An investigation into the algorithm behaviour of the video-sharing app TikTok has revealed that the app has no measures in place to protect children and teenagers against misinformation, particularly about the COVID-19 and the vaccines for the raging global pandemic.

A recent investigation by anti-misinformation organisation NewsGuard has concluded that children – who signed up for a TikTok account – were almost immediately exposed to significant amounts of false information about the COVID-19 vaccines.

The investigation took nine participants of different nationalities aged between 9 and 17 onboard. The group was split into two groups: “low-engagement” and “high-engagement”. The participants signed up to new TikTok accounts without providing any specific information other than an email address. The participating kids were asked to scroll through the app for 45 minutes while their screens were being recorded.

The four participants in the “low-engagement” group were not to interact with the app such as liking, following, searching for content, or clicking any hashtags. The purpose was to ensure that the app’s algorithm did not present profile-tailored content.

The five participants from the “high-engagement” group were asked to engage with posts about COVID-19 without looking up the topic or following accounts. The group was also instructed to like posts featuring misinformation.

An examination of the screen recordings showed that within 35 minutes of signing up, 8 out of 9 children were exposed to misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic while 6 of the participants were exposed to misinformation directly about COVID-19 vaccines.

Even the low-engagement group – which did not show any particular interest in the pandemic or the vaccines – encountered a total of 10 featuring misinformation about COVID-19. The “high-engagement” group saw 22 posts given it had shown some interest in the topic.

The content the children were exposed to featured hoax claims and baseless conspiracy theories. For instance, the COVID-19 vaccines being lethal or fake and their side-effects being kept secret by unknown powers or the groundless claims about COVID-19 being a scheme for population control and reduction. The content also purported false or unproven treatment methods and false claims about immunity.

The app also showed an appalling inability to mark the content even when it was being presented satirically unless the original users mentioned it themselves. Among the nine participants, only the German-speaking participant saw warnings on videos featuring misinformation. The warning banner read: “Attention: Video has been flagged for unverified content.” Meanwhile, for all other participants, some videos came with a link and a label that read “Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines”. The link then redirected the users to informative pages of local health authorities.

A worrying pattern

TikTok provides accurate information from professionals who know how to search for the correct news. However, the app struggles to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information. NewsGuard’s investigation showed that the app gives little to no warning on several posts containing misinformation. What is more worrying is that such posts do not get removed.

The problem is not just limited to the misinformation about COVID-19 either. The app also features posts that disburse misinformation and disinformation about a range of topics, including anti-government conspiracy theories.

NewsGuard’s investigation identified another glaring flaw. The report found that it was easy for a 9-year-old to create a TikTok account by using a fake birthday, contrary to the app’s claims that children under 13 are prohibited from using the app.

Earlier in August 2020, a New York Times article showed that by TikTok’s own admission, over a third of the app’s users from the US were 14-years-old or younger. NewsGuard’s investigation concluded that one-fourth of monthly active TikTok users from the US were 10 to 19-year-olds, a whopping 130 million children.

Elsewhere in the UK, 24 per cent of users were found to be younger than 25. NewsGuard’s also mentions Bloomberg data that said a third of users from Italy and almost a quarter from Germany were younger than 18. In France, around 30% of users were found to be in the same age bracket.

The NewsGuard investigation has shed light on the pressing menace of children’s exposure to incorrect information. The investigation becomes even more significant as an increasing number of users from all age brackets tend to use social media platforms as their primary source of news.

A UNICEF report on the issue says that children are more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation, given their inability to judge if any given information is true or false. The report says that children are excessively vulnerable to accepting and internalising misinformation and are more dependent on outside sources given that their “maturity and cognitive capacities are still evolving”.

Another aspect of this issue is that children can be used as a tool to spread misinformation given their naivety. Moreover, with a mobile phone in hand, they can even create such false information themselves given the charm and the potential of becoming viral by making exclusive, never-before-seen content.

TikTok has repeatedly said that it is committed to halting the spread of fake news but NewsGuard’s investigation reveals that the app’s checks in place to battle misinformation are insufficient. The subject of this investigation was TikTok but the fact remains that social media as a whole has become a hotbed of misinformation, along with its very obvious benefits. More needs to be done to protect our children from the scourge of false news.


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