We need to talk about TikTok, a new arena for election disinformation

We may know it for its funny videos or dance trends but TikTok is a platform where history is rewritten, political wars are waged and deceptive, misleading and outright false narratives are shaped, seeded and spread far and wide
We need to talk about TikTok, a new arena for election disinformation

TikTok is now central to election campaigns globally and will inevitably play a starring role in elections closer to home here too. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

"If you watch one thing today, let it be this. This Irish politician speaks more truth in 60 seconds than most politicians do in years in office.” 

So said a user on the social media platform TikTok recently as they spoke in a video before introducing a clip of the well-known figure whose speech critiquing a global superpower subsequently went viral on TikTok. They are arguably the most popular Irish politician on the platform as a result. Can you guess who it is?

A different question. What comes to mind when you think of TikTok? Maybe you know TikTok as a social media platform for funny videos, dance trends or snappy cooking tutorials. 

Or maybe you don’t have a TikTok account yourself but you have very likely been sent TikTok videos by others. Most of us engage with TikTok content in some way, the platform’s presence is staggering and other social media companies have clamoured to replicate the most popular aspects of TikTok on their own platforms.

Yet, TikTok has another side to it — it is a platform where history is rewritten, political wars are waged and deceptive, misleading and outright false narratives are shaped, seeded and spread far and wide. 

In short, disinformation runs rife on TikTok. The platform is now central to election campaigns globally and will inevitably play a starring role in elections closer to home here too, so it is worth joining the dots to explore how TikTok is a new arena for election disinformation.

Around the world 

In May, the son of the Philippines’ brutal former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, 'BongBong' Marcos Jr was elected president in a landslide victory. TikTok contributed significantly to his elevation and, crucially, the rehabilitation of the Marcos family among the public. 

Throughout the campaign, BongBong supporters used TikTok, and other platforms, to portray a softer side of his family, describing Ferdinand Marcos Snr's rule as 'golden years' for the country, giving the Marcos dictatorship a glossy makeover for a new generation of voters. Picture: BongBong Marcos Facebook page via AP
Throughout the campaign, BongBong supporters used TikTok, and other platforms, to portray a softer side of his family, describing Ferdinand Marcos Snr's rule as 'golden years' for the country, giving the Marcos dictatorship a glossy makeover for a new generation of voters. Picture: BongBong Marcos Facebook page via AP

Throughout the campaign, BongBong supporters used TikTok, and other platforms, to portray a softer side of his family, describing Ferdinand Marcos Snr's rule as “golden years" for the country, giving the Marcos dictatorship a glossy makeover for a new generation of voters.

TikTok served as a major political battleground in Colombia’s recent presidential election too. Rodolfo Hernandez, the right-wing populist who eventually came second, described himself as the “old man of TikTok” and used the platform, and a team of social media influencers, to seek out voters with his single promise to “drain the swamp.” Sound familiar? 

Kenya goes to the polls later this month too and TikTok is also being used there to distort facts and spread disinformation that is targeting and harassing the leading candidates.

Away from elections, TikTok is an essential component of Russia’s disinformation apparatus in attempting to sway public opinion about Ukraine. 

Its many state-back news organisations used the platform to disseminate false narratives about Ukraine such as one that claimed President Zelenskyy had fled Kyiv early on. 

The videos were enormously popular too, receiving millions of views in the process, according to our analysis at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a non-profit that researches disinformation, hate and extremism online.

Transparency 

In each of the cases above, TikTok is being used exactly as designed. But, in each, users are creating content and spreading narratives designed to deceive. 

TikTok creators, as they’re known on the platform, use a combination of music, text and videos to produce content that is creative, eye-catching and, for many, persuasive. Users are fed content through an opaque algorithm that determines what ends up on a viewer’s video feed. 

Though most of the factors underpinning the algorithm remain a secret, what is clear is that when something goes viral on TikTok, it really explodes.

TikTok has introduced policies to try and limit the spread of harmful claims and partnered with fact-checking organisations but the challenge of tracking and researching disinformation on the platform is extremely difficult. 

Other technology companies like Meta (Facebook), Twitter and Google provide analytical tools and data access to independent researchers to monitor content and trends circulating on their platforms. 

TikTok provides no such access, though it recently announced plans to address this and improve researcher access, so here’s hoping.

The company is owned by the Beijing-based ByteDance and, like other Chinese organisations, faces questions over how it makes decisions about politically-sensitive topics. 

In the middle of all of this sits Ireland, which figures centrally in TikTok’s global operations, hosting a trust and safety hub in its Dublin offices. 

TikTok plans to open a Transparency and Accountability Centre here in 2023, originally mooted for 2022, to allow outside experts to visit and learn about its practices in areas like content moderation, security and privacy.

Consequences 

All social media platforms carry with them a risk of facilitating misleading and false information or empowering those who seek to use these duplicitous methods to gain power. 

By now, we all know that Facebook was exploited by Cambridge Analytica and Russian state-backed influence operations during the 2016 US presidential election. 

Tech companies have learned their lesson the hard way but the question here is, will TikTok? Does the company recognise how its platform may be misused or abused?

Democracies across the world have been found underprepared to deal with the threat of disinformation and those who would use it or enable it to seize power. 

The US is still dealing with the fallout of a politician whose lies and falsehoods were amplified on social media and culminated in an attempted insurrection. Episodes like that have changed how we view Facebook and Twitter and their potential use in supporting or subverting democracy.

Closer to home 

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris is the most followed Irish politician on TikTok.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris is the most followed Irish politician on TikTok.

Ireland will hold its next general election by 2025 and TikTok is likely to feature prominently in how candidates will attempt to reach the electorate. 

Politicians are already flocking to TikTok and some, like Simon Harris, who is the most-followed Irish politician, have been there for over a year. 

Sinn Féin is the most popular party on the platform, with over 88,000 followers and a slew of flashy videos featuring their leading lights like leader Mary Lou McDonald. 

Fine Gael launched its own account in May and with it, numerous TDs like Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Peter Burke have also set up camp on TikTok since then too. Perhaps they know something we don’t and are gearing up for an election.

As we know from the marriage equality and Eighth Amendment referendums, Ireland is not immune to dubious online operations that attempt to use digital and social media to influence public opinion. 

Political topics and figures are already discussed and debated on TikTok here, meaning all the elements for a real disinformation threat emerging from TikTok are falling into place. 

As the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill makes its way through the Oireachtas at present, it remains to be seen if it will include provisions on mis- or disinformation in its final form.

Mick Wallace's recent speech in the European Parliament on why he believes the US is not a functioning democracy has racked up over 15m views across TikTok.
Mick Wallace's recent speech in the European Parliament on why he believes the US is not a functioning democracy has racked up over 15m views across TikTok.

And as for the politician who featured in the TikTok tribute? 

That was MEP Mick Wallace, whose recent speech in the European Parliament on why he believes the US is not a functioning democracy has racked up over 15m views across TikTok. 

Wallace is gaining hordes of new supporters across the world as a result who will now perhaps encounter his other comments, like his denials that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people or Wallace’s controversial views on Russia.

  • Ciaran O’Connor is an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, working in the Research and Policy unit

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