TikTok may be the preferred platform for engaging video, but anyone who uses it to learn about COVID-19, climate change, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to encounter misleading information, according to a research report released Wednesday.
NewsGuard researchers searched for content on important news topics on TikTok and say they found that nearly 1 in 5 of the videos automatically suggested by the platform contained incorrect information.
Searches for information on the “mRNA vaccine”, for example, yielded five videos (of the top 10) that contained incorrect information, including unsubstantiated claims that the COVID-19 vaccine causes “permanent damage to critical organs in children.”
Researchers looking for information on abortion, the 2020 election, the January 6 uprising on the US Capitol, climate change, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine on TikTok have found equally misleading videos scattered among more accurate clips. .
The amount of misinformation – and the ease with which it can be found – is particularly concerning given TikTok’s popularity among young people, according to Steven Brill, founder of NewsGuard, a company that monitors disinformation.
TikTok is the second most popular domain in the world, according to online performance and security company Cloudflare, surpassed only by Google.
Brill wondered whether ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, is doing enough to stop disinformation or whether it is deliberately allowing disinformation to proliferate as a way to sow confusion in the United States and other Western democracies.
“Either it’s incompetence or it’s something worse,” Brill told The Associated Press.
TikTok released a statement in response to the NewsGuard report noting that its community guidelines prohibit harmful disinformation and that it works to promote authoritative content on 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 measures which, in its opinion, aim to direct users to trusted sources. This year, for example, the company created an election center to help US voters find seats or information on candidates.
The platform removed more than 102 million videos that violated its rules in the first quarter of 2022. Yet only a small percentage of those violated TikTok’s rules against disinformation.
Researchers found that TikTok’s search tool appears to be designed to direct users to false claims in some cases. When the researchers typed the words “COVID vaccine” into the search tool, for example, the tool suggested searching for keywords including “exposed COVID vaccine” and “COVID vaccine harm.”
When the same search was performed on Google, however, that search engine suggested searches for more accurate information on vaccine clinics, different types of vaccines, and booster shots.
TikTok’s surge in popularity has attracted the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have expressed concerns about data privacy and security.
The Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs will hold a hearing on Wednesday on the impact of social media on the nation’s security. TikTok chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas will testify along with representatives from YouTube, Twitter and Meta, that she owns Instagram and Facebook.
Follow the AP’s coverage on disinformation at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation.