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.
NewsGuard’s researchers looked for news content on TikTok, and discovered that almost one fifth of all videos suggested by the platform had 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.
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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 ranks second on the list of most visited domains in the world according to Cloudflare. Google is only behind it.
Brill was curious to know if ByteDance, the Chinese firm that owns TikTok is doing enough or allowing misinformation spread to cause 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 also took other measures that, according to the company, were intended to help users find trustworthy information. To help U.S. residents find information or places to vote, TikTok created an election center.
More than 102,000,000 videos violated the platform’s rules were deleted by the platform in its 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.”
Google returned the exact same results when a similar search was made, but suggested more precise searches about vaccination clinics, different vaccines, or booster shots.
TikTok’s rise in popularity has caught the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have expressed concerns about its data privacy and security.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on social media’s impact on the nation’s security. TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, is set to testify alongside representatives from YouTube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook.
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