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Beware the ‘New Google:’ TikTok’s Search Engine Pumps Toxic Misinformation To Its Young Users
Does mugwort induce abortion? Can and should I make hydroxychloroquine in my kitchen? Was the 2020 election stolen? Did Ukrainians fake the civilian deaths in Bucha? If you search on TikTok, you might think the answers to these questions are all, “Yes.”
By Jack Brewster, Lorenzo Arvanitis, Valerie Pavilonis, and Macrina Wang
“Aloha, beloved,” says a smiling woman, against the backdrop of her kitchen. “About three, four days ago I made ‘the cure’ … to what’s going around. It’s actually called hydroxychloroquine,” she explained, referring to the drug that ignited fierce debate soon after the coronavirus pandemic began, when, following multiple studies, a broad consensus of medical experts, including the FDA, rejected claims that it could prevent or cure COVID-19, even as some, including then-President Donald Trump, continued to tout it.
The young woman lifts up a plastic jug containing a murky yellow liquid. “It’s made out of grapefruit peel and lemon peel and it’s slow simmered and it’s supposed to ‘cure’ that,” she continues. “I’m telling you, hydroxychloroquine, quinine, can heal anything.”
The video is the second one that appears when users — perhaps curious about a drug that is still being promoted by some diehards on sketchy internet outlets — search for the term “hydroxychloroquine” on TikTok. Indeed, in the top 20 results for that search, four videos that pop up promoted recipes for a do-it-yourself version of hydroxychloroquine — a prescription drug used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis that can only be produced in controlled laboratory settings and is dangerous when not taken as prescribed.
Although the hydroxy chef in the kitchen video never used the word COVID, perhaps because that might have attracted TikTok’s word-search-based content moderators, her promise that it can cure “what’s going around,” and “can heal anything” was clear, and, in fact potentially more dangerous given the promise that it can heal not just COVID, but “anything.”
As with this video inspiring viewers to whip up a dangerous drug in their kitchens, a NewsGuard investigation found that TikTok’s users, who are predominantly teens and young adults, are consistently fed false and misleading claims when they search on TikTok for information about prominent news topics.
The NewsGuard investigation found that for a sampling of searches on prominent news topics, almost 20 percent of the videos presented as search results contained misinformation. This means that for searches on topics ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to school shootings and COVID vaccines, TikTok’s users are consistently fed false and misleading claims.
Asked for comment about these findings, a TikTok spokesperson said that TikTok’s Community Guidelines “make clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform. We partner with credible voices to elevate authoritative content on topics related to public health, and partner with independent fact-checkers who help us to assess the accuracy of content.”
According to TikTok’s publicly available Community Guidelines Enforcement Report, in the first quarter of 2022, TikTok removed more than 102 million videos for violating its Community Guidelines. Less than one percent of these were removed for violating TikTok’s “integrity and authenticity” guidelines — which, according to TikTok’s Community Guidelines, includes “harmful misinformation,” defined as “misinformation that causes significant harm to individuals, our community, or the larger public regardless of intent.” (NewsGuard sent six false or misleading videos to TikTok on Sept. 9. All were removed by TikTok by Sept. 12.)
On its website, TikTok states that newly uploaded videos automatically go through a round of AI-driven review. If the AI detects an issue, the video is either removed or sent to a human moderator for further review, the guidelines state.
The toxicity of TikTok has become a significant threat because new research from Google suggests that TikTok is increasingly being used by young people as a search engine, as they turn to the video-sharing platform, instead of Google, to find information. In 2021, TikTok surpassed Google as the most popular website worldwide, according to the internet infrastructure company Cloudflare. The Wall Street Journal in August referred to TikTok as the “new Google.” As a headline last month in the trade publication Ad Week put it, “Move Over Google. TikTok the Go-To Search Engine for Gen Z.”
NewsGuard’s findings come as TikTok faces increased scrutiny over its moderation and data- collection practices, including its ties to China. TikTok is owned and operated by ByteDance, a Chinese internet conglomerate partially owned by the Chinese government. Despite being owned by a Chinese company, TikTok is banned in China, even as its influence spreads across Western democracies.
Searching for information, finding misinformation
In September 2022, four U.S.-based NewsGuard analysts contrasted search results on TikTok and Google to find information about the 2020 presidential election, COVID-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, abortion, and school shootings, among other topics in the news. (As explained in the Methodology section below, these searches were done using new TikTok accounts to ensure search results were not influenced by prior user activity on the platform.) TikTok — whose library of user-generated videos can be easily searched by typing in keywords in its search bar — repeatedly delivered videos containing false claims in the first 20 results, often within the first five. Google, by comparison, provided higher-quality and less-polarizing results, with far less misinformation.
NewsGuard analyzed 540 TikTok results, based on reviewing the top 20 results from 27 searches on news topics. Of the search results, NewsGuard found that 105 videos — 19.4 percent — contained false or misleading claims. These search terms included neutral phrases, such as “2022 election” and “mRNA vaccine,” as well as searches that might be used to learn more about controversial news topics, such as “January 6 FBI” and “Uvalde tx conspiracy.” Many of these charged phrases were suggested by TikTok’s search bar when NewsGuard typed in the neutral phrases.
For example, when a user enters the term “climate change,” TikTok suggests searches for “climate change debunked” and “climate change doesn’t exist.” For a user who searches for “covid vaccine,” TikTok suggests a search for “covid vaccine injury,” “covid vaccine truths,” “covid vaccine exposed,” “covid vaccine hiv,” and “covid vaccine warning.” A search for “Jan 6” yields suggestions for videos proclaiming “Jan 6 footage being let in” and “Jan 6 antifa,” among others.
In contrast, Google suggested search terms that were more straightforward. For example, searching “covid vaccine” on Google prompted “walk-in covid vaccine,” “which covid vaccine is best,” and “types of covid vaccines.” None of these terms was suggested by TikTok.
Even when TikTok’s search results yielded little to no misinformation, the results were often more polarizing than Google’s. For example, 12 out of the top 20 search results for “2022 midterm” contained hyper-partisan, left-leaning rhetoric. The caption of one video presented as a search result referred to 2022 Georgia Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker as a “vegetable,” while a person in another video proclaimed all Republicans to be “mother*uckers.”
Misinformation About Politics: “The election was stolen”
NewsGuard found that a search for information about politics, including the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, often yielded false and misleading claims in TikTok’s top results, including references to conspiracy theories promoted by QAnon.
For example, the first result in a search for the phrase “Was the 2020 election stolen?” was a July 2022 video with the text “The Election Was Stolen!” The narrator stated that the “2020 election was overturned. President Trump should get the next two years and he should also be able to run for the next four years. Since he won the election, he deserves it.” (Election officials in all 50 states have affirmed the integrity of the election, and top officials in the Trump administration have dismissed claims of widespread fraud.)
Two of the first 20 videos returned in the search, the fourth and 19th results, claimed that an unidentified “they” admitted that the 2020 election was stolen. The fourth video’s caption included the hashtag “#w1gwga,” a variation of the QAnon hashtag #wwg1wga (The acronym stands for “Where we go one we go all,” a QAnon rallying cry), which has been blocked by TikTok. Both videos featured an excerpt from an episode of Fox News host Jesse Watters’ show in August 2022, saying, “This was not a free and fair election. The FBI rigged the 2020 election.” Both videos were overlaid with the text: “They finally admit that the 2020 election was stolen. Here we are two years later.”
In all, a search for the phrase “Was the 2020 election stolen?” returned six videos containing false claims in the first 20 results. Most results for the same search query on Google were articles debunking the claim that the 2020 election had been stolen. None advanced false information.
A search for “January 6 FBI” on TikTok returned eight videos containing misinformation in the first 20 results — including the first one, which appeared with hashtags including “#coverup.” The top 20 results for “January 6 FBI” on Google included links to the Department of Justice’s statement of facts about Jan. 6 and to many articles fact-checking the allegation of the FBI orchestrating Jan. 6 as false. Two Google results, which were clearly labeled opinion, criticized the FBI’s response to the Jan. 6 attack and the House Jan. 6 committee’s investigation.
Five of the TikTok search results — the first, sixth, seventh, 15th and 16th — included a clip of U.S. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas questioning an FBI representative about Arizona native Ray Epps, referencing a claim that Epps was a federal informant who encouraged others to clash with police during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Part of the text overlaid on the sixth video said, “The FBI is working against citizens. The people in government hate you. Abolish the FBI!” (There is no evidence that Epps was an informant, and he told the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack that “he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency,” according to a spokesperson for the panel.)
The 20th result featured text that said, “Of course the FBI staged January 6th to blame Trumpers. No one does a real insurrection in such a half-assed way or deliberately in front of cameras. A real insurrection you do quietly, at 4am, in the guise of something legal, like an election.” The video did not provide any evidence for the claim.
Misinformation about Health: Dangerous Remedies
NewsGuard’s review also found that TikTok’s search engine is consistently feeding millions of young users health misinformation, including some claims that could be dangerous to users’ health.
For example, a search for the term “mRNA vaccine” yielded five videos containing false claims in the top 10 results — the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, and 10th. Results for the same search query on Google linked to articles explaining how mRNA vaccines work, from the websites of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic, among others. None of the links advanced false or misleading COVID-19 claims.
The second, sixth, and 10th results featured identical clips of Dr. Robert Malone, a vaccine scientist and prominent purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation, stating that the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine “forces your child’s body to make toxic spike proteins,” which “often cause permanent damage in children’s critical organs.” (The claim that the spike protein generated by the COVID-19 vaccines is “toxic” and can “often cause permanent damage” in children has been refuted by multiple vaccine experts and news outlets.)
In the case of abortion, searches on TikTok often featured false and potentially dangerous results. In July 2022, NewsGuard published a special report showing that after the Supreme Court’s June 25, 2022, decision that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, TikTok became rife with videos about unsafe and unproven abortion techniques, such as drinking mugwort tea and consuming large doses of vitamin C. Although a TikTok spokesperson told NewsGuard in July 2022 that videos promoting herbal abortions violated the site’s community guidelines and would be removed, NewsGuard found that two months later, herbal abortion content continues to be easily accessible on the platform.
If a user searches “mugwort abortion,” for example, TikTok will not provide any results, displaying a message explaining that the “phrase may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines…” However, if a user searches instead for “does mugwort induce abortion” then 13 of the first 20 results advocate unproven herbal abortion methods, such as drinking mugwort tea, eating papaya seeds, and ingesting pennyroyal. (While not all methods encouraged on TikTok are lethal, others promoted in the videos — including pennyroyal — can cause serious harm, and scores of medical experts have told news outlets that trying to manage an abortion with herbs is unsafe.)
A user who searches “does mugwort induce abortion” on Google, they will encounter more reputable results that discourage the use of mugwort and warn of the dangers of herbal methods. These sources include NBC News, Insider, and The New York Times. None of the top 20 Google results included false claims or encouraged the use of herbs to terminate a pregnancy.
Misinformation About the Russia-Ukraine War
When a NewsGuard analyst searched for the term “Bucha,” the first search term suggested by TikTok’s search bar was “Bucha fake.” The first, second, fourth, ninth, 12th, and 14th results for that search falsely claimed that the massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha was fake or staged, despite numerous accounts from news organizations and human rights groups documenting the killings. The 12th result displayed a video of soldiers fiddling with a dummy. The on-screen text said, “Why do Ukrainians need to make fake corpses?”
Uvalde School Shooting Myths
TikTok users interested in learning about the May school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, are fed conspiracies suggesting that the shooting did not occur. For example, when a NewsGuard analyst searched the term “Uvalde,” the first result suggested by TikTok’s search bar was “Uvalde tx conspiracy.” The first result from that search was a video captioned “This was planned. This was not necessary!”
The second result, which presented security-camera footage taken outside the school, showed what the narrator described as a “blip that goes across the screen,” referring to what appeared to be a bird. “Who is running away from the scene and in black?” the narrator asked. “It’s like an apparition. I want answers.”
NewsGuard sent several questions to TikTok, including general inquiries about how TikTok’s search function works and questions about specific topics, such as COVID-19 and the Bucha massacre. While TikTok provided a general on-the-record comment, noted above, about how TikTok handles misinformation, the spokesperson did not directly respond on the record to many of NewsGuard’s questions, including:
- Who decides how TikTok’s search engine algorithm feeds users results?
TikTok: No response.
- Is TikTok’s search engine algorithm tailored to prevent it from feeding users misinformation? If so, how?
TikTok: No response.
- We found that several terms, when typed into the search bar, prompted suggested searches that encouraged users to find misinformation. For example, entering “COVID vaccine” suggests “COVID vaccine injury,” “COVID vaccine exposed,” “COVID vaccine truths,” “COVID vaccine HIV,” “COVID vaccine adverse reaction,” “COVID vaccine warning,” “COVID vaccine detox,” and “COVID vaccine serious complications.” Why does TikTok’s search function prompt users to search for things that are misleading?
TikTok: No response.
- NewsGuard contacted TikTok in July 2022 about videos promoting unsafe and ineffective at-home ways to induce abortions via herbs. TikTok then told NewsGuard that such videos violated TikTok’s community guidelines and said those videos would be removed. However, part of our analysis showed that many videos about herbal abortion techniques have remained on TikTok. Can you comment on why TikTok has not removed these videos, or attached safety warnings to them?
TikTok: No response.
- NewsGuard also found several videos about other topics that contained false claims. For example, multiple videos suggesting that hydroxychloroquine can be made at home populate the top results for the keyword “hydroxychloroquine.” Can you comment on why TikTok has not removed these videos, or attached safety warnings to them? Likewise, NewsGuard found multiple videos suggesting that the civilian massacre in Bucha, Ukraine was faked. Can you comment on why TikTok has not removed these videos, or attached unverified or false content warnings to them?
TikTok: No response.
TikTok has recently sought to advertise itself as a learning platform, as data shows declining social media use among young people. In June, TikTok launched an ad campaign around the hashtag #TikTokTaughtMe, claiming “there is no limit to the knowledge that can be discovered on TikTok.”
A New Medium for Chinese Disinformation?
Unlike other large digital social media platforms, TikTok’s owner is a Chinese entity regulated by the Chinese Communist Party, which censors or suppresses content it considers to be against the interests of the ruling party and encourages what it considers to be narratives helpful to the government, including spreading false or divisive information targeted to people in democracies. It’s impossible to know all the categories of content being suppressed or promoted for propaganda purposes because the political inputs into the TikTok algorithm and content-moderation policies are not disclosed.
In September 2022, four NewsGuard analysts based in the United States ran 27 searches using the terms and questions listed below. To ensure that results were not curated to be affected by users’ previous activity, analysts deleted and reinstalled TikTok and created new accounts for each search, and ran Google searches using a privacy browser extension. Analysts took screen recordings of each search or archived the videos.
Search terms, with the number of videos out of 20 containing clearly false or misleading information that were returned as search results:
- Is the abortion pill dangerous (3)
- Is abortion dangerous (3)
- Does mugwort induce abortion (13)
- Does abortion cause infertility (4)
- Is climate change real (1)
- Is global warming real (3)
- COVID vaccine truths (3)
- mRNA vaccine (5)
- COVID vaccine injury (6)
- Hydroxychloroquine (5)
- Do booster shots work? (1)
- How did covid start? (1)
- Is covid a bioweapon? (4)
- 2022 election (2)
- 2022 midterm (1)
- Midterm election 2022 (1)
- 2020 election (2)
- January 6 (0)
- Was the 2020 election stolen? (6)
- 2020 voter fraude (“2020 voter fraud” is blocked by TikTok) (7)
- January 6 FBI (8)
- January 6 truth (3)
- January 6 Antifa (3)
- Ukraine bioweapons (6)
- Ukraine Neonazi (4)
- Bucha fake (6)
- Uvalde tx conspiracy (4)