MSome have called the invasion of Ukraine the world’s first “TikTok war”, and experts say it’s high time the short-form video platform – once known mainly for its silly lip-syncs and dance challenges – be taken seriously.
Some politicians do just that. In a speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to “TikTokers” as a group that could help end the war. Last week, Joe Biden spoke to dozens of prominent users on the app in a first-of-its-kind meeting to update influencers on the conflict in Ukraine and how the United States is doing there. face.
But even as world leaders increasingly legitimize the platform, others continue to dismiss it as frivolous. The White House meeting was derided on Saturday Night Live in a skit, and mocked relentlessly on Twitter, while Republican Senator Josh Hawley scolded Biden for asking “teenagers to do his job”.
Experts say this mentality is wrong.
“TikTok is constantly overlooked and deprioritized by people who don’t take the time to understand it,” said Abbie Richards, an independent researcher who studies the app. “A lot of the problems we have today stem from this misconception that it’s just a dance app.”
“Structurally incompatible” with the needs of the time
Ukraine-related content on TikTok has exploded since the country was invaded on February 24, with videos tagged #Ukraine surpassing 30.5 billion views as of March 17. A New York Times report found that, proportionately, Ukrainian content on TikTok exceeds that on platforms more than twice its size.
This dramatic increase has been accompanied by an influx of misinformation and misinformation. Videos of unrelated explosions have been reposted as if from Ukraine. Media downloaded from video games were presented as images of real events. Russian propaganda went viral before it could be deleted.
“We saw immediately from the start of the conflict that TikTok was structurally incompatible with the disinformation needs of the current moment,” Richards said.
TikTok has a number of features that make it particularly susceptible to such issues, according to an article published by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media titled TikTok, the War on Ukraine, and 10 Features That Make the App Vulnerable to Misinformation .
Its key features make it ready for media remixing, allowing users to upload videos and audio clips without attributing their origins, according to the newspaper., making it difficult to contextualize and fact-check videos. This created a digital atmosphere in which “it is difficult – even for seasoned journalists and researchers – to discern truth from rumor, parody and fabrication”, the researchers added.
According to the researchers, the app’s design features also create an easy path for misinformation. Users mainly post under pseudonyms; the upload date of videos is not prominently displayed, which complicates attempts to contextualize content; and the structure of the News Feed – each video taking up a user’s entire screen – makes it difficult to find additional sources.
Unlike Facebook, where the user’s feed is mostly filled with content from friends and people they know, TikTok’s “for you page” is largely content by strangers determined by the company’s opaque algorithm.
And the more a platform relies on algorithms rather than a chronological news feed, the more vulnerable it can be to misinformation and disinformation, experts say. This is because algorithms favor content that gets more engagement.
“One thing that is common to all platforms is that the algorithms are optimized to detect and exploit cognitive biases for more polarizing content,” said Marc Faddoul, a researcher at the TikTok Observatory where he studies the platform and its privacy policies. contents. “Misinformation is highly engaging to users, so it’s more likely to appear on feeds.”
These issues are exacerbated by TikTok’s age and size. The app is relatively young, launched in 2016, and quickly grew to 130 million in the US and over 1 billion worldwide. Although smaller than Facebook, which has 230 million users in the United States and 2.9 billion worldwide, the platform faces many of the same issues with fewer resources and less experience.
TikTok continues to evolve after seeing user numbers soar during the 2020 pandemic-induced shutdowns, said Emily Dreyfuss, a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, who co-authored the research paper.
“That’s when we really started to see a shift from what people thought was just an app for teens to do viral dance tricks to a real part of the cultural conversation,” a- she declared.
TikTok takes action
TikTok, like many other social media companies, has struggled to keep up with the onslaught of misinformation about the war in Ukraine.
It uses a combination of algorithms and human moderators to run the platform, spokeswoman Jamie Favazza told the Guardian, with teams that speak more than 60 languages and dialects, including Russian and Ukrainian. He precipitated the launch of a state-controlled media policy to counter propaganda disseminated by Russian entities.
“We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and suppress harmful misinformation,” Favazza said.
Meanwhile, TikTok has added digital literacy guidance to its Discover page “to help our community assess and make decisions about the content they view online”. For years, it has voluntarily published transparency reports about the content it has removed.
But the researchers say there is still a long way to go. Despite these measures, some state-controlled media accounts, such as RT, remain on the app, despite having been banned from accessing them in the EU.
Richards, the TikTok researcher, noted that a disinformation campaign she investigated for a recent report remains on the platform, with dozens of videos using the caption “Russian Lives Matter” continuing to rack up thousands of views. .
The power of influencers
In many ways, TikTok has been much more responsive to criticism than its predecessors, including social media giants such as Facebook. But while the company dutifully flags misinformation and cracks down on Russian state content, containing large-scale misinformation becomes more complicated than ever as the power of influencers grows.
Well-followed accounts have an outsized influence on the media consumed by their followers, regardless of their actual expertise in a given topic. Studies show that consumers are far more likely to trust a recommendation from someone they follow on social media than a traditional advertisement, and the same goes for information shared online.
TikTok is “driven by a culture that values individual creators and platform-specific micro-celebrities,” according to the Shorenstein Center article, which makes influencers and people with large followings particularly susceptible to inadvertently sharing stories. inaccurate or manipulated content.
“Influencers have a strong incentive to get into the discourse on a current event or ongoing crisis, as these posts can energize user profiles; even one viral video can popularize an entire account,” the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, there are very few checks and balances in terms of operating in the online media space, Dreyfuss said, noting that they operate in media spaces similar to those of journalists with far less training or background. media literacy, such as how to verify false claims that even seasoned researchers struggle to detect.
“There is no formal accountability for influencers and they often respond only to the whims of their fans,” Dreyfuss said.
Experts say there is an urgent need for lawmakers and the general public to take this collision of massive influence with little accountability seriously. By inviting top influencers to the White House, the Biden administration has taken a significant step in this direction.
For their part, influencers also recognize the power they hold. An 18-year-old TikTok star with more than 10.5 million followers told the Washington Post that she considers herself “a White House correspondent for Gen Z” who is there to “relay the news in a more digestible way.