TikTok is waging a bad war, say disinformation experts

Ukraine’s war has quickly replaced Tiktok as the number one source of misinformation, thanks to its huge number of users and minimal filtering of content, experts say.

Every day, Shayan Sardarizadeh, a journalist on the BBC’s disinformation team, explores the video-sharing site through a hallucinatory mix of fake and misleading information about the war.

“TikTok isn’t really a good fight,” he told AFP.

“I haven’t seen any other platform with so much false content,” he added.

“We’ve seen it all: videos of past conflicts are being recycled, real footage presented in a misleading way, something that is clearly false but still gets millions of views.”

He said the most annoying was the fake live-stream where users pretended to be on Ukrainian soil but used footage from other conflicts or even video games – and then sought money to support their “reporting”.

“Millions of people tune in and watch. They even add fake gun shots and explosions,” Sardarizadeh said.

Anastasia Giromont of Access Now, an advocacy group, says there is no excuse for saying the war was wonderful.

“The conflict has been escalating since 2014 and these issues of Kremlin propaganda and misinformation have been raised with TikTok long before the attack,” he told AFP.

“They have promised to redouble their efforts and partner with content checkers, but I’m not sure they’re taking this obligation seriously,” he added.

No context ‘

Zhyrmont says the problem may be due to the lack of a Ukrainian language content moderator, which makes it more complicated for TikTok to detect false information.

TikTok told AFP that it had Russian and Ukrainian speakers, but did not say how many, and said it had added resources specifically focused on the war, but did not elaborate.

AFP is a partner of TikTok, providing fact-checking services in Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Some say that the very nature of TikTok makes it problematic when the content becomes more serious than fun skits and dance routines.

“The way you receive information on TikTok – scrolling really fast from one video to another – means there is no context to any given content,” said NewsGuard’s Chine Labbe, which tracks inaccurate information online.

NewsGuard conducted an experiment to find out how long it would take new users to start getting false information if they were stuck in war videos.

The answer was 40 minutes.

“NewsGuard’s inquiries add to the body of evidence that TikTok’s lack of effective content-labeling and restraint, with its ability to push users toward content in the app, has made the platform a fertile ground for confusion,” it concluded.

TikTok acknowledges the problem.

In a March 4 blog post, it said it was using “a combination of technology and people to protect our platform” and was partnering with independent fact-checkers to provide more context.

‘Really Hard’

Of particular concern with TikTok, meanwhile, is the age of its users: one-third in the United States, for example, 19 or younger.

“It’s hard enough for adults to decipher the reality from Ukrainian propaganda. It’s really worrying for a young user to be fed all this false information,” Lab said.

Everyone in the interview who insisted that misinformation had spread across all social media, but TickTock did little more than fight Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to fight it.

TikTok’s relative childhood means that its own users have not yet joined the fight like other platforms.

“There are some communities on Twitter and Instagram who are involved with misinformation,” Sardarizadeh said.

“Some people are starting fact-checking and educating people on TikTok, but we’re talking about a dozen or two dozen more than a hundred on Twitter.”

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