COVID Misinformation on TikTok

By Dawson Blount

Covid-19 is not alone in its pernicious spread, causing mass hysteria among the public. Another pandemic has ravaged communities, taking advantage of the chaos caused by Covid-19 -- a pandemic of misinformation. In the age of unlimited, and to a great degree unregulated, information via social media, misinformation seems to spread faster and more insidiously than actual viruses. 

While Facebook has faced widespread criticism for intentionally promoting controversial and misleading posts to increase users’ activity/engagement, TikTok, whose popularity has dramatically increased throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, has been weaponized – largely without repercussions – by those disseminating mis and disinformation.

While, TikTok has tried to curb the amount of misinformation, the platform remains riddled with misleading posts designed to undermine trust in public health authorities, government officials, and medical experts. 

For example, this viral TikTok post, viewed by thousands, claims that “they [doctors that have social media accounts] are actually paid by the pharmaceutical company to support and encourage people to get the you know what.” Strategically avoiding keywords and phrases like “vaccines” and “Covid-19” can elude TikTok’s technology designed to filter posts for potentially misleading information. Additionally, posts making unverifiable and subjective claims are allowed to remain on the site and mislead viewers.

TikTok is struggling to make its platform free of misinformation due to the difficulty that its technology has in analyzing both audio and visual content within the local context. This leads its fact-checkers to rely heavily on users to police the platform for potentially false posts. Relying on the app's users in that way is problematic since the posts are only reviewed and removed by fact-checkers after becoming viral and influencing thousands of people.

But, even if TikTok could magically wipe away misinformative posts it would not necessarily solve the problem. When posts are removed, it tends to fuel deep suspicions among conspiracy-prone users who speculate the content was taken down because the government or Big Pharma do not want people knowing these “truths” – thereby deepening their conspiratorial beliefs. You can read more in depth about how and why conspiracies are believed here.

Some users have taken responsibility into their own hands by using their platform to debunk the incessant, misleading post. One TikTok user @scitimewithtracy, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology, stitches or “duets” other’s misleading posts in order to explain why the other post is false. In this TikTok, @scitimewithtracy duets a viral misinformative post claiming that vaccines are harmful and fact checks all the claims made, breaking down much of the confusing scientific jargon the other post used to mislead its audience. @Scitimeiwthtracy believes that one of the main reasons people are hesitant on getting vaccinated is because of false information disseminated online and decided to take action.

 If the debunking videos can reach the same audience as the original misleading videos, this method of fighting misinformation can prove to be much more effective than simply removing the video. This way, the viewers are being educated on why specific anti-vaccine talking points are false, correcting the wrong information they previously saw and leaving no room for speculation as to why the misleading video was removed.