War in Ukraine – TikTok and other platforms must change their algorithms
Despite promises to the contrary, TikTok is feeding false and misleading content about the war in Ukraine to its users, according to an investigation by NewsGuard. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on social media platforms in general and TikTok in particular to modify their algorithms.
Who would have thought that users of TikTok, a social media platform that enables people to create and share funny video clips, would find a video glorifying Chechen soldiers being sent to Ukraine – a video with a #stopnazis hashtag, a martial soundtrack and no contextualisation – in the middle of a feed of innocent prank and dance videos?
But this is nonetheless probable, according to the investigation published last week by NewsGuard, a US company that tracks online disinformation. RSF urges TikTok to stop resorting to superficial measures and to finally bring its algorithm under control.
According to NewsGuard’s report, TikTok makes false or misleading content about the war in Ukraine available in its personalised “For You” feed. All of NewsGuard’s researchers were shown such content within 40 minutes of joining TikTok, an app to which the average user is connected for 52 minutes a day.
In a long memo published on 4 March about the war in Ukraine and disinformation, TikTok describes the protective measures it is taking, which include employing people to check content and labelling it. TikTok says that “content that is being fact checked, and reviewed content that can't be substantiated, will be ineligible for recommendation into For You feeds.”
“Such an approach has always been questionable and now it is no longer possible to doubt its ineffectiveness,” said Vincent Berthier, the head of RSF’s tech desk. “Combatting disinformation by focusing on already posted content means choosing to preserve the platform’s business model at the expense of promoting trustworthy sources”
“Normal” app use?
When contacted by RSF, TikTok said NewsGuard’s investigation did “not reproduce the app’s normal usage” and that the platform therefore saw no reason for changing its strategy. However, NewsGuard’s investigation had a second component. When some of its analysts searched for Ukraine-related videos in a simulation of completely “normal” TikTok behaviour, they found disinformation in the first 20 results.
Algorithms that give fake news preference over real news is a problem that concerns all social media platforms. But it is all the more concerning when found on TikTok, a platform with 800 million active users that is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The potential for collaboration between TikTok and the Chinese government was already highlighted by RSF in its report entitled “The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China.”
Combatting disinformation on the leading digital content platforms must be a priority for the sake of all their users. It was with the aim of promoting objective, unbiased information and quality journalism online that RSF launched the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) in 2018. Developed jointly with information and media professionals from many different countries, it is now an international standard that is recognised by the European Union.
This unprecedented international standard, the product of the expertise of professionals from all over the world, should be incorporated into the algorithms used by platforms that really want to provide their users with trustworthy sources. Increasing the number of human moderators will change nothing. They always arrive too late!
Ukraine is ranked 97th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, while China is ranked 177th.