, have become—knowingly or unknowingly—conduits for propaganda. They broadcast a steady stream of rumours designed to undermine democratic institutions. 

Social media platforms have not remained passive. Faced with these challenges, a variety of countermeasures have been implemented, signaling a recognition of the threat posed by unverified information. However, the advent of TikTok has introduced a new dimension to this complex web of information warfare. As other platforms began to tighten their controls, the PRC recognized the strategic advantage of owning and operating a social media platform. TikTok has emerged not merely as a tool for entertainment but as a formidable weapon in the PRC’s arsenal for shaping public opinion. Its algorithmic power and global reach have rendered it an invaluable asset in the dissemination of narratives that are pro-Beijing and/or critical of the United States.

Influence And The 2024 Election

The 2024 presidential election in Taiwan serves as a stark illustration of the potential impact of TikTok on democratic processes. The PRC’s strategy has evolved beyond the simple fabrication of rumours. By exploiting the natural divisions within Taiwan’s political landscape, in particular the animosity between rival parties, Beijing has been able to amplify discord and manipulate public perception to its advantage. The subtlety of this approach lies in its indirectness. By intensifying existing disputes, the PRC can achieve its objectives without overt intervention. This tactic of leveraging internal conflicts presents a considerable challenge to democratic resilience.

Taiwan finds itself in a precarious position in confronting this challenge. The island’s deep commitment to the principles of freedom of speech and expression complicates the task of regulating platforms like TikTok. Any attempt at censorship risks backlash from a populace that deeply values its democratic heritage. However, the ruling party’s cautious approach to TikTok has inadvertently ceded the informational high ground to Beijing, due to concerns over cybersecurity threats. With the platform dominated by narratives unfavorable to the ruling party and conducive to PRC interests, nearly 5 million Taiwanese users are exposed to a skewed representation of political realities. This situation highlights a critical vulnerability in the information ecosystem that the PRC is all too eager to exploit.

Managing the issue of disinformation on social media platforms is a collective endeavor. It is not merely a matter of regulatory enforcement but a challenge to culture and society more broadly. The ubiquity of platforms like TikTok in the daily lives of millions of people underscores the need for a concerted effort to cultivate digital literacy and critical thinking among the public. Educating users on how to discern credible information from conspiracies is a critical line of defense in the landscape of cognitive warfare. By empowering individuals to critically evaluate the content they consume, democracies can build a citizenry that is more resilient and less susceptible to the manipulative tactics employed by adversarial states. However, if the PRC’s tactics become more nuanced, the general public, armed only with basic media literacy, may struggle to resist the overwhelming volume of conspiracies or biased reports that circulate online.

Potential Taiwanese and International Responses

No country is immune to the effects of rumours and conspiracies. The strategies employed by states like the PRC to exploit these platforms have global implications. 

Taiwan’s current approach is to passively report fake news and accounts to TikTok itself. Even when reports are accepted, TikTok, having no operational base in Taiwan, ignores them. The government is thus powerless to resolve this issue. Fake news reported before elections is dealt with only after the event. Compelling TikTok to establish a local presence would necessitate robust administrative action from the Taiwanese government, whether through advertising regulations, bandwidth restrictions, or demands on fraudulent content. Unfortunately, none of these are easy to implement. 

International investigations have a part to play in affecting policy outcomes in Taiwan. Investigations into TikTok’s financial backers—for example identifying the company as Chinese-invested—and into the company’s control and manipulation of its recommendation algorithm would cause the company to fall under regulations concerning cross-strait relations, thus facing stricter controls. If the international community can work together to make these networks more transparent, it would help in developing regulatory standards worldwide. International forums and coalitions can also serve as platforms for sharing best practices, coordinating regulatory approaches, and facilitating joint investigations into the operations of social media giants. Through such cooperation, nations can exert collective pressure on these companies to uphold higher standards of transparency and accountability.


The threat posed by TikTok and similar platforms in the context of cognitive warfare requires a multifaceted response. This should encompass regulatory measures, public education, private sector innovation, and international cooperation. The goal is not only to protect free speech and foster technological innovation but also to safeguard the public sphere from manipulation and misinformation. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, so too must the strategies employed to defend democratic values and processes. The road ahead is challenging, but with concerted effort and collaboration, democracies can turn the tide in the battle for cognitive sovereignty.