Factually: Misinformation makes its way to TikTok

If you build it, they will come. Trolls and misinformers, that is, will come to any social media platform that attracts a big user base. This time we’re talking about TikTok.

Cristina reports this morning on Poynter’s web site that TikTok, the short-video app popular among teenagers around the world, has become host to a wide range of false content, much of it political. She also found anti-vaccination posts and misinformation surrounding climate change, including attacks on Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Fact-checkers don’t currently have a presence on TikTok.

TikTok is only the latest example of a social platform trying to stay ahead of misinformation. And its target demographic of teenagers who might be seen as vulnerable to misinformation – or worse – makes the problem even more challenging.

Much of the concern surrounding content on social media has been focused on U.S.-owned companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. TikTok is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, which adds different dimensions to the debate over its content, including censorshipprivacy and national security issues.

TikTok, which says its mission is to “inspire creativity and build joy,” has been working to deal with the problematic content. Earlier this month it said it would not accept political ads. Also this month, the company said it would be creating a committee of outside experts to advise on and review content moderation policies covering a wide range of topics, “including child safety, hate speech, misinformation, bullying, and other potential issues.”

TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez laid out the challenge clearly in a recent piece.

In the meantime, two U.S. senators who usually diverge in their political and policy views – Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) – have called on the U.S. intelligence community to assess TikTok’s national security risks. Among their concerns, according to a recent piece in The Washington Post, is that TikTok is a “potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on U.S.-based social media platforms.”

Misinformers have a way of zeroing in on hot new platforms. In March, the social media and culture writer Taylor Lorenz wrote in The Atlantic that Instagram was where the “next great battle” over misinformation would be fought. But Instagram, she wrote, was escaping scrutiny partly because of the differences in the way young people use it compared with older people.

TikTok also has the potential to pose similar generational divides. But the new attention suggests that it is not going to fly under lawmakers’ radar.

. . . technology

  • In an open letter aimed at CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s employees said letting politicians post false claims in ads was “a threat” to the company. According to The New York Times, the employees wrote that they “strongly object to this policy as it stands” and presented a few recommendations, including restricting targeting.
  • On Tuesday, CNN reported that a political activist from San Francisco registered himself as a candidate in California’s 2022 gubernatorial election just so he could run false Facebook ads. Facebook responded by saying that because he is running just to get around the company’s policies, his content, including ads, would continue to be fact-checked. The “candidate” hit back, saying he would sue Facebook because the company created a new policy specific to him.
  • Upping the ante, Twitter on Wednesday said it would ban all political advertising globally. In a tweet thread, CEO Jack Dorsey said: “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.”

. . . politics

  • Latin American fact-checkers will meet online this afternoon to share techniques they use to debunk falsehoods related to street protests in Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Olivia Sohr, from Chequeado (in Argentina), has been leading the team in monthly calls. Those who want to join (the conversation will be in Spanish) can click here.

  • Brazil’s Aos Fatos (in Portuguese) reports that since January, President Jair Bolsonaro has verbally attacked journalists and media outlets 162 times, or an average of more than once every two days. In August alone, while the Amazon region was burning and his government was being pressured by international celebrities, Bolsonaro disparaged the press 46 times. The number is probably higher if you include his weekly Facebook live events.

  • The European Commission said Facebook, Twitter and Google must do more to fight misinformation or they could face regulatory action. The threat comes more than a year after the EU signed a voluntary code of conduct with the platforms.

. . . the future of news

  • Conspiracy-minded QAnon adherents have turned to UFO narratives for their conspiratorial fix, Vice reported, mixing an old conspiracy world with a new one in a development that worries some disinformation experts.

  • Before voting in Sunday’s presidential election, Argentinians could literally ask their Google Assistant for the latest fact checks from Reverso, the collaborative project launched by more than 100 media outlets in the country to fight misinformation. Voters needed only to use the microphone to say “Quiero hablar con Reverso” (“I want to talk to Reverso”) to get the system working.

  • PolitiFact’s Josie Hollingsworth recently completed an IFCN fellowship at Maldita.es in Spain. She wrote for Poynter about the fact-checking group’s customer relationship management tool, which Maldita uses to source its fact checks.

Remember that video from a Kentucky gun range that people circulated on social media earlier this month saying it was part of a military operation in northern Syria? The hoax even caught ABC News off guard, forcing the network to apologize after it aired the video and called it a Turkish attack on Kurdish civilians.

Looking back, it appears that the first fact-checker to catch that hoax was Turkey’s Teyit. The video with the false caption started circulating not long after Turkey launched a new ground offensive in Syria that followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s indication that U.S. troops stationed in the country would be leaving.

When Teyit’s fact-checkers saw the video being played repeatedly on social media by different sources, including the former mayor of Ankara, they went to work. One technique they used was a reverse image search, which showed the video had surfaced before. And it turned out the video was from a shooting event at the Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Kentucky. Gulin Çavus, Teyit’s editor-in-chief, said comments on the video also indicated it didn’t originate in Syria.

What we liked: Teyit’s article was published Oct. 10 — way ahead of others who debunked it. Agence France-Presse, which did its own fact check the next day, credited Teyit and also took the story a bit further, noting that the Kentucky video had been deceptively used in other cases, too. Especially in times of armed conflict, when rumors and hoaxes tend to proliferate, this episode is a good reminder to journalists and others to watch fact-checkers in the region who are working in real time and are most likely to recognize a fake when they see it.

  1. Applications for Global Fact 7, the annual worldwide gathering of fact-checkers, will be open tomorrow (Nov. 1). More information about the event, to take place in Oslo next June, will be available on IFCN’s website and social media.

  2. Cristina wrote about how a false resignation letter from a high-ranking Lebanese minister made its way onto CNN in Arabic.

  3. For the first time, the IFCN was cited by comedians on “Saturday Night Live,” the popular American late-night variety show. Here is a link to the Oct. 26 show (fact-checking comes up after the sixth minute).

  4. According to Factcheck.org’s quarterly financial disclosure, support from the Annenberg Foundation is “nearly exhausted.” (h/t Alexios)

  5. MediaWise (Poynter’s media literacy project) partnered with beauty blogger Ingrid Nilsen to find out how much fact is actually behind wellness trends.

  6. Was that photo in the White House Situation Room staged? There is no evidence it was, PolitiFact reported.

  7. In Maine, anonymous social media pages are posting hyper partisan content about elections.

  8. Researchers wrote for The Washington Post about how political disinformation campaigns are using astroturfing techniques on Twitter.

  9. Susan reviewed another book about speech on the internet.

  10. And don’t forget, it’s Halloween – a day for pranks. The New York Times explains how some hoaxes and folk tales can also spread misinformation.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this email was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here.

Daniel, Susan and Cristina