TikTok and other social media platform videos should not be taken at face value or viewed as a reliable source of information, experts at RMIT are warning.
Younger generations, those who have had access to the internet since childhood, appear to be more easily swayed by influencers than the rest of the population, a new study suggests. At the heart of it are the short-form content offerings of TikTok and YouTube, which are being described as “dangerous” for their ability to rapidly spread misinformation.
“Their algorithms, mixed with the short-form, easily digestible content, are programmed for maximum engagement and continuous consumption,” Dr Torgeir Aleti, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at RMIT, said in a press statement.
“The issue with the short-form continuous rolling content is that users don’t get a chance to digest and question information. Without an opportunity to examine and verify consumed information, it is possible to internalise false narratives based on unfounded foundations.”
Aleti has said that companies like TikTok and YouTube profit off of engagement and have a financial incentive to spread “false narratives” as long as they are popular.
“Those creating the algorithms don’t care what users watch,” he said. “It is a dangerous space to receive ‘facts’ from, and consumers need to treat it for what it is – purely an entertainment platform.”
Others have noted that the design of the platforms themselves, as short form, makes them particularly potent misinformation spreaders. This of course makes it difficult to obtain factual information about key global events.
“There have been reports of disinformation and fake news being promoted about everything from vaccines to The Voice to Parliament and the Israel-Hamas conflict,” Dr Jay Daniel Thompson, Lecturer in Professional Communication at RMIT has said.
“The shortness of videos can dilute nuance and complexity. For example, there’s only so much you can say about the history of Israel-Palestine relations in under 10 minutes. Social media users are advised to accept nothing they encounter on TikTok — or elsewhere — at face value.”
Thompson advises people to always take a critical stance on information they are being presented with, asking who is producing the content, why are they producing it, and whether or not there is information missing from the narrative being presented.
Dr Angel Zhong, Associate Professor of Finance at RMIT, notes that financial information is particularly bad on TikTok.
“Personal finance is nuanced, and a one-size-fits-all approach may not work for everyone’s unique circumstances,” Zhong said.
“Some creators may receive kickbacks from the financial products that they recommend, or they hold stocks or cryptos that they encourage others to buy. What makes it even more dangerous is that they don’t disclose their vested interest”.
Misinformation online is not new but these experts note that the issue is being hypercharged by the short form medium and that people are increasingly buying into ideas without engaging their critical faculties.
TikTok, for its own part, does claim to work hard to counter misinformation on its platform. They say that they regularly remove content that is “inaccurate and harms our users or community” as well as accounts that “seek to mislead people or use TikTok to deceptively sway public opinion.”
Misinformation about vaccines and voting are two key areas TikTok highlights as having taken a hardline approach. In 2021, they removed hundreds of Australian videos on the COVID-19 vaccines for misinformation.
The Australian government is currently laying out its strategy to combat misinformation online and, in June, released a draft law that would give the Australian Communications and Media Authority the power to enforce misinformation standards on social media like it does elsewhere.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has said the plan is a good one but TikTok has hit back, saying that hate speech rules shouldn’t fall under social media misinformation protections.
TikTok has been at the centre of the spread of misinformation during the recent Voice to Parliament campaign. Despite the company’s efforts to stay on top of it, The Guardian found that misinformation was rife throughout the platform and that the impacts of it on the vote remain unknown.