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TikTok preps for midterm misinformation chaos

TikTok preps for midterm misinformation chaos

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TikTok courted US users, but how will it protect them?

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The TikTok music note logo against a dark background.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In a few short years, TikTok has grown into one of the fastest-growing social networks in the world — and with the 2022 midterm election cycle heating up, the app is now preparing to take on the maddening problem of election misinformation. 

In a Wednesday blog post, TikTok’s head of US safety, Eric Han, outlined how the company plans to combat the threat of harmful misinformation. First, TikTok will begin rolling out its Election Center this week in order to provide authoritative voting information in the coming weeks and results from the Associated Press once they are reported. TikTok says it will link out to the Election Center through labels placed on midterm-related content, including videos posted by governments, candidates, and political parties. 

While TikTok banned paid political advertising in 2019, Han said the platform is emphasizing the existing policy regarding prohibit paid influencer content. Throughout the 2020 election cycle, campaign and political groups, including the Biden-Harris campaign, collaborated with influencers across platforms to reach voters who were spending more time online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“TikTok does not allow paid political ads, and that includes content influencers are paid to create,” Han said in the Wednesday blog post.

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But in a report last summer, the Mozilla Foundation found that political influencers on TikTok continued to post partisan ads in brand-like sponsorships with political groups, despite the ban. TikTok noted the disparity in a post-election report last year and now plans to publish new educational content for creators and management companies explaining its rules prohibiting paid political collaborations. Still, influencers aligned with political groups, like Turning Point USA, may not receive payment for branded content, instead receiving event invitations and networking opportunities. Asked if the ban applied to these unpaid partnerships, Han confirmed that it did not. 

TikTok only began to gain traction in the United States at the height of the 2018 midterms cycle with its $1 billion purchase of Musical.ly that August. The app continued to grow in popularity throughout the 2020 presidential election but has only recently become a social media staple leading Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in Apple’s App Store charts as of publication. Around 67 percent of US teenagers use TikTok, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, and for longer periods of time than competing social media apps. The average American user spends around 80 minutes per day on TikTok, doubling the amount of time users spend on Facebook and Instagram, the analytics firm Sensor Tower found in a July report

In a Tuesday briefing with reporters, TikTok officials stressed the company’s commitment to protecting the integrity of US elections. “At TikTok, we’re very proud that people come to our platform to share their own stories, not only that but also learn about other people’s stories as well, and that would include discussions about current events that are happening around their world or in their world,” Han said during the briefing. “While folks are discussing these types of topics, like elections, it’s our job to meet any human challenge and protecting our community from harm.”

“It’s our job to meet any human challenge and protecting our community from harm”

With less than 90 days before the November elections, major tech platforms have already started making preparations. Last week, Twitter said that it would bring back its tools to take down false and misleading election information. Google came to an agreement with the Federal Election Commission last week to launch a new program allowing for candidates and political groups to bypass Gmail’s spam filters, ensuring their fundraising messages reach voter inboxes. In a Tuesday blog post, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said that its midterms approach would be “consistent with the policies and safeguards” the platform instituted during the 2020 presidential election.

TikTok has continued to surge in popularity despite numerous regulatory and political threats to ban the app in the US altogether. Former President Donald Trump repeatedly tried to take TikTok offline, citing national security concerns. As part of this effort, Trump signed several executive orders, including one that sought to prohibit any transactions between US entities and TikTok’s parent company Bytedance. Last summer, President Joe Biden issued his own order revoking the Trump administration ban and instructing the Commerce Department to investigate TikTok’s ties to Beijing

To calm lawmaker concerns, TikTok pursued a relationship with Oracle to house US user data. But threats escalated after reports surfaced that Bytedance engineers in China had access to US data as late as January 2022. Addressing reports, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew wrote to Congress last month, providing new details on how the app limits Chinese access to US data.

“We know we are among the most scrutinized platforms from a security standpoint, and we aim to remove any doubt about the security of U.S. user data,” Chew wrote.

Updated August 17th, 2022 at 10:22 AM ET: Clarified that TikTok’s longstanding ban against political advertising included paid influencer content. The rule has not changed, but the company is emphasizing it to educate creators on the platform of the policy.

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