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A US firm that monitors false claims online says that searches for information about major news topics on TikTok are likely to return results full of misinformation.
TikTok may be a platform for catchy videos, but anyone using 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 published Wednesday.
Researchers at NewsGuard looked for content about prominent news topics on TikTok and say they found that nearly 1 in 5 videos automatically suggested by the platform contained misinformation.
For example, a search for “mRNA vaccine” yielded five videos (out of the first 10) that contained 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 Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol uprising, climate change, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on TikTok found similarly misleading videos interspersed among more accurate clips.
The amount of misinformation and the ease with which it can be found is particularly troubling given TikTok’s popularity with young people, says Steven Brill, founder of NewsGuard, a misinformation monitoring company.
TikTok is the second most popular domain in the world, according to Cloudflare for online performance and security, second only to 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 spread as a way to sow confusion in the US and other Western democracies.
“It’s either incompetence or something worse,” Brill told The Associated Press.
TikTok issued a statement in response to the NewsGuard report, saying that its community guidelines prohibit harmful misinformation and that it is working to promote authoritative content about 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 it says are meant to direct users to trusted sources. This year, for example, the company created a voting 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. Still, only a small percentage of them violated TikTok’s rules against misinformation.
The researchers found that TikTok’s own search engine appears to be designed to lead users to false claims in some cases. For example, when the researchers entered the words “COVID vaccine” into a search engine, the engine suggested searching for keywords such as “exposed to the COVID vaccine” and “damaged by the COVID vaccine.”
However, when the same search was run on Google, the search engine suggested searches for more specific information about vaccination clinics, different types of vaccines, and revaccination.
TikTok’s rise in popularity has drawn the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have expressed concerns about the privacy and security of its data.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the impact of social media on national security. TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, is set to testify alongside representatives from YouTube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook.