TikTok search results riddled with false information: report

TikTok may be the platform of choice for eye-catching videos, but anyone who uses 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 released Wednesday.

NewsGuard researchers searched for content about important current topics on TikTok and said they found nearly one in five videos the platform auto-suggested contained misinformation.

Searches for “mRNA vaccine” information, for example, yielded five videos (out of the top 10) containing misinformation, including unsubstantiated claims that the COVID-19 vaccine causes “permanent damage to children’s critical organs”.

Researchers looking for information on abortion, the 2020 election, the January 6 uprising in the US Capitol, climate change or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on TikTok have found videos equally misleading scattered among more specific clips.

The amount of misinformation — and the ease with which it can be found — is particularly troubling given TikTok’s popularity among young people, according to Steven Brill, founder of NewsGuard, a company that monitors misinformation.

TikTok is the second most popular domain in the world, according to online performance and security firm Cloudflare, surpassed only by Google.

Brill questioned whether ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, is doing enough to stop misinformation or whether it is deliberately allowing misinformation to proliferate in order to confuse the United States and other Western democracies.

“It’s either incompetence or 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 strives to promote authoritative content on important topics like 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 it says are aimed at directing users to trusted sources. This year, for example, the company created an Elections Center to help American voters find polling places or candidate information.

The platform removed more than 102 million videos that violated its rules in the first quarter of 2022. Yet only a tiny percentage of those broke TikTok’s rules against misinformation.

Researchers have found that TikTok’s own search tool appears designed to steer users towards misrepresentations in some cases. When researchers entered the words “COVID vaccine” into the search tool, for example, the tool suggested searches for keywords such as “COVID vaccine exposed” and “COVID vaccine injury.”

When the same search was done on Google, however, that search engine suggested searches for more specific information about vaccination clinics, different types of vaccines, and booster shots.

TikTok’s growing popularity has caught the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have expressed privacy and data security concerns.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the impact of social media on national security. TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas is expected to testify alongside representatives from YouTube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook.

Follow the AP’s misinformation coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation.


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