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Michigan Republicans run afoul of TikTok’s vaccine misinformation rules

Michigan Republicans run afoul of TikTok’s vaccine misinformation rules

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Gubernatorial candidates are finding new ways to spread COVID-19 misinformation on the platform

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

As the Michigan governor’s race heats up, a handful of candidates are turning to TikTok to build followings ahead of the 2022 election. Two Republicans have already found sizable audiences, but they’re also testing TikTok’s limits on misinformation, espousing possible 2020 election fraud and spreading false vaccine information on the platform.

Garrett Soldano and Ryan Kelley are both running in Michigan’s Republican primary for governor, hoping to replace current Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Soldano, a chiropractor from Kalamazoo County, is one of the leading fundraisers, raising more than all other candidates combined, according to Michigan Live last month.

Both candidates have built large followings on TikTok, Soldano and Kelley boasting over 74,000 and 35,000 followers, respectively, as of publication. Both have created dozens of TikToks casting doubt on the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effectiveness of masks. They have also posted videos questioning the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, calling for a “full forensic audit” of the election results. 

“Maybe that’s why flu just disappeared”

Many of Soladano’s videos suggest that the COVID-19 vaccines are not as effective as advertised and that the pandemic isn’t as deadly as people proclaim. In one video with over 2.5 million views, Soladano falsely states that older PCR tests couldn’t detect the difference between COVID-19 and cases of influenza. “Maybe that’s why flu just disappeared,” he said. Another video denigrating Fauci and Whitmer was removed by TikTok.

“If COVID is so scary then why in the hell aren’t they closing the southern border?” Soladano asked in one video. “Common sense,” he continued, holding up a sign that says “mic drop.”

TikTok has always hosted political content, and the platform revamped its election and coronavirus misinformation policies over the last few months and years. On election integrity, TikTok says it defines “misinformation” as “content that is inaccurate or false” and “causes harm to individuals, our community, or the larger public regardless of intent.” TikTok also bans false or misleading content about COVID-19 and vaccines.

“In addition to removing content, we redirect searches associated with vaccine or COVID-19 disinformation to our Community Guidelines and do not autocomplete anti-vaccine hashtags in search,” TikTok said in a blog post outlining its policies. It’s unclear what triggers these actions outside of direct reports. 

There’s reason to think Soldano may have been kicked off the platform for violating those policies — but the ban didn’t stick. In a video posted earlier this year, Soldano wrote that he would be uploading all of his old videos because his previous account “was banned for LIFE.”

At the same time, Republican leaders who take a more reasonable line on vaccines often meet with harsh resistance from their base. Earlier this weekend, former President Donald Trump was booed at his own rally after encouraging supporters to take the vaccine.

In an apparent effort to sidestep TikTok’s moderation systems, Soldano has avoided using the word “vaccine” in his videos. “I can’t use the ‘v’ word because TikTok will take me down, so I’m going to call it a ‘medical procedure,’” Soldano said in a video posted earlier this month. In another video, he writes “vac…. cination.” 

Kelley, a real-estate broker and lifestyle vlogger, has previously organized protests against Michigan’s COVID-19 orders and attended the January 6th US Capitol protest as well. (Kelley says he never entered the building.) Kelley’s videos also cast doubt on expert advice like that from the Centers for Disease Control. In several videos, he calls for “medical freedom” and for Michigan to outlaw mandatory vaccinations. He frequently tags his videos with #medicalfreedom which populates hundreds of videos from users protesting vaccine mandates or suggesting that they won’t receive the shot.

“Ryan is not anti-vax,” a spokesperson for the Kelley campaign told The verge Monday. “But he is pro-medical freedom.”

Kelley avoids using “vaccine” as well, opting for language like the “jab” when discussing masks and the coronavirus pandemic.

Soldano did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Verge.

Over the last few years, TikTok has become a valuable platform for candidates seeking office. The platform’s For You algorithm makes it easier for candidates to create content and go viral as users don’t need to follow their accounts for their videos to show up on feeds. Democrats like Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA) have previously used the platform to organize voters and galvanize support ahead of their elections. 

Updated 8/23/21 at 3:08PM ET: Added a statement from the Kelley campaign.

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