TikTok slammed for videos sharing false information about Russia’s war on Ukraine
Despite its attempts to combat misinformation, TikTok is still failing to stop the spread of fake news about the Ukraine War, an anti-misinformation organization said on Monday.
TikTok users are being shown videos with fake news about the war within minutes of creating new accounts, according to NewsGuard, the organization that published the report.
TikTok’s algorithm fed misinformation onto the “For You” pages of new accounts just 40 minutes after those accounts were opened, the report said, regardless of whether those individuals entered any Ukraine-related searches.
TikTok’s “For You” page is the first thing users see after they open the app. It displays a curated feed of videos that TikTok’s algorithm thinks users will like based on their interests and past interactions. Without any information at all, TikTok shows new users random popular videos.
NewsGuard also found that after searching generic terms related to the conflict, like “Ukraine” or “Donbas,” TikTok displayed multiple videos containing disinformation in its top 20 results.
NewsGuard notes the new findings add to the “body of evidence that TikTok’s lack of effective content labeling 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 response to the NewsGuard analysis, a TikTok spokesperson told Fortune, “While this experiment does not mimic standard viewing behavior, we continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources as we work to remove harmful misinformation and help protect a safe experience on TikTok.”
A TikTok war
TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has already suspended all live-streaming and new content from Russia after a Russian law took effect that increased jail time to 15 years for anyone intentionally spreading fake news about the military. It has also added digital literacy tips on its Discover page “to help our community evaluate and make decisions about the content they view online,” the company said in a statement.
But this wasn’t enough to stop fake videos from emerging on TikTok. Within 45 minutes of NewsGuard’s analysts beginning scrolling through TikTok with new accounts, their feeds would become almost exclusively populated with content related to the war in Ukraine. While some videos were accurate, no distinction was made between disinformation and reliable sources.
“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,” NewsGuard said in a statement.
The videos peddling misinformation were both pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine. Some of the examples included claims commonly used by the Kremlin to support its “special operation” in Ukraine. This includes false claims that footage of the war in Ukraine was fake or that the U.S. had bioweapon laboratories in Ukraine, a country Russia says is led by a neo-Nazi junta. Other false claims were Western oriented, such as the assertion that U.S. forces were “on the way” to Ukraine, that Putin was photoshopped into footage of a press conference to hide that he wasn’t in Moscow, and footage of a “Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down six Russian jets, which actually came from a simulator video game.
Some of the videos, like ones accusing Ukraine of being controlled by neo-Nazis, were viewed close to 2 million times.
TikTok has been used as a tool by both Russia and the West to share information about the war. The video-sharing app has seen a big increase in the amount of content related to the war, according to the Guardian, with videos that are tagged #Ukraine receiving, by the end of last week, more than 30 billion views.
There have been also reports of pro-Kremlin operatives paying Russian influencers to post propaganda on “the eight-year genocide” by the Ukrainian people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, for which there is no reported evidence. To counter this, the Washington Post reported that the White House held a Zoom briefing with 30 TikTok stars informing them of the U.S.’s motives in Russia, asking them to debunk misinformation and communicate effectively about the crisis on the platform.
Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.