(Reuters) – TikTok, already under scrutiny over its Chinese ownership and threatened with a possible ban by U.S. President Donald Trump, is facing another major challenge: how to handle content around its first U.S. presidential election.
Originally known for teenagers’ viral dance routines and prank videos, Tiktok is now increasingly a destination for political content from its users. The hashtags Trump2020 and Biden2020 have collectively had more than 12 billion views on the app.
But TikTok’s head of U.S. safety Eric Han, in the first interview he has given about TikTok’s approach to election misinformation, told Reuters his team’s goal is to ensure the app can stay a place for entertainment and “silly self-expression.”
TikTok, which says it has about 100 million monthly active U.S. users, is charting its own approach to election-related material, factoring in what Han called the “cautionary tales” of more-established social media rivals.
TikTok fact-checking partners Lead Stories and PolitiFact said they have reviewed hundreds of videos containing political misinformation on the app, such as that Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris had threatened revenge on Trump supporters or about who appeared on disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s flight logs.
But unlike Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc, TikTok does not flag any misinformation to its users. Instead, the social media app keeps fact-checkers’ assessments internal and uses them to remove content, or, less frequently, reduce its reach.
“A lot of us have come from other platforms, we’ve seen how fact-checking works, we’ve seen how labeling works,” Han said, adding that the company was “very well aware” that fact-checking labels could backfire by making users double-down on inaccurate beliefs or assume all unlabeled content was legitimate.
Social media companies came under pressure to combat misinformation after U.S. intelligence agencies determined Russia used such platforms to interfere in the 2016 election – which Moscow has denied. Facebook, which uses ratings from fact-checkers – including Reuters – to publicly label posts and reduce their distribution, said warnings on COVID-19 misinformation deterred users from viewing flagged content on 95 percent of the time.
TikTok, which does not accept political ads, says it does not allow misinformation that could cause harm, including content that misleads users about elections. It has also banned synthetic media – such as a recent video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi manipulated to make her seem drunk.
“Their whole mission was to bring joy,” said David Ryan Polgar, a tech ethicist and member of TikTok’s new content advisory council that helps it shape policies. “But with anything that is popular, you’re going to have somebody who is going to say ‘how can I exploit popularity?’”
To combat such exploitation before and after the election, Han said TikTok staff are meeting weekly to plan for scenarios, from contested election results to disinformation campaigns by “state foreign actors…or a kid in someone’s basement.”
Members of TikTok’s content advisory council also told Reuters that in a meeting last week they discussed issues including voter suppression and whether public supporters of the unfounded political conspiracy theory QAnon should be allowed on the platform, as well as what to do if the app is used to spread misinformation about contested results or incite post-election violence.
“Even if it’s not organic to TikTok, it’s going to end up there,” said Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert and council member, who said he hoped TikTok’s election policies would become “clearer.”
TikTok’s fact-checkers, who also partner with Facebook, said political falsehoods found on TikTok were similar to those spread on Zuckerberg’s platform: “It’s not just dance challenges any more,” said Alan Duke, co-founder of fact-checking partner Lead Stories.
Even as TikTok grapples with content around the U.S. election issues, the fate of the ByteDance-owned app in the country remains uncertain: the Trump administration is expected to make a decision soon on a proposed deal with Oracle, a plan orchestrated to avoid a U.S. ban.
With about six weeks to the Nov. 3 election, social media companies’ responses to misinformation on their platforms are in the spotlight. On TikTok, Reuters found videos containing false claims about mail-in voting and presidential candidates, several of which TikTok removed after they were flagged by Reuters.
Searching TikTok for ‘mailinvote’ returns suggestions including ‘mailinvotingfraud,’ used on videos both spreading and debunking concerns.
A search for the Democratic presidential candidate ‘Biden’ turned up…