TikTok may be the perfect go-to for trendy dance routines, but anyone using the social media platform to find reliable news is likely to quickly fall into a dangerous web of misinformation.
A report has highlighted just how easy it is to find false and misleading information about news topics on TikTok, whose users are predominately teens and young adults.
Researchers at NewsGuard – a New York-based watchdog that tracks misinformation online – found almost one in five of the videos on the popular social media platform contained misinformation.
The TikTok videos studied covered topics such as climate change, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, school shootings and COVID-19 vaccines.
All were found to have misleading claims.
The researchers found that when a neutral phrase such as “climate change” or “COVID vaccine” was typed in the search tab, TikTok automatically suggested misleading phrases such as “climate change doesn’t exist” and “COVID vaccine HIV”.
The report’s lead author, Jack Brewster, told The New Daily it was shocking how easily misinformation could be sourced on TikTok.
“We didn’t have to work hard to find misinformation on TikTok,” Brewster said.
“We found misinformation when entering problematic search phrases such as ‘Was the 2020 US election stolen?’
“But we also found misinformation by simply searching for benign terms such as ‘hydroxychloroquine’ and ‘mRNA vaccine’, which elicited false and misleading content within the first 20 results,” he said.
TikTok – whose library of user-generated videos can be easily searched through simple keywords – is increasingly used by teenagers seeking vital information on news issues.
“Democracy relies on an informed public. If young people rely on TikTok as a source of information and the platform regularly feeds misinformation, that can pose a problem. Many young TikTok users are of voting age,” Mr Brewster said.
The review found TikTok’s search engine fed young users misinformation on a host of topics. Photo: Getty
TikTok is a rapidly growing platform, with the short-video format giants reaching a billion monthly active users worldwide just under a year ago.
That includes about seven million in Australia, mostly young adults and teenagers.
According to its website, all videos posted on the platform go through AI-driven reviews, which detect issues by flagging terms like “COVID” or “abortion”.
If the AI finds a problem with the content, the video is removed or sent to a human moderator for further review.
However, conspiracy theorists have found they can escape moderators by avoiding terms that attract TikTok’s word search-based content moderators.
The report found that a video of a woman making home-made “hydroxychloroquine” claimed the drug popularly used to cure malaria could cure “anything”, alluding to COVID but not explicitly using the word.
Dr John Lenarcic, an academic of digital ethics at RMIT University, said the problem of misinformation on TikTok could be attributed to the sheer number of users it had.
“The problem with TikTok, like any large social media site, is the problem of volume; you have so many people posting on TikTok every day,” Dr Lenarcic said.
“Even if there are AI systems that filter content, you probably would need to have an actual human that can moderate what’s being posted.”
TikTok removed more than 102 million videos for violating its Community Guidelines in the first quarter of 2022.
But less than 1 per cent of those were removed for violating the platform’s “integrity and authenticity” guidelines, which include “harmful misinformation”.
The era of ‘#TikTokTaughtMe’
Earlier this year TikTok launched an advertising campaign in which it advertised itself as a learning platform claiming “there is no limit to the knowledge that can be discovered on TikTok”.
Despite the criticism around the spread of fake news and TikTok’s management of the misinformation, the advertising campaign said to “type a specific topic into the search bar or scroll your feed to uncover a variety of surprising and useful tips”.
Mr Brewster said the social media platform’s pitch as informative was problematic.
“TikTok advertises itself as an educational platform, not just a place for dance videos. TikTok users may expect to receive high-quality information on the platform and instead be duped into believing false claims about everything from politics to health information,” he said.
TikTok: The new search engine
In 2021 TikTok dethroned Google as the world’s most popular website, worrying experts about how reliable the information it offers is.
Young people increasingly use TikTok as a search engine, turning to the viral video-sharing platform instead of Google.
RMIT senior digital marketing lecturer Dr Torgeir Aleti said it was easier for misinformation to spread on social media platforms like TikTok because of how their business models worked.
“The algorithm of social media platforms is designed to feed the user more content they like – the longer you stay, the more data you leave on the platform. Everything you do on there is recorded, repackaged and sold to the highest bidder,” he said.
Other prominent social media platforms like Meta’s Facebook and Instagram also use similar sophisticated algorithms to collect user data to increase advertising revenue.
Dr Chris Chesher, senior lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, said the review raised important questions on the role of social media in spreading misleading information.
“I think the takeaway is the importance of fostering digital media literacy to encourage people to be suspicious of TikTok videos making claims that just don’t seem right. TikTok is not the best source for news or political analysis,” Dr Chesher said.
NewsGuard’s findings came as TikTok also faced increased scrutiny over its moderation and data collection practices, including its ties to China.