In December, a Wisconsin man who went by the username the_alpha_k9 on TikTok uploaded a testimonial-style video to the platform and told his thousands of followers that he would not take a Covid-19 vaccine.
“You tell me in 40 years of research that there is no vaccine against HIV … against cancer, no vaccine … colds, no vaccine,” he said. “Nevertheless, in one year we have developed a vaccine for COVID-19, and you want me to take it … thank you, but no thank you.”
It was one of the many debunked, anti-vaccination hotspots that have permeated many social platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic. But on TikTok, where users regularly reuse popular soundtracks to make their own videos, it got a life of its own. More than 4,500 audio videos have been made, which have been viewed more than 16 million times, according to a report published Monday by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based organization that tracks disinformation.
It is an example of what researchers say is a unique problem for the video platform, which has emerged in recent years as a very popular destination for everything from viral dance routines to comedy sets and confessional content.
“People use TikTok to post and host malicious Covid misinformation, and it’s very popular,” said Ciaran O’Connor. an analyst for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue and lead author of a new report on misinformation on the app. “This feature is used exactly as TikTok designed it. The sound is shared and responded to. But the consequence is that it creates a feedback loop of anti-vaccine stories. ”
Following a request for comment, TikTok removed or restricted the distribution of the videos and audio shared in the report.
A TikTok spokesperson said in a statement: “We strive to promote an authentic TikTok experience by limiting the spread of misleading content, including audio, and promoting authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines in our app. Misinformation is a challenge throughout the industry, and we are grateful for reports that help us take action against violations. ”
The Department of Strategic Dialogue tracks incorrect information about Covid-19 vaccine spread through TikTok’s audio function. It found that soundtracks against vaccination have gone viral as a kind of chain message, with the original claims and content often hidden by TikTok. In other words, a TikTok feature is used to post or amplify content that violates TikTok’s policy against misinformation from Covid-19.
The man behind the_alpha_k9, a relatively small account by TikTok standards, with around 28,000 followers, did not respond to requests for comment, and the original video has been deleted. The video, a recitation of a popular anti-vaccine theme, was flagged later in December by several misinformation platforms and disproved by fact-checkers who noted significant differences between the diseases it cited and Covid-19, as well as a misunderstanding of mRNA vaccine development.
TikTok is the world’s fastest growing social media app, with about 100 million active US users each month and 2 billion global downloads, according to the company. The app provides an easy way to create videos for existing backing tracks, and it shows users videos based on a powerful recommendation algorithm.
The Institute of Strategic Dialogue analyzed 124 TikTok videos with vaccine misinformation for the report. The videos received more than 20 million views and 2 million likes, comments and shares. Only two videos contained a label that referred users to actual information, a security feature launched in December to combat the growing vaccine misinformation on the platform.
TikTok has been promoting its fight against Covid-19 misinformation ever since as part of a commitment to “keep TikTok safe for creative expression throughout the pandemic,” according to a blog post from the company. “We take our responsibility to keep malicious misinformation outside of TikTok incredibly seriously.”
The report’s findings are probably just the tip of the iceberg.
“TikTok is a bit of a fenced garden,” O’Connor said, noting the challenges of tracking content on the platform. “Wrong information is harder to find, but also harder for TikTok or fact checkers to fight.”
The videos are also used to target specific communities, O’Connor said. Several users had translated the sound into other languages. While the sounds are less common and less popular, some people used them to respond with videos by fact-checking or refuting claims.
A video – using audio from removed content in which a woman who claimed to be a nurse said she suffered from Bell’s palsy after being vaccinated – was an indication of how misinformation appeared to be directed at black users, according to the report. A fact check by The Associated Press determined that “details from the video are not added”, including that there was no registration of a registered nurse under the woman’s name. Nevertheless, the video spread across many platforms. The video, with the caption “they want black people to take it first for a reason,” was removed on TikTok, but the audio is still available and has been used to create new anti-vaccination content.
The user behind another sound, who described herself as a mother of three, claimed in a post that TikTok removed her video “for violating society.” She had played a recording alleged to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urging certain people not to be vaccinated for a year and spreading false allegations that widespread vaccine caused deaths.
Her original video was removed in April, but the sound is still available, and it has been used in 375 videos, the most popular of which is collecting tens of thousands of views. No one has information labels.