Unvetted TikTok Content Challenges Web Fact-Checkers

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News Analysis by Aleksandre De Jesus & Azel Kahan

TikTok has quickly grown to become one of the most popular social media apps in the mobile industry. While it’s not officially supposed to be used by anyone under 13 (and under-18s technically need approval from a parent or guardian), nobody’s enforcing the age limits. That’s becoming problematic for the app’s 300 million active monthly users, say fact-checking authorities, because a lack of oversight on many fronts is leaving young, impressionable viewers vulnerable to misinformation shared on the platform. 

It’s all discussed in a Poynter article, “Dance and sing while spreading a hoax — this is what TikTok looks like now,” by Cristina Tardáguila. Along with being one of the world’s most popular social media apps, Tardáguila reports TikTok is also the top most-downloaded app according to SensorTower. But as its number of users continues to grow, so does the amount of unverified content. According to the article, virtually no fact-checking is being done when videos from climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers and other informationally challenged contributors appear. (One of the few interventions to date from TikTok’s Chinese owners involved graphic propaganda videos posted by ISIS members, which were swiftly removed, according to Tardáguila.)

Why is TikTok not doing more when similar issues have caused major reforms at Facebook and Twitter? Alexa Volland, a multimedia reporter at the Poynter Institute and a leader of the Teen Fact-Checking Network, says in the article that “TikTok is no longer just viral dances and lip-synching…political issues are definitely appearing more frequently on the app.” With this rise in political content, users are more likely to be influenced by others without realizing that the information shared may be unverified. This can also lead to fights in the comments section, which creates a hostile environment on the platform.

Credit: SensorTower

The article explains how established fact checking institutions (i.e. Snopes) have not yet focused on TikTok, which is primarily a platform for making silly, short lip-synching, comedy and dance videos. But TikTok users in search of a viewers are free to share any message–or mangle any truths. (The Chinese company that launched the app, ByteDance, censors the Chinese version for risqué content, but it apparently exports TikTok abroad all but unfiltered.)

Case in point per the story: a teenager from Florida, Melanie, posted a video in which she dances in front of a misleading presidential-vote map of the 2016 election (recently circulated by President Trump, among others) while singing lyrics that convey a message of anti-impeachment defiance. According to Tardáguila, “Some of Melanie’s followers did question the source of her information, but none of them used fact-checks to debunk her.”

TikTok’s official platform policy states that “fake, fraudulent, or misleading (content) is prohibited and will be removed.” In practice, the Poynter article says this is not happening often enough or fast enough. Videos can easily rack up many views before action is taken to remove them. This puts users of the popular platform at risk of being misinformed.

Takeaway: Just because TikTok is known for short, silly amateur entertainment videos doesn’t mean it can’t harbor problematically inaccurate or misleading content. Misinformation has to be fought wherever it appears. And since watchdogs have been caught somewhat off-guard by TikTok’s popularity, users must be especially careful of what messages they’re actually consuming along with the gags and the cute dances. Whatever the video’s message, viewers need to be vigilant and make sure the views expressed are factually correct before sharing that content with anyone else.