The War on Misinformation: TikTok Edition

Since TikTok exploded, its effects on music (look at the GRAMMYs nominations), clothes (search up OOTD) and trends, in general, have been seen everywhere. It is the world’s fastest-growing social media app used by more than 1 billion people worldwide with roughly 7.38 million Australian users. With half of its users under 30, TikTok is central to many lives.


Since TikTok exploded, its effects on music (look at the GRAMMYs nominations), clothes (search up OOTD) and trends, in general, have been seen everywhere. It is the world’s fastest-growing social media app used by more than 1 billion people worldwide with roughly 7.38 million Australian users. With half of its users under 30, TikTok is central to many lives.

In this piece, I will explore how TikTok's popularity plus its complex algorithm system designed to tailor to your likes, has led to the rampant spread of misinformation, particularly the Ukraine war. I will also touch on what TikTok is currently doing to stop this misinformation and what steps you can do to stop the spread.

TikTok was released in 2016 but it only gained popularity in late 2017 as a pop culture phenomenon. Since then, it has dramatically affected the viral internet culture. Just one TikTok trend has quickly propelled Olivia Rodrigo into the spotlight, turning “Driver’s License” into a global success (it is currently the most streamed song on Spotify). However, other factors turned Rodrigo into an internet sensation. Her situation was a product of the “stars aligning”: having a career in Disney, therefore a fan base to boot, coupled with gossip surrounding her unofficial breakup with co-star Joshua Bassett. Theories and videos using the song went viral. This situation is an example of the power and influence of TikTok on music. 

Due to its huge user base and the average time spent on the app, which is 52 minutes a day, TikTok has essentially changed how news and information are consumed. Numerous informative, educational videos are posted every day, from makeup tutorials to life hacks. Due to this, most people turn to the app as a vital news source. Its news-source quality has also made it a central platform for expressing ideas, including political views. 

The app’s most mysterious and unique feature is its powerful recommendation algorithm, which seems like a mind-reading tool. It works by showing people what they perceive to like based on what the user has previously seen or shared. For example, if you interact with a video about a puppy by liking and commenting, the app will show you more videos about cute puppies. TikTok will also show the same puppy video to more people who have previously interacted with those types of videos and the process repeats until it becomes viral through a positive feedback loop. 

This very feature has made it easy to spread unverified videos across the platform. By viewing one video containing misinformation, you are more likely to be shown more videos that spread misinformation. This component, coupled with the lack of content labelling and moderation, has made it very easy to spread disinformation. According to NewsGuard, fake news about the Russia-Ukraine war is being shown to users within minutes of creating a new account. 

The Russia-Ukraine war has led to a truly unique situation on the app. Some call it TikTok’s First War. A video about a paratrooper who was going into a war zone ended up going viral. However, this video contained inaccurate information revealed by a quick reverse search that demonstrated the footage was posted on Instagram in 2015. It reached 20 million views before it was taken down. Multiple videos like these have popped up everywhere. The hashtag #ukraine has 39.5 billion views as of 27 April 2022. By using old audio from the previous explosion in Beirut, Lebanon or the soundtrack of gunfire overlaid with images of war, it has become very easy to create and spread misinformation. Fake live streams and the use of video games disguised as real footage or old videos also contributes to this falseness. Due to the limited transparency of the app, it can be difficult to tell what is real and what is not. 

The trust in taking things at face value combined with a lack of moderation—videos are the hardest format to moderate for all platforms—has led to the rise of misinformation about what is happening in Ukraine. According to Ioana Literat, an associate professor of communication at Teachers College, Columbia University, “Emotive videos… can make people skip the verification stage and not give … and not exercise their media literacy.” People are using these emotions to try to exploit the situation. While there are many Ukrainians who are currently struggling and posting about it, there are some people who have taken advantage of the situation. There have been cases of accounts calling for donations during a live stream from a fake location. One instance had a fake caller traced to the UK. This causes us to cast suspicion on what is real and what is fake, making it difficult for information coming from actual Ukrainians and journalists to be seen, heard and believed in.

What’s TikTok doing about this massive problem? Due to Russia’s new “fake news” law, TikTok has suspended all new posts from Russian accounts and blocked users in Russia from seeing any content posted outside the country. A TikTok spokesperson announced, “We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and remove harmful misinformation and other violations of our Community Guidelines. We also partnered with independent fact-checking organisations to support our efforts to help TikTok remain a safe and authentic place.”

Like most social media apps, it relies on human intervention to take down videos. A significant number of people need to report or flag a video before it can be taken down. This is because videos or audios and minimal text make the company’s moderation tricky. 

However, TikTok needs to do more because it is responsible to its users. Initially, it was meant to be an apolitical space to forget about the realities of the world. This is not the case now. It needs to adapt itself to this new normal. The harm and damage of misinformation can have drastic effects on shaping the attitude and beliefs of the youth. It needs to improve by manually intervening in the algorithm, post clearer dates on videos and provide more transparency to academics, researchers and journalists so they can do their jobs well.

What can you do? Firstly, stop. Take a break from what you are watching and come back level-headed if you are feeling emotional. Then you can investigate and consider the credibility of the sources you believe and from which you share information. Secondly, find various, trusted sources and trace their claims. Getting your news from a different source such as independent news sources (including Farrago!) will help expand your horizons and prevent being pigeonholed by TikTok to only consume a certain subsection of news. Also, reading different pieces on the same topic is beneficial to broaden your perspectives. 

Misinformation is ever-present, but it can be minimised through content moderation, sensible regulation, warnings, and education. Ultimately, when engaging in discourse it is our responsibility to verify our sources and reliance on TikTok.

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