TikTok’s algorithms are very good at finding videos that keep people glued to their phones for hours. What they don’t do well, says a new press report, is spot ads that contain blatant misinformation about the US election.
However, TikTok banned all political ads on its platform in 2019.
The report raises concerns about the popular video app’s ability to detect falsehoods as a growing number of young people use it not only for entertainment, but also for information. New York University’s Global Witness and the Cybersecurity for Democracy team published the report on Friday.
Global Witness and NYU have tested whether some of the most popular social media platforms — Facebook, YouTube and TikTok — can detect and remove fake political ads targeting American voters ahead of the midterm elections. The monitoring group has conducted similar tests in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Kenya and Brazil with ads containing disinformation and racist speech, but this is the first time it has done so in the United States.
Ads in the United States included misinformation about the voting process, such as when or how to vote, as well as how election results are counted. They were further designed to sow distrust in the democratic process by disseminating unsubstantiated claims that the vote is “rigged” or decided before Election Day. All those announcements were submitted for approval on social networks, but none were published.
TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, was the worst, missing 90% of the ads submitted by the group. Facebook did better, detecting seven of 20 fake ads, in English and Spanish.
Jon Lloyd, a senior adviser at Global Witness, said the results for TikTok, in particular, were “a huge surprise to us” given that the platform has banned political ads altogether.
In a statement, TikTok said it prohibits and outlaws election misinformation and paid political ads on its platform.
“We value feedback from nonprofits, academics, and other experts who continually help us strengthen our process and policies,” the company said.
Facebook’s systems detected and removed most of the ads served by Global Witness. YouTube, meanwhile, detected and removed all the problematic ads and even suspended an account that Global Witness created to place fake ads.