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Tiktok is feeding misinformation about the war in Ukraine

Study finds TikTok feeding false information about war in Ukraine

TikTok is feeding false and misleading content about the war in Ukraine to users within 40 minutes of their signing up to the app, regardless of whether they run any searches on the platform, says NewsGuard, that rates the credibility of news and information websites, referring to the findings of an investigation. Searching for generic terms related to the conflict, like “Ukraine” or “Donbas,” led to TikTok suggesting multiple videos that contained disinformation in its top 20 results, NewsGuard says.

“The findings add to the body of evidence that TikTok’s lack of effective content labelling and moderation, coupled with its skill at pushing users to content that keeps them on the app, have made the platform fertile ground for the spread of disinformation.”

In March 2022, a team of six analysts created new accounts on TikTok and ran two experiments designed to mimic normal usage of the app.  In the first experiment, analysts were instructed to scroll through TikTok’s personalized “For You” feed for 45 minutes, watching any videos relating to the Russia-Ukraine conflict in full, but not following any accounts or running any searches.

Within 40 minutes of joining TikTok, all analysts were shown false or misleading content about the war in Ukraine.

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Among these claims were both pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine falsehoods:

Falsehoods peddled by the Kremlin:

  • The false claim that footage from the war in Ukraine is fake
  • The false claim that Ukraine is led by a neo-Nazi junta
  • The false claim that the U.S. has bioweapon laboratories in Ukraine
  • The false claim that Vladimir Putin and Russia are not the aggressors in this conflict, and that the U.S. orchestrated the 2014 revolution in Ukraine

Other falsehoods:

  • The false claim that U.S. forces are “on the way” to Ukraine
  • The false claim that Putin was “photoshopped” onto footage of a press conference he gave on March 5, 2022, to hide the fact that he was not in Moscow.
  • Footage of Ukraine President Zelensky “out there fighting for his country,” which was actually filmed in 2021
  • Footage of the “Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down six Russian jets, which was actually from the Digital Combat Simulator video game
  • Footage of a firefight “by Ukrainian army against Russia,” which actually dates to 2015 and shows Ukrainian government troops fighting pro-Russia rebels in the east of the country.

”At a time when false narratives about the Russia-Ukraine conflict are proliferating online, none of the videos fed to our analysts by TikTok’s algorithm contained any information about the trustworthiness of the source, warnings, fact-checks, or additional information that could empower users with reliable information.”

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The second experiment required NewsGuard’s analysts to search for generic terms that TikTok users looking to find information about the conflict might use. The search terms were: Ukraine, Russia, War, Kyiv, and Donbas.

”TikTok’s search function suggested videos that contained false or misleading claims in the top 20 results when the analysts searched at least one of these terms.”

For example, the second video of twenty in a search for “Ukraine” conducted by an Italian NewsGuard analyst brought up a video that carried the false claim, also peddled by the Kremlin, that the war in Ukraine was a result of a genocide in Donbas perpetrated by the Ukrainian authorities.

Searching for “Donbas” resulted in TikTok populating a U.S.-based analyst’s results with a video wrongly claiming that neo-Nazis are “everywhere” in Ukraine and that “the Ukrainian Government uses the neo-Nazi militias to maintain the control of Ukraine.” The video was the fifth suggested result.

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In addition to the clear disinformation in TikTok’s search results, the platform also suggested reliable sources to the analysts, including Sky News and The Telegraph.

”While reliable sources tend to be “verified” on TikTok with a blue tick, their content still appears alongside other videos carrying Kremlin propaganda claims in the platforms’ search results, with no other distinction made between the two. In particular, TikTok does not include information about the trustworthiness of news sources on its platform.”

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