TikTok may be the platform of choice for engaging videos, but anyone who uses it to learn about COVID-19, climate change or the Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to encounter misleading information, according to a research report that published on Wednesday.
Researchers at NewsGuard searched 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 incorrect information.
For example, searches for information about “mRNA vaccine,” for example, yielded five videos (out of the first 10) containing misinformation, including unfounded claims that the COVID-19 vaccine causes “permanent organ damage critical children.”
Researchers looking for information about abortion, the 2020 election, the January 6 uprising at the United States Capitol, climate change or the Russian invasion of Ukraine on TikTok found similarly misleading videos scattered among more accurate clips.
The amount of misinformation – and the ease with which it can be found – is particularly worrying given TikTok’s popularity among young people, according to Steven Brill, founder of NewsGuard, a firm that monitors misinformation.
TikTok is the second most popular domain in the world, according to online 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 is deliberately allowing misinformation to spread as a way to confuse the US and other Western democracies .
“It’s either incompetence or worse,” Brill told the Associated Press.
TikTok issued a statement in response to the NewsGuard report noting that its community guidelines prevent misinformation and work to promote authoritative 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 meant to guide users to trusted sources. This year, for example, the company created an election 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. But only a small percentage of those violated TikTok’s rules against misinformation.
Researchers found that TikTok’s own search tool appears to be designed to lead users to false claims in some cases. When researchers typed the words “COVID vaccine” into the search tool, for example, the search tool suggested keywords including “COVID vaccine exposure” and “COVID vaccine injury.”
However, when the same search was run on Google, that search engine suggested searches related to more specific information about vaccine clinics, the different types of vaccines and booster shots.
The rise in popularity of TikTok has drawn the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have expressed concerns about its privacy and data security.
The Senate Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday in the Senate on the impact of social media on the nation’s security. TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, is due to testify alongside representatives from YouTube, Twitter and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook.
Follow the AP’s coverage of misinformation at https://apnews.com/hub/misinformation.