It’s been a year since TikTok became the most downloaded social media app on Earth, beating Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.
But that cool network launched in 2016 by the Chinese company ByteDance to let users — mostly girls under 24 — create and share their own short music and lip-sync videos now seems to be turning into a new whole thing: a social media platform full of political debate and tons of false content.
At the beginning of this month, when President Donald Trump tweeted an inaccurate and misleading map of his 2016 election victory results with the sentence “Try to impeach this,” many U.S-based fact-checking platforms wrote articles explaining how incorrect his message was.
Snopes, CNN and The Washington Post Fact-Checker, among others, were quick to clearly describe the image Trump decided to tweet was deceiving: that map captured the results of the 2016 presidential race before vote totals were finalized. A number of counties that appeared in red on the president’s map ended up being blue hours later.
Fact checks regarding the “Try to impeach this” map were widely spread and shared on Facebook and Twitter. All fact-checkers cited above have accounts on these platforms and used them to share their articles.
But their work never reached TikTok users.
Earlier this month, Melanie, a teenager from Jacksonville, Florida, who has almost 5,000 followers on the platform, posted a video that showed the exact same misleading map.
To make it look cooler, she decided to dance and sing in front of it, choosing a song by Niki Watkins with the lyrics, “If you think it’s all over then the joke is on you.”
So far, Melanie has had 442 likes and 56 comments in her video — not a lot. What is important is that some of her followers did question the source of her information but none of them used fact checks to debunk her.
Alexa Volland is a multimedia reporter with the MediaWise project at the Poynter Institute. She helps lead the Teen Fact-Checking Network, a team of student journalists across the United States who debunk misinformation they see online.
Volland, who spends many hours dealing with TikTok, told the IFCN that she now usually sees political issues like climate change, LGBTQ rights, immigration and topics related to the 2020 U.S. election pop up on 15- to 60-seconds clips.
“TikTok is no longer just viral dances and lip-synching. The fun, silly content is still thriving, but it seems like political issues are definitely appearing more frequently on the app,” Volland said. “And from what I’ve seen, there isn’t any fact-checking happening on the app.”
The fact that the best performing videos on TikTok are under 15 seconds can be a tough challenge for fact-checkers. And the platform doesn’t allow users to share URLs. So it would be hard for fact-checkers to quickly debunk a meme or political claim.
Volland said that TikTok has an incredible teen audience and introducing young people to the world of fact-checking could actually make some difference in the near future.
One example of politics increasingly appearing on TikTok shows up in a video from @livesmatterofficial, a handle in which the user creates pro-Trump pieces of content very often.
When a comment saying “politics shouldn’t be on TikTok” popped up over his head, Drew Hernandez, the user who runs this profile, put two fingers together and simulated a gun. The message suddenly disappeared. Hernandez has almost 18,000 followers and in his comments, you can see hashtags in favor of Trump and the Democrat Andrew Yang.
Anti-vaccination videos also spread on TikTok, even though the platform’s community policy clearly states that “fake, fraudulent or misleading (content) is prohibited and will be removed.”
One video with 88,000 likes shows a teenager making fun of her mother about her desperation to vaccinate her kids. While the girl dances three sentences pops up on the screen: “Gets chicken pox at age of 3.” “Gets shingles at age 13.” “Gets sick every month.” And the comments section is lengthy. On Tuesday, there were 808. Some of them said: “Vaccinations are poison. Yikes.”
Climate change deniers meet in TikTok, too — and aren’t being fact-checked, either. It is quite easy to find videos with teenagers wearing raincoats at home and attacking the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who is also a teenager.
And on Oct. 21, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Islamic State (ISIS) militants had started using TikTok to spread disturbing propaganda to teenagers. Their videos included, for example, clips of corpses being carried through streets.
There is definitely room — and need — to see fact-checkers and TikTok working together to build a safer and more informed digital environment. If they can do it with music, all the better.
Read the Spanish version of this article at Univision.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.