TikTok Feeds Users Disinformation on Ukraine War Within Minutes of Signing Up: Report

By Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Reporter
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
March 23, 2022 Updated: March 23, 2022

TikTok, a popular short video app owned by China-based ByteDance, has been spreading disinformation about the Ukraine war, including both pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine falsehoods, as well as Kremlin propaganda, according to a recent report by journalism watchdog NewsGuard.

“NewsGuard’s findings add to the body of evidence that TikTok’s lack of effective content labeling and moderation, coupled with its skill at pushing users to content that keeps them on the app, have made the platform fertile ground for the spread of disinformation,” the report stated.

“TikTok continues to be fertile ground for dangerous disinformation, fed to a young audience,” it added, noting that at the end of 2021, the site boasted of having more than one billion active monthly users, a record shared only by Facebook.

A Deluge of Misinformation

NewsGuard reached its findings through an exercise in which six analysts generated TikTok accounts and conducted experiments aimed at replicating what ordinary users, with no particular interest in weeding out suspicious content on the site, would undergo in their daily use of TikTok.

In the first experiment, the analysts scrolled through the personalized “For You” feed on the site for 45 minutes and took time to view videos relevant to the Ukraine crisis.

The report said that, in just 40 minutes of use, TikTok presented the analysts with disinformation about the conflict, including the narrative, used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify his invasion, that neo-Nazis dominate Ukraine’s government; the claim that the United States maintains bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine; and the notion that the United States instigated the 2014 revolution that took place in Ukraine.

There was also content containing denials of the veracity of news footage coming from Ukraine since the invasion started on Feb. 24, and videos that peddled the false claim that American forces are on their way to participate directly in the conflict.

The article detailed how, with just 29 minutes of having generated a TikTok account, a French-speaking NewsGuard analyst was presented with a clip of a speech by Putin claiming that “today’s neo-Nazis have taken power in Ukraine” and blaming the loss of life in the conflict on Ukraine’s leaders. This video had garnered 1.7 million views and more than 15,000 shares are of March 14.

Within 36 minutes, the same analyst encountered a March 5 video of an unnamed speaker claiming that all the images coming out of the “pseudo-war” in Ukraine are fabricated.

In the second experiment, NewsGuard’s analysts ran searches using terms relevant to the ongoing crisis, such as “Ukraine,” “Russia,” “Kyiv,” and “War.” The search function on TikTok presented results featuring videos making further false and misleading claims, according to the report, though TikTok did also steer users to “reliable sources” such as the U.K. Telegraph newspaper.

NewsGuard acknowledged TikTok’s practice of “verifying” reliable sources on the site with a blue tick, but questions the efficacy of this practice given that the reliable search results appear directly alongside videos conveying misleading claims and pro-Russian propaganda. “TikTok does not include information about the trustworthiness of news sources on its platform,” the report stated.

Among the news sources bearing the “verified” tick is the profile of Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the Russian state media RT, which has been blocked by the platform, the report noted.

NewsGuard also made reference to TikTok’s ownership by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, a firm in which the Chinese regime has a minority stake.

“With the Chinese government’s ambiguous alignment with Russia regarding the invasion of Ukraine, and certain Chinese state-backed sites uncritically repeating Kremlin propaganda, it remains unclear whether the platform’s ownership by the Chinese will affect Russia-Ukraine content decisions made by TikTok in the coming weeks and months,” it said.

Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”