The TikTok app, with which users share short videos they have shot or edited, is currently the most successful app in the world. The start-up behind it, Bytedance, is valued at the equivalent of 66 billion euros, as high as no other young company. India is now the most important foreign market for the Chinese. More than 250 million have already downloaded the app. Dozens of millions more are added every month.

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But the success of the Chinese app has also raised fears. A new parliament will be elected on the subcontinent from April 11th – and, as in many other countries, there is a growing concern in India that elections are being manipulated via social media platforms, for example, because they spread false news, create secret voter profiles or the platforms could be used for espionage. This no longer only applies to Facebook or Twitter, but also to TikTok – and perhaps especially because of its Chinese origins.

The subcontinent is thus becoming a test case for the growing political importance of Chinese social media apps abroad. TikTok is already widespread in America and Europe – and has already alarmed critics. “Ignoring the reach of these apps would be a fatal mistake,” warns Claudia Biancotti, chief economist at the American think tank Peterson Institute for International Economics, in a blog post about TikTok.

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For Biancotti, dealing with Chinese social media apps is just as important as dealing with the Chinese mobile communications supplier Huawei. “The depth of the collected user data makes them very effective tools for espionage as well as for manipulating public opinion.” Five of the ten most popular apps in the Indian Android app store in 2018 came from China.

The number of political videos is increasing

TikTok seems completely apolitical. As in Germany, entertaining joke videos and private video clips predominate in India. Most of the content on the app is teen music videos that have been spruced up with effects. The Merkel video is also not an attempt at manipulation and should be recognizable as clear satire for most.

But the number of political videos on TikTok increased sharply in India before the elections: For example, many young people explain why they will vote which politician. Videos with the hashtag NarendraModi have been viewed almost 30 million times, and clips about his challenger Rahul Gandhi have been viewed around 12 million times.

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“Lots of young people use TikTok and social media to communicate with the world. The political parties have recognized this and are trying to make an impression on the first-time voters, ”says Cis expert Mohandas.

The app is particularly popular in the country. Most of the Indians live in the province, at the same time the standard of education is particularly low here. This target group is likely to be the easiest to manipulate.

Subtle influence possible
Theoretically, influencing could be so subtle that it can hardly be checked. For example, a scenario would be possible in which, under pressure from the Chinese government, the algorithms are changed in such a way that users are shown more certain content – or that unpleasant content is not displayed at all. In China itself, the domestic WeChat app is already filtering out critical content without notifying the sender or recipient.

As in Germany, TikTok in India has so far mainly focused on protecting the privacy of children. The youngsters in the videos often present themselves in revealing poses that could attract pedophiles. The general data protection problems due to the Chinese origin of the company and the possible spread of fake news are now increasingly coming into focus.

The Indian IT ministry announced tighter regulation of social media apps back in February. Influential Hindu nationalists have even spoken out in favor of banning Chinese apps. The attacks are also likely to have an economic background: In view of the Chinese and American dominance, Indian competitor offers are falling behind more and more.