TikTok may be the platform of choice for compelling 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 on Wednesday.
Researchers at NewsGuard looked for content about prominent news topics on TikTok and say they found that nearly 1 in 5 of the videos automatically recommended by the platform contained misinformation.
Searches for information about “mRNA vaccine,” for example, returned 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 about abortion, the 2020 election, the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, climate change or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on TikTok found similar misleading videos interspersed with more accurate clips.
The volume of misinformation — and the ease with which it can be found — is especially concerning 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 web performance and security company 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 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 released a statement in response to NewsGuard’s report, noting that its community guidelines prohibit harmful misinformation and that it works to promote valid content about 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 intended to direct users to trusted sources. This year, for example, the company created a polling center to help US 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. However, only a small percentage of them violated TikTok’s anti-misinformation rules.
The researchers found that TikTok’s search tool appeared to be designed to direct users to false claims in some cases. When researchers typed the words “COVID vaccine” into the search tool, for example, the tool suggested searches on keywords such as “COVID vaccine exposed” and “COVID vaccine injury.”
However, when the same search was performed on Google, that search engine suggested searches related to more precise information about vaccine clinics, different types of vaccines, and booster vaccines.
TikTok’s rise in popularity has drawn the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have raised concerns about its privacy and security.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the impact of social media on the nation’s security. TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, is set to testify alongside representatives from YouTube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook.
Follow AP’s misinformation coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation.