Research Indicates TikTok Searches Infested with ‘Toxic Misinformation’

The tween dance platform apparently also offers wildly inaccurate info on everything from COVID to the 2020 election to Ukraine

New research suggests that social media behemoth TikTok poses threats to its youthful devotees beyond the obvious stupid and even deadly challenges showcased there, revealing that the site promotes an alarmingly high degree of misinformation on crucial topics.

In a study released Wednesday titled “Beware the ‘New Google:’ TikTok’s Search Engine Pumps Toxic Misinformation To Its Young Users,” online misinformation tracker NewsGuard  said that TikTok users searching topics like COVID, the invasion of Ukraine and the 2020 election, among others, are more than likely to be fed myths, hoaxes, nonsense, and other versions of that 2016 coinage “alternative facts.”

When the analysts searched key news topics on the platform, they found that nearly one in five videos automatically suggested contained misinformation potentially shared with its 1 billion users, the Associated Press reports.

The first 10 videos yielded from a search of “mRNA vaccine” contained five false or erroneous clips, including baseless claims that the COVID-19 vaccine causes “permanent damage in children’s critical organs.” Searches on other topics—including abortionthe 2020 electionthe Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—yielded a similar ratio of bogus-to-real content.

NewsGuard founder Steven Brill (Brill’s Content, Court TV), said the fact that such a high percentage of wrong or malicious information is so quickly shared by the second-most popular platform in the world is concerning to say the least.

Since TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance has not shared its specific practices for preventing—or allowing—misinformation on the site, Brill said he must speculate, telling the AP: “It’s either incompetence or it’s something worse.”

In response to NewsGuard’s report, TikTok released a statement that noted its community guidelines prohibit harmful misinformation and claimed it was working to promote authoritative content. “We do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform,” the statement read.

Of the 102 million videos TikTok removed for rule violations in the first quarter of 2022,  a tiny percentage were ejected for misinformation. In fact, the researchers found that the platform’s search tool often seems designed to steer users to false claims in some cases.

When they typed “COVID vaccine,” the tool suggested searches on key words including “COVID vaccine exposed” and “COVID vaccine injury.” On Google, the same key words promoted searches relating to more accurate information about vaccine clinics, the different types of vaccines and booster shots.

TikTok’s rise in popularity has caught the attention of state officials and federal lawmakers, some of whom have expressed concerns about its data privacy and security.

At today’s hearing on social media and national security, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was slated to have TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, testify along with representatives from YouTube, Twitter, and Meta, owners of Instagram and Facebook.

But unlike its social media peers, TikTok is, according to online performance company Cloudfare, the second-most popular domain in the world, surpassed only by Google.

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