Young people seeking to slake their curiosity are increasingly turning to TikTok as a substitute search engine, with the addictive video-sharing app filled with everything from fried chicken recipes to music history deep dives. This is typically fine if you’re just after movie recommendations or a place to have lunch. Unfortunately, new research by NewsGuard has found TikTok also contains a concerning volume of misinformation about serious topics.
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.”
“Our Community Guidelines make clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement to Mashable. “We partner with credible voices to elevate authoritative content on topics related to public health, and partner with independent fact-checkers who help us to assess the accuracy of content.”
In a previous transparency report covering the last six months of 2020, TikTok said it removed over 340,000 videos in the U.S. for sharing “election misinformation, disinformation, or manipulated media,” as well as over 50,000 videos that were spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
For Gen Z, TikTok is more than entertainment. It’s a search engine.
Misinformation regarding the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the Uvalde school shooting are already extremely dangerous. However, NewsGuard’s report also found significant health misinformation, which could have an even more immediate negative impact.
Specifically, the study found multiple TikTok videos promoting false cures for COVID and homemade concoctions that aim to induce abortion. At best, these purported cures could have absolutely no effect. At worst, they could be actively hazardous to an individual’s health.
This is particularly concerning as access to safe abortions is no longer legally protected in the U.S, leaving desperate people vulnerable to this dangerous misinformation.
“Although a TikTok spokesperson told NewsGuard in July 2022 that videos promoting herbal abortions violated the site’s community guidelines and would be removed, NewsGuard found that two months later, herbal abortion content continues to be easily accessible on the platform,” NewsGuard wrote.
“While not all methods encouraged on TikTok are lethal, others promoted in the videos… can cause serious harm, and scores of medical experts have told news outlets that trying to manage an abortion with herbs is unsafe.”
TikTok is, by nature, full of people sharing ideas and creating content, some of which can indeed be educational. However, it’s important to always double check your information with more reliable sources, especially when it comes to matters such as politics or health. After all, pretty much anyone can make a TikTok.
UPDATE: Sep. 19, 2022, 3:04 p.m. AEST This article has been updated with a statement from TikTok.