TikTok may be the platform of choice for catchy videos, but anyone who uses it to learn about COVID-19, climate change or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to encounter disinformation, according to a research report published Wednesday.
NewsGuard researchers searched for content on prominent news topics on TikTok and said they found that nearly 1 in 5 videos automatically suggested by the platform contained misinformation.
Searches for information about the “mRNA vaccine,” for example, resulted in five videos (of the first 10) containing misinformation, including unsubstantiated claims that the COVID-19 vaccine causes “permanent damage to children’s vital organs.” “.
Researchers looking for information about abortion, the 2020 election, the January 6 rebellion in the US 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 particularly worrying given TikTok’s popularity among young people, according to Stephen 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 firm Cloudflare, and only Google has surpassed it.
Brill questioned whether ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, was doing enough to stop disinformation or whether it was deliberately allowing disinformation to spread as a way to sow confusion in the United States and other Western democracies.
“It’s either incompetence or something worse,” Brill told The Associated Press.
TikTok issued a statement in response to a NewsGuard report that its Community Guidelines ban harmful misinformation and that it is promoting trusted content on important topics such as COVID-19.
“We do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and will remove it from the platform,” the company said.
TikTok has taken other steps that it says are aimed at directing users to trustworthy sources. This year, for example, the company set up a polling center to help American voters find polling places or information about candidates.
The platform removed more than 102 million videos that violated its rules in the first quarter of 2022. However, only a small percentage of those violated TikTok’s rules against misinformation.
Researchers have found that TikTok’s search tool appears designed to direct users to false claims in some cases. When researchers type “COVID vaccine” into the search tool, for example, the tool suggested searching for keywords including “COVID vaccine exposed” and “COVID vaccine infection.”
When the same search was done on Google, however, this search engine suggested doing searches related to more accurate information about vaccine clinics, different types of vaccines and booster shots.
TikTok’s rising popularity has caught the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have expressed concerns about data privacy and security.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the impact of social media on the nation’s security. Vanessa Pappas, chief operating officer of TikTok, is set to testify along with representatives from YouTube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook.
Follow the Associated Press’s coverage of misinformation at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation.