Skip to main content

Michigan Republicans run afoul of TikTok’s vaccine misinformation rules

Michigan Republicans run afoul of TikTok’s vaccine misinformation rules


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

Share this story

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.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Not just you

Emma RothTwo hours ago
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.

Emma RothTwo hours ago
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.

External Link
Emma Roth5:52 PM UTC
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.