Now you know: TikTok is bombarding our teenagers with fake news

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TikTok has changed. Just as Facebook morphed from a social network into the world’s biggest news site, so too has TikTok morphed from a creative platform into an information portal. In addition to the dance vids, there are now life hacks, “fun facts”, advice videos, “news” stories and hot takes on current affairs.

In Australia, TikTok is openly promoting itself as a learning platform. Its latest Australian ad, Now You Know, features influencers giving tips on everything from catching spiders, to hair care and UFO sightings.

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We parents need to ask ourselves: do we trust TikTok to educate our kids?

The “barking students” video is the tip of the iceberg. There is disinformation on TikTok about politics, health, news stories, celebrities, current affairs and, yes, UFOs. And misinformation is harmful. The barking students video was specifically designed to whip up transphobic sentiment. Most fake news stories have some kind of agenda, and most are designed to create dissent, stir up hate or promote interests of a subset of people.

Every social media platform has misinformation and propaganda, but TikTok is marketed specifically to young people. The official age requirement to sign up is 13 years, but users are often much younger.

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Young people are incredibly vulnerable to misinformation. They don’t have the benefit of life experience to alert them that something feels off. Their ability to critically analyse information can be poor, particularly when that information is presented in a fun and accessible way. It is too much to expect kids to pick truth from propaganda, experts from mere influencers, and real from fake news.

According to a TikTok spokesperson, “misinformation is an industry-wide challenge no platform can ignore, and we don’t permit that on TikTok. TikTok is a place for authentic and creative expression, and we work hard to ensure that all content meets our community guidelines, which clearly state that we do not allow harmful misinformation, and will remove it from the platform.”

But managing misinformation – and deciding what is “harmful” and what is not – is a massive job, and one which no social media platform has successfully managed. TikTok reportedly removed around 1 per cent of all uploaded videos in the first quarter of this year, but most of these videos were removed for content violations related to safety, nudity, sexual content and violence, not misinformation.

Only a tiny fraction of all videos removed globally – 0.6 per cent – were removed by TikTok for reasons related to “integrity and authenticity”, a category which includes spam and fake engagement as well as misleading content.

It is tempting for parents to write off TikTok as a bit of harmless fun. But we need to stay vigilant, and we need to stay engaged. A new deluge of misinformation is coming, and it is headed straight for our kids.

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