TikTok: A Stream of Weaponized Information?

October 4, 2022

Much of GenZ is now using TikTok as a Google substitute. It seems logical: If one is already spending hours each day on the platform, why not pull up its search function whenever one has a question? Mashable supplies one good reason in, “TikTok’s Search Suggests Misinformation Almost 20 Percent of the Time, Says Report.” Reporter Amanda Yeo cites new research from NewsGuard as she writes:

“When looking for prominent news stories in September, the fact checking organisation found misinformation in almost 20 percent of videos surfaced by the app’s search engine. 540 TikTok videos were analysed as part of this investigation, with 105 found to contain ‘false or misleading claims.’ ‘This means that for searches on topics ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to school shootings and COVID vaccines, TikTok’s users are consistently fed false and misleading claims,’ wrote NewsGuard. NewsGuard’s study also noted that while the four U.S.-based analysts partaking in this study used both neutral and more conspiracy-laden search terms, TikTok itself often suggested controversial terms. Typing in ‘climate change’ may cause the app to suggest searching ‘climate change doesn’t exist,’ and searching ‘COVID vaccine’ might prompt it to suggest tacking ‘exposed’ onto the end. Mashable’s own test from an existing Australian account found only innocuous phrases such as ‘getting my COVID vaccine’ when searching for the latter phrase, however typing in ‘climate change’ did cause TikTok to suggest the search term ‘climate change is a myth.”

Of particular concern is dangerous misinformation about abortion. As access to a safe abortion is blocked or threatened in more and more states, people are seeking alternatives online. Often what they find on TikTok, however, is at best ineffective and at worst lethal. TikTok points to its community guidelines and insists it not only removes dangerous misinformation but also elevates authoritative health-related content and partners with fact checkers. But since the very foundation of the platform rests on user-created and user-shared content, fighting misinformation is a Sisyphean task. It does seem TikTok could at least teach its algorithm not to suggest conspiracy theories. One thing is clear: It remains up to users to protect their own safety by checking facts and considering sources.

Cynthia Murrell, October 4, 2022


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