Study finds 20% of search results in TikTok contain misinformation

Gelo Gonzales

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Study finds 20% of search results in TikTok contain misinformation

TIKTOK. In this file photo, the TikTok app is seen on a smartphone in this illustration taken, July 13, 2021.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

TikTok has also become the go-to search engine for Gen Z

MANILA, Philippines – A new study published this month by NewsGuard, a US-based site helmed by journalists that track online misinformation, found about 20% of search results delivered by TikTok contain misinformation. 

The site made use of new TikTok accounts to perform the searches in order to preserve neutrality. They searched for a variety of topics using neutral phrases including the US “2022 election”; ”mRNA vaccine” in relation to COVID-19; “January 6 FBI” in relation to the US Capitol riot on the said date in 2020; and “Uvalde tx conspiracy” in relation to the May 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. 

NewsGuard found that of the 540 TikTok results they gathered from the top 20 results from 27 searches, a total of 105 videos contained false or misleading claims. The number of search results with misinformation comprised 19.4% of the total. 

The site also found that TikTok would also automatically suggest misleading search terms when a user enters a neutral term. TikTok would suggest terms such as “climate change debunked” and “climate change doesn’t exist” when they searched for “climate change,” and “covid vaccine exposed” or “covid vaccine hiv” when they searched for “covid vaccine.”

The group also noted that Google’s search results were “more straightforward,” with results such as “walk-in covid vaccine” or “which covid vaccine is best” when searching for “covid vaccine.” They also noted TikTok’s search results were “more polarizing than Google’s. 

“For example, 12 out of the top 20 search results for ‘2022 midterm’ contained hyper-partisan, left-leaning rhetoric. The caption of one video presented as a search result referred to 2022 Georgia Republican US Senate candidate Herschel Walker as as a ‘vegetable,’ while a person in another video proclaimed all Republicans to be “mother*uckers.”

The findings come amid TikTok’s rising popularity for searches especially for Gen Z, often defined as those born from 1997 to 2012. “The toxicity of TikTok has become a significant threat because new research from Google suggests TikTok is increasingly being used by young people as a search engine, as they turn to the video-sharing platform, instead of Google, to find information,” said NewsGuard.

NewsGuard sought TikTok for their comments regarding the findings, and a TikTok spokesperson referred to the platform’s community guidelines, which they said “make 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 topics related to public health, and partner with independent fact-checkers who help us to assess the accuracy of content.”

The site, however, said TikTok did not make direct answers to specific queries such as who decides how TikTok’s search engine algorithm feeds users results; whether TikTok’s search engine algorithm is tailored to prevent it from feeding users misinformation, and how, if so; and why TikTok’s search function prompt users to search for things that are misleading. – Rappler.com

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.