China’s TikTok ticks voter reach box for Europe’s politicians, despite concerns

As she walks through a courtyard in front of the European Parliament, lawmaker Hannah Neumann is talking in brisk German into a small microphone about “hate speech” and “right-wing extremism”.

“Not a millimetre of space for right-wing ideas. Also on TikTok!” reads the caption of her first video, which garnered almost 2,000 likes and more than 500 comments on the Chinese-owned social media platform.

A year ago, the parliament banned its staff from using TikTok on their work devices and urged elected members and their teams to steer clear of it, citing cybersecurity concerns.

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But with Europe entering campaign season for elections that could bring record numbers of far-right politicians to Brussels, Neumann is one of a flood of European politicos flocking to the app in a desperate bid to reach younger voters.

“We’re still working ... to decrease the negative and toxic potential of this platform. So none of this stops, but it’s not on us to pull the plug, and until the plug is pulled, we also need to battle within the system,” said Neumann, from Germany’s Green Party.

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She remains concerned about China getting “access to all the data” and algorithms “pushing clearly divisive content”, but is worried that boycotting TikTok means her party will not reach an important demographic.

“All these young people, especially first-time voters, they don’t Google any more, they TikTok. They get their political information from TikTok.”

Europe’s mainstream political parties have been rocked by the rise of the far-right, particularly Alternative for Germany (AfD). But nowhere is the party more ascendant than on TikTok.

Where Neuman had racked up 1,343 followers in two weeks as of Tuesday, Maximilian Krah, the AfD’s lead candidate in June’s election, reaches hundreds of thousands of potential voters with each of his viral posts.

“One in three young men has never had a girlfriend. Are you one of them? Don’t watch porn, don’t vote for the Green Party ... and above all, don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be sweet, soft, weak and left-wing. Real men are on the right,” read a video caption posted last June, which has 1.4 million views.

The AfD attracts on average 430,000 impressions per TikTok post, almost four times the number of the three governing coalition parties combined, according to data from researcher Johannes Hillje, reported by the public broadcaster ZDF.

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The Identity and Democracy Party, the European Parliamentary group to which AfD belongs, is tipped to become the third largest group in Brussels and is running ahead of the Greens and the centrist Renew in the polls.

“We cannot leave this platform to the far-right – who are most successful on TikTok – to influence first time voters,” said Anna Cavazzini, another German Green who recently joined TikTok, which she accesses with a “separate second-hand phone”.

“While we must be mindful of security concerns, it is a fact that TikTok offers an avenue to reach especially younger demographics,” she said.

It is not just lawmakers who are trying to harness TikTok’s youth appeal ahead of June’s vote. The parliament itself has opened an account on a platform it has outlawed, to counter what its officials see as disinformation about the elections.

“Millions of young citizens, many of them possible first-time voters, use this platform to get information about those topics they are interested in,” said Ana Alegre, adding that the parliament’s communications team can post “without using its infrastructure or devices”.

“Several options allow the parliament to fully respect the decision on network security while assuring its presence on the social media TikTok.”

The parliament’s ban followed one from the European Commission and European Council. National governments followed suit.

At the heart of their concerns was TikTok’s ownership. Its parent company is Beijing-based ByteDance and authorities have fretted over whether sensitive data from the platform’s 134 million monthly European users could be accessed by China.

While TikTok has said that some staff in China can access European users’ data, the company has strongly denied it can be accessed by authorities in Beijing. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

Of more immediate concern to many is the content hosted on the video platform. An investigation launched last week under the EU’s new Digital Services Act (DSA) will determine if TikTok broke content rules aimed at protecting children and ensuring transparent advertising.

If found guilty, ByteDance could be fined 6 per cent of its global revenues.

“Disinformation and foreign interference looks like they could be a bigger problem than cybersecurity,” said Kai von Carnap, a Brussels-based lab fellow specialising in Chinese digital technology at research house Aletheia.

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“We don’t have enough empirical evidence that proves malevolent state-sponsored influence from China. The DSA is already a pretty big step towards more transparency around political advertisement on platforms. But we still don’t know if that is sufficiently strong to deal with these issues.”

Last year, a European Parliament committee on foreign interference said TikTok could be “in breach of the European data privacy framework, making it a potential risk and a source of Chinese-backed disinformation”.

A report on the topic was adopted by a landslide, with 469 votes for, 71 against and 75 abstentions.

Despite this, the South China Morning Post found that five of the seven lawmakers who put together the critical report are actively posting on the platform. In a recent statement, TikTok estimated that 30 per cent of MEPs are signed up.

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The parliament’s largest group, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), has racked up 58,000 followers and more than half a million likes for its short videos.

Eighteen of its members operate their own accounts, with Polish lawmaker Andrzej Halicki’s 105,000 followers treated to daily updates on his seven Great Dane dogs.

“The main reason is that we want to be present [on TikTok] and occupy space with our reasonable centre-right views on an extremely popular platform, even if it is more known for spreading extreme left and extreme right views,” said EPP spokesman Pedro Lopez.

In line with the ban, Lopez said the EPP has a “dedicated phone for posting videos on TikTok videos, which is not connected to the parliament’s network”.

“We do not control what [MEPs] do on their private devices and we do not aspire to do it. However, the group considers that it is necessary to be present in the fastest growing social media in Europe, especially among the young public,” he added.

Amid allegations that it is promoting extreme content, TikTok said this month that it will launch a “a local language election centre in-app for each of the 27 individual EU member states to ensure people can easily separate fact from fiction”.

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