TikTok’s search engine sends false information to its young users

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Fake versus real in hand composite
Photo-illustration by Newsweek

“Aloha, beloved,” said a smiling young woman from her kitchen. “About three or four days ago I did ‘the cure’…for what’s going on. It’s actually called hydroxychloroquine,” she explains. Hydroxychloroquine is the drug that sparked fierce debate soon after the coronavirus pandemic began. Following several studies, a broad consensus of medical experts, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, dismissed claims that it could prevent or cure COVID-19 even as some, including the then-president , Donald Trump, continued to boast.

The woman lifts a plastic jug containing a cloudy yellow liquid. “It’s made with grapefruit zest and lemon zest and it’s simmered slowly and it’s supposed to ‘cure’ it,” she continues. “I’m telling you, hydroxychloroquine, quinine, can cure anything.”

The video is the second that appears when users search for “hydroxychloroquine” on TikTok. In the top 20 results of this search, four videos that appear promote recipes for a do-it-yourself version of hydroxychloroquine, a prescription drug used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It can only be produced safely in controlled laboratory environments and is dangerous if not taken as prescribed.

Although the chef in the cooking video never uses the word COVID, perhaps because it might attract TikTok’s word-search-based content moderators, his promise that he can cure “what’s going on ‘ and ‘can cure anything’ is clear.
A NewsGuard investigation found that TikTok users, who are mostly teenagers and young adults, consistently receive false and misleading claims when they search TikTok for information on important current topics.

The survey found that for a sample of searches on important current topics, nearly 20% of videos shown as search results contain misinformation. This means that for searches on topics ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to COVID vaccines, TikTok users consistently receive false and misleading claims.

Asked about these findings, a TikTok spokesperson said TikTok’s Community Guidelines “make it clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform. We partner with credible voices to elevate authoritative content on public health topics and partner with independent fact checkers who help us assess the accuracy of content.”

According to TikTok’s publicly available Community Guidelines Enforcement Report, in the first quarter of 2022, TikTok removed more than 102 million videos for violating its guidelines. Less than 1% were removed for violating TikTok’s “integrity and authenticity” guidelines, which the community guidelines say include “harmful misinformation,” defined as “misinformation that causes significant harm to individuals, our community or the general public regardless of intent.” (NewsGuard sent six false or misleading videos to TikTok on September 9. All were deleted by TikTok on September 12.)

On its website, TikTok says newly uploaded videos automatically go through a series of AI-based reviews. If the AI ​​detects a problem, the video is either deleted or sent to a human moderator for further review, depending on the guidelines.

TikTok toxicity has emerged as a significant threat as new research from Google suggests that TikTok is increasingly being used by young people as a search engine as they turn to the video-sharing platform, instead of Google, for Find informations. In 2021, TikTok overtook Google as the most popular website in the world, according to internet infrastructure company Cloudflare. In August, The Wall Street Journal called TikTok “the new Google.”

PER TikTok Misinformation Monitor 02
Teenage girls are lost in the world of smartphone apps and messaging, despite being in a busy environment.
Corbis/Getty

NewsGuard’s findings come as TikTok faces increased scrutiny of its moderation and data collection practices, as well as its ties to China. TikTok is owned and operated by ByteDance, a Chinese internet conglomerate partly owned by the Chinese government. Although owned by a Chinese company, TikTok is banned in China, even as its influence spreads in Western democracies.

Searching for information, finding wrong information
Last September, four US-based NewsGuard analysts compared search results on TikTok and Google to find information on the 2020 presidential election, COVID-19, the Russian-Ukrainian war, the US elections in midterms of 2022, abortion and school shootings, among other topics in the news. TikTok, whose library of user-generated videos can be easily searched by typing keywords into its search bar, has repeatedly shown videos containing false claims in the top 20 results, often in the top five. Google, by comparison, provided higher quality and less polarizing results, with far less misinformation.

NewsGuard analyzed 540 TikTok results, based on examining the top 20 results from 27 searches on news topics. Among the search results, NewsGuard found that 105 videos (19.4%) contained false or misleading claims. These search terms included neutral phrases, such as “election 2022” and “mRNA vaccine,” as well as searches that could be used to learn more about controversial hot topics, such as “January 6 FBI” and “ conspiracy Uvalde tx”. Many of these loaded phrases were suggested by TikTok’s search bar when NewsGuard typed in the neutral phrases.

For example, when a user types in the term “climate change”, TikTok suggests searching for “climate change demystified” and “climate change doesn’t exist”. For a user searching for “covid vaccine”, TikTok suggests a search for “covid vaccine injury”, “covid vaccine truths”, “covid vaccine exposed”, “covid hiv vaccine”, and “covid vaccine warning”.

In contrast, Google suggested simpler search terms. For example, a Google search for “covid vaccine” asked for “covid vaccine walk-in”, “which covid vaccine is best”, and “types of covid vaccines”. None of these terms were suggested by TikTok.

Even when TikTok’s search results yielded little to no misinformation, the results were often more polarizing than Google’s. For example, 12 of the top 20 search results for “2022 midterm” contained hyperpartisan and leftist rhetoric. The caption of a video shown as a search result referred to Georgia’s 2022 Republican U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker as a “vegetable,” while a person in another video proclaimed that all Republicans are ” mothers *uckers”.

“The election was stolen”
NewsGuard found that a search for information about politics, including the 2020 US presidential election and the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, often produced false and misleading claims in TikTok’s top results. , including references to conspiracy theories promoted by QAnon.

For example, the first result of a search for the phrase “Was the 2020 election stolen?” was a video from July 2022 with the text “The Election Was Stolen!” The narrator of the video says that “the 2020 election has been cancelled. President Trump should have the next two years and he should also be able to run for the next four years. Since he won the election, he deserves it .” (Election officials in all 50 states affirmed the integrity of the election, and senior Trump administration officials dismissed allegations of widespread fraud.)

In all, a search for the phrase “Was the 2020 election stolen?” returned six videos containing false claims in the top 20 results. Most of the results for the same search query on Google were articles debunking the claim that the 2020 election was stolen. None provided false information.

Remedies and Russia
NewsGuard’s review also found that TikTok’s search engine consistently feeds millions of young users with health misinformation, including some claims that could be harmful to them.

For example, a search for the term “mRNA vaccine” returned five videos with false claims in the top 10 results: the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, and tenth. Results for the same Google search query linked to articles explaining how mRNA vaccines work from the websites of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic, among others. None of the links made false or misleading COVID-19 claims.

The second, sixth, and 10th results featured identical clips of Dr. Robert Malone, a vaccine scientist and prominent purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation, stating that the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine “forces the your child’s body to manufacture toxic advanced proteins, “which “often cause permanent damage to critical organs in children.” (The claim that the spike protein generated by COVID-19 vaccines is “toxic” and can “often cause permanent harm” in children has been refuted by several vaccine experts and news outlets.)

When a NewsGuard analyst searched for the term “Bucha”, the first search term suggested by TikTok’s search bar was “Bucha fake”. The first, second, fourth, ninth, 12th and 14th results of this search falsely claimed that the massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha was faked or staged, despite numerous reports from news agencies and groups rights defenders documenting the killings. The 12th result showed a video of soldiers playing with a dummy. The text on the screen read: “Why do Ukrainians need to make fake corpses?”

Despite all this misinformation, however, TikTok has recently sought to market itself as a learning platform, as data shows a drop in social media usage among young people. In June, TikTok launched an advertising campaign around the hashtag #TikTokTaughtMe, claiming “there is no limit to the knowledge that can be discovered on TikTok”.

Jack Brewster is a senior analyst at NewsGuard. Lorenzo Arvanitis, Valerie Pavilonis and Macrina Wang are personnel analysts. NewGuard is a company that assesses the credibility of news and information websites and tracks misinformation online.

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