TikTok’s Algorithm Is Speeding Up the Spread of Covid-19 Vaccine Lies

TikTok’s Algorithm Is Speeding Up the Spread of Covid-19 Vaccine Lies
Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY / Contributor, Getty Images

TikTok — long known as an incubator for viral dance trends and memes — is reportedly gaining a reputation as a breeding ground for a far more insidious type of viral content: the spread of hoaxes and misinformation, specifically those pertaining to the Covid-19 vaccines.

On Wednesday, Media Matters published new research findings that suggest that, despite community guidelines that specifically prohibit the spread of health misinformation, TikTok’s algorithm frequently amplifies lies about COVID-19 and vaccines to the platform’s 1 billion-strong user base.

During the course of its research into Covid-19 misinformation on the platform, Media Matters engaged with anti-vaccination and COVID-19 misinformation by watching relevant videos all the way through and liking them. Sure enough, the positive engagement had the effect of filling the account’s “For You Page” — TikTok’s landing page for algorithmically recommended content — with videos that almost exclusively featured anti-vaccination and COVID-19 hoax content.

In its report, Media Matters also kept tabs on 18 specific vaccine misinformation videos and found that at the conclusion of its research, those videos had garnered a combined total of more than 57 million total views. The tracked content reportedly included a video that told viewers that “your children and elderly that are not vaccinated will be removed permanently from your home,” (3.9 million views) and a video promoting a hoax about “vaccine bandits” who will “walk up to you on the street and they ask if you’re vaccinated and if you hesitate at all, they inject you with a vaccine right on the spot,” (6.3 million views).

TikTok did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment and we’ll update this post when they do. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, TikTok has loudly affirmed its commitment to keeping Covid-19 disinformation off of its platform. After partnering with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to provide “trustworthy information” that “dispels myths around COVID-19,” the company also established an “in-app notice” designed to pop up when users choose to explore hashtags related to the virus, which “provides direct access to WHO’s website and local public health agencies while also reminding them to report content that violates our Community Guidelines.” But for one reason or another (far be it from us to suggest corporate greed and the desire for increased engagement metrics), TikTok’s algorithm continues to amplify the exact type of dangerous misinformation it has repeatedly pledged to clamp down on.

Like every other social media platform, TikTok has an acute responsibility to protect its users from harmful lies and medical disinformation — a responsibility that is made particularly urgent by the fact that the age of TikTok’s average user skews young, making them more vulnerable to hoaxes and propaganda. If recent reports are to be believed, we still have a depressingly long road ahead of us before Covid-19 becomes a thing of the past; while we wait, the least TikTok could do is clean up its act and keep the promises it’s already made.