TikTok has become a focal point for the spread of misinformation about the Israel-Gaza war, and a new study reinforces concerns that the short form-video app is increasingly a primary news source for Americans under the age of 30.
A study from the Pew Research Center published on Wednesday found that 32% of adults 18-29 regularly scroll TikTok for news, more than a three-fold surge from 2020. The uptake of consumers turning to TikTok for news is happening at all ages, but the shift is even more pronounced among younger Americans, Pew found.
The new data comes as misinformed or misleading videos about the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza have gone viral on TikTok in recent weeks. In the latest high-profile example, a story from the Guardian about Osama bin Laden’s manifesto against the West, his “Letter to America” published 21 years ago, went viral in a TikTok video this week, leading the U.K. paper to delete the letter itself and direct readers to a more contextualized version of the original article that accompanied it.
In one such video shared to X, a young girl excitedly reads aloud the letter as if it were a news report. She misstates that “over 30 million people have died,” a figure that does not appear in the version of the manifesto on the Director of National Intelligence government site or in the archived Guardian post.
#BREAKING: Osama Bin Laden's "Letter to America" is gaining traction on social media platform #TikTok. A girl brings out a paper and pen, jotting down notes from #LetterToAmerica, linking the events of September to the occupation of #Palestine. #OsamaBinLaden#Viralpic.twitter.com/ADEdn5mGmH
— Burst Bites (@BurstBites) November 16, 2023
Social media sites “are now taking the place of traditional publishers, and that responsibility really needs to be taken more seriously, which is why more moderators need to be put in place, as opposed to assuming the algorithm is going to take care of everything,” Julianna Kirschner, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, told TheWrap.
As Americans increasingly turn away from traditional sources like newspapers and broadcast or even cable news to learn about current events, TikTok’s outsized role is creating concern that the Chinese-owned app needs to put in guardrails to limit misinformation. The issue is especially important as a new generation of younger Americans learn about the long-standing and complex Israel-Palestinian conflict that led to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and the subsequent retaliation on Gaza by the Israeli military.
“The real responsibility lies on the platform creators and those who maintain it,” Kirschner said.
In an emailed response to TheWrap, a spokesperson for TikTok said the company “works to relentlessly remove harmful misinformation and partners with independent fact-checkers who assess the accuracy of content in over 50 languages.”
The company said it has removed “over 50,000 videos for misinformation since the start of the Israel-Hamas war and launched a feature that directs our community searching for this content to Reuters.” (The account for the TikToker that appears to have started the bin Laden trend has been deleted, but several videos of young people reading portions of the letter aloud were still circulating online as of Thursday evening.)
TikTok is not alone in becoming a non-traditional news source. About half of the respondents Pew surveyed said they now get some news from social media platforms, with TikTok and Instagram showing the largest increases for news consumption over the past three years. (TikTok grew from 21% to 43% of its users saying they regularly get their news there.)
X, formerly known as Twitter, remains the platform where the highest percentage of its users say they go to get their news, at 53%, followed by Facebook and TikTok at 43%, and Instagram at 34%. (The percentages dropped for X, Facebook and Reddit from 2020-2023.)
TikTok exploded in popularity during the pandemic largely because of its powerful algorithm — which is also credited with transforming the music industry. Now lawmakers are concerned that the Chinese government could be using it to scrape personal data of millions of Americans, and the U.S. Congress has held hearings to explore regulating the app or shutting it down altogether.
Media researchers have also targeted X as a source of hate speech and misinformation, but TikTok, which hit 1 billion users in Sept. 2021, is of significant concern because of its rapid growth, and for its role in shaping the opinions of young people.
Fake TikTok videos being debunked
Lately the platform has drawn scrutiny for videos that purport to be from the current war, but have been shown to be either stock footage or from an entirely different conflict.
The Associated Press debunked several such videos in an Oct. 30 story, including one in which a Palestinian man pretended to have an injury. According to AP, the clip shows two different people and the footage of the injured man was actually from August, long before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that started the war.
Another video claimed to show U.S. Marines arriving at an airport in Israel last month, but the footage actually shows soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division arriving in Romania in 2022, AP found.
(If the video does not autoplay, click the play icon at the bottom, not the icon in the middle.)
Agence France-Presse debunked another, now-deleted video from Nov. 7 that purported to show American troops arriving to fight alongside Israeli military forces. AFP reported that it was actually footage of U.S. forces executing an amphibious landing exercise in Colombia a few months ago. In October, Vice President Kamala Harris told CBS, “We have absolutely no intention, nor do we have any plans, to send combat troops into Israel or Gaza, period.”
“So many people are referring to TikTok not necessarily as a social media platform, but more like a social engineering tool of influence,” Julie Smith, a professor at the School of Communications at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, told TheWrap.
“As an educator, I worry that people think information they receive on TikTok is legitimate,” Smith said. “I also worry that it keeps that generation (of younger people 18-29) from being able to process any information that is not presented to them in a short-form video.”
Not helping matters is TikTok’s search engine. According to NewsGuard, a technology and journalism watchdog that monitors online misinformation, TikTok’s is much less effective at screening out false information from searches than Google.
[Social media] sites are now taking the place of traditional publishers, and that responsibility really needs to be taken more seriously, which is why more moderators need to be put in place
Julianna Kirschner, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications
In fact, a 2022 NewsGuard study found that 20% of videos from TikTok searches contained misinformation on topics ranging from COVID-19 to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
While TikTok “repeatedly delivered videos containing false claims in the first 20 results,” the NewsGuard report stated, Google provided “higher-quality and less-polarizing results, with far less misinformation.”
The rise of TikTok and other social media platforms as new sources comes as the average audience for the prime news time slot of 8 to 11 p.m. decreased by 25% for CNN, 6% for MSNBC and 18% for Newsmax, according to Comscore TV essentials 2023. Fox News’ audience, however, grew from 1.9 million in 2021 to 2.1 million in 2022, a 10% increase.
As for the networks, the big three — ABC, NBC and CBS — maintained their positions of first, second and third place, respectively, with ABC reporting a slight rise in viewers from 2021 to 2022. The late-night time slot across all networks saw the most erosion, at 7%, in the same time period.
“We definitely have a problem when young people don’t get their news… from The New York Times and instead are getting it from TikTok,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told Israeli cable news i24 on Thursday. “What do we have to do? We as Jews, Zionists, people who live in humanity, need to work harder than ever before to get the story out there.”
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