Tik Tok Takes Toll on Truth

September 16, 2022

TILT Tik Tok has become an information resource for many users, almost as popular as Google. This seems like a bad idea.

Time:

TikTok may be the platform of choice for catchy videos, but anyone using it to learn about COVID-19, climate change or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to encounter misleading information, according to a research report published Wednesday.

Researchers at NewsGuard searched for content about prominent news topics on TikTok and say they found that nearly 1 in 5 of the videos automatically suggested by the platform contained misinformation.

Searches for information about “mRNA vaccine,” for instance, yielded five videos (out of the first 10) that contained misinformation, including baseless claims that the COVID-19 vaccine causes “permanent damage in children’s critical organs.”

Researchers looking for information about abortion, the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, climate change or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on TikTok found similarly misleading videos scattered among more accurate clips.

The amount of misinformation—and the ease with which it can be found is especially troubling given TikTok’s popularity with young people, according to Steven Brill, founder of NewsGuard, a firm that monitors misinformation.

TikTok is the second most popular domain in the world, according to online performance and security company Cloudflare, exceeded only by Google.

Brill questioned whether ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, is doing enough to stop misinformation or whether it deliberately allows misinformation to proliferate as a way to sow confusion in the U.S. and other Western democracies.

“It’s either incompetence or it’s something worse,” Brill told The Associated Press.

TikTok released a statement in response to NewsGuard’s report noting that its community guidelines prohibit harmful misinformation and that it works to promote authoritative content about important topics like COVID-19.

“We do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform,” the company said.

TikTok has taken other steps that it says are intended to direct users to trustworthy sources. This year, for example, the company created an election center to help U.S. voters find voting places or information about candidates.

The platform removed more than 102 million videos that violated its rules in the first quarter of 2022. Yet only a tiny percentage of those ran afoul of TikTok’s rules against misinformation.

Researchers found that TikTok’s own search tool seems designed to steer users to false claims in some cases. When researchers typed the words “COVID vaccine” into the search tool, for instance, the tool suggested searches on key words including “COVID vaccine exposed” and “COVID vaccine injury.”

New York Times:

In Germany, TikTok accounts impersonated prominent political figures during the country’s last national election. In Colombia, misleading TikTok posts falsely attributed a quotation from one candidate to a cartoon villain and allowed a woman to masquerade as another candidate’s daughter. In the Philippines, TikTok videos amplified sugarcoated myths about the country’s former dictator and helped his son prevail in the country’s presidential race.

Now, similar problems have arrived in the United States.

Ahead of the midterm elections this fall, TikTok is shaping up to be a primary incubator of baseless and misleading information, in many ways as problematic as Facebook and Twitter, say researchers who track online falsehoods. The same qualities that allow TikTok to fuel viral dance fads — the platform’s enormous reach, the short length of its videos, its powerful but poorly understood recommendation algorithm — can also make inaccurate claims difficult to contain.

Baseless conspiracy theories about certain voter fraud in November are widely viewed on TikTok, which globally has more than a billion active users each month. Users cannot search the #StopTheSteal hashtag, but #StopTheSteallll had accumulated nearly a million views until TikTok disabled the hashtag after being contacted by The New York Times. Some videos urged viewers to vote in November while citing debunked rumors raised during the congressional hearings into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. TikTok posts have garnered thousands of views by claiming, without evidence, that predictions of a surge in Covid-19 infections this fall are an attempt to discourage in-person voting.

The spread of misinformation has left TikTok struggling with many of the same knotty free speech and moderation issues that Facebook and Twitter have faced, and have addressed with mixed results, for several years.

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