Dance, Duet, and Disinformation: Some Insights on the Political Use of TikTok

by Asst. Prof. Maria Elize H. Mendoza

Just when we thought we’ve seen the worst kinds of disinformation on Facebook and YouTube, here comes TikTok. TikTok was launched in 2017 by Chinese company ByteDance, but it rose to global fame beginning in 2019 and peaked at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns around the world. What started out as a seemingly ordinary social media application that popularized pop music, dance challenges, musical duets, and Internet pranks now finds itself as a viable tool for amplifying political propaganda, or worse, lies.

Rigorous studies on the use of TikTok for political purposes are relatively few compared to the ones that have analyzed Facebook and YouTube. However, current preliminary studies and commentaries already point to its potential as a powerful political tool especially in the field of political communication. In the United States, TikTok has already been used for political discussions among Democrat and Republican supporters on various issues [1]. In Spain, its four major political parties have already explored the use of TikTok as part of their communication strategies [2]. In Colombia, Rodolfo Hernández, a real estate magnate and an independent candidate who contested leftist leader Gustavo Petro in its recently-concluded run-off election, was dubbed as Colombia’s “TikTok King” for he primarily used TikTok instead of traditional media to communicate with the people [3]. Despite Hernández losing the elections, analysts say that his social media strategy was useful in boosting his campaign.

In the Philippines, the period leading to the 2022 elections showed how TikTok became instrumental not only in the official campaign of different candidates, but more importantly, in being weaponized as tools for disinformation. TikTok became extremely popular in the Philippines when the pandemic struck in 2020. Given school closures and mobility restrictions, young Filipinos – TikTok’s target market – perhaps found themselves curious about what was being popularized in the platform. In September 2021, Pulse Asia found that TikTok ranks third among the most-used social media platforms (measured in terms of registered user count) in the Philippines, next to Facebook and YouTube [4]. The spread of election-related disinformation in social media was first strikingly observed during the 2016 elections, undoubtedly helping the presidential campaign of Rodrigo Duterte. Unfortunately, it did not stop there. At present, networks of paid trolls that produce pro-Duterte and pro-Marcos content remain operational. A key study by Ong and Cabañes in 2018 revealed the highly organized structure of these troll networks [5]. Their aim is to either exaggerate the achievements of the incumbent administration, malign members of the opposition, or spread blatant lies. Facebook and YouTube are known to be the main hubs of these fake news peddlers, but recent trends show that TikTok has become their new digital space.

What makes TikTok appealing? First, it thrives on short-form content. Users can create and watch videos that range from 15 seconds to three minutes. The use of sound effects, text, and music make these videos more engaging. It is worth noting that even those with no prior multimedia experience or low digital literacy can become content creators themselves. TikTok has a unique feature called the ‘duet’ where users can respond to existing videos in a more interactive manner compared to the act of leaving one’s feedback in comment boxes on other platforms. For Serrano et al. [6] , this feature sets TikTok apart from other platforms: here, users can become “​​active presenters of political information.” See Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. An example of a ‘duet’ video on TikTok. (Source: Personal screenshot)
Figure 1. An example of a ‘duet’ video on TikTok. (Source: Personal screenshot)

Figure 1 shows an example of a ‘duet’ video on TikTok. In a duet video, clips are placed side-by-side and can create the impression that the two users are conversing with each other. In this duet, User 2 (right) is elaborating the so-called achievements of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. According to User 2, those who dislike Marcos Sr. should not use nor benefit from these projects. User 1 (left) agrees with User 2 as seen in her video caption.

A second feature of TikTok that makes it appealing is its algorithm which curates content to your fancy. Users who leave ‘likes’ and comments on videos can expect similar videos to appear in their homepage. The algorithm also allows videos from users without a huge following to go ‘trending’ i.e., reach a wide audience. Lastly, TikTok’s endless scrolling feature in its personalized homepage called the “For You Page” is designed to keep users engaged on what the algorithm has designed for them. In short, TikTok was configured to make its users stay on similarly-themed videos for hours on end.

These activities can be construed as typical for social media. However, a closer look reveals that the platform has been widely used to spread political propaganda and distort historical facts. Political disinformation, particularly pertaining to the Marcos dictatorship, its bloodstained legacy, and attacks against the opposition, have become a TikTok staple in the Philippines. An example is shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Disinformation and outright lies are spread and, unfortunately believed in, on TikTok.

(Source: Personal screenshot)
Figure 2: Disinformation and outright lies are spread and, unfortunately believed in, on TikTok. (Source: Personal screenshot)

In Figure 2, the left image is a screenshot of a TikTok video featuring Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s alleged “predictions” for the Philippines. The clip is a snippet of Marcos Sr. delivering a speech. However, the audio clip that was used is fake. The right image in Figure 2 shows examples of user comments on the video. Based on these comments, they believe that Marcos Sr. made accurate predictions.

While some politicians in the Philippines have created their own TikTok accounts, it is worth emphasizing that the sources of these videos are usually ordinary supporters and not the candidates themselves. This makes one’s TikTok experience more ‘authentic’. These kinds of amateur videos have more potential to be spread organically among one’s own circles as compared to professionally-made campaign videos.

This is not to say that everything that spreads on TikTok is disinformation. However, its intuitive and accessible features, coupled with its power to draw and retain an audience through its algorithm, have made it fertile ground for information – both true and false – to spread like wildfire.

Findings confirm this. In their report on understudied digital platforms in the Philippines, Lanuza, Fallorina, and Cabbuag [7] found that TikTok has been used to spread disinformation on topics concerning Philippine politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. According to their report, pro-Marcos contents, such as posts on the “golden age” of the Philippines during the presidency of Marcos Sr., are among the top disinformation themes that have been ‘trending’ on TikTok. The same phenomenon has been observed in other countries. TikTok was similarly used as a “vehicle for disinformation” for both political and health-related matters (i.e., COVID-19 conspiracy theories) in Brazil, Portugal, Spain, and the United States [8]. Apart from this, TikTok has also been used to spread ethnic hate, violence, and discrimination in Kenya ahead of its general elections [9].

TikTok has been widely criticized for its failure to regulate such contents even if they go against the platform’s community guidelines. This holds for other platforms too, especially Facebook and YouTube, where user reports of abusive and hateful content often go unnoticed. Private initiatives to combat disinformation in these social media platforms can only do so much. Fact-checking coalitions like Tsek.ph [10] have been established to help dispel lies by presenting correct information, but much work remains. In the Philippines and around the world, there is clamor for more systemic action, such as pushing legislatures to pass laws that will regulate social media and hold perpetrators accountable. However, it will take intense effort to fight disinformation since they usually come from highly-organized networks (i.e., troll farms who are armed with their ‘scripts’) and are spread not only by big social media influencers with huge followings, but also by micro- and nano-influencers who exude authority in their smaller, more personal, and often tight-knit online communities.

The call is for social media platforms to stand firm in the implementation of their rules; improve their responsiveness to user reports on community guidelines violations; and assume accountability for the damages caused by their negligence. These platforms should recognize the overall role of their digital spaces in the perpetuation of falsehoods and growing distrust towards institutions. Without this, the fight against disinformation will remain a losing battle.

References

[1] Serrano, Juan Carlos Medina, Orestis Papakyriakopoulos, Simon Hegelich. 2020. “Dancing to the Partisan Beat: A First Analysis of Political Communication on TikTok.” WebSci ’20: 12th ACM Conference on Web Science, pp. 257-266. https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.2004.05478

[2] Gamir-Ríos, José and Sebastián Sánchez-Castillo. 2022. “The political irruption of short video: Is TikTok a new window for Spanish parties?”. Communication & Society 35(2): 37-52. DOI: 10.15581/003.35.2.37-52

[3] Buschschlüter, Vanessa. 30 May 2022. “'TikTok King', 77, challenges ex-rebel for Colombia's top job.” BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-6163196

[4] Pulse Asia Research. 12 October 2021. “September 2021 Nationwide Survey on News Sources and Use of the Internet, Social Media, and Instant Messaging Applications.” Pulse Asia, https://www.pulseasia.ph/september-2021-nationwide-survey-on-news-sources-and-use-of-the-internet-social-media-and-instant-messaging-applications/

[5] Ong, Jonathan Corpus and Jason Vincent Cabañes. 2018. Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines, https://doi.org/10.7275/2cq4-5396

[6] Serrano et al. 2020. “Dancing to the Partisan Beat”, p. 264.

[7] Lanuza, Jose Mari Hall, Rossine Fallorina, Samuel Cabbuag. December 2021. “Understudied Digital Platforms in the Philippines.” Internews, https://internews.org/resource/understudied-digital-platforms-in-the-philippines/

[8] Alonso-López, Nadia, Pavel Sidorenko-Bautista, and Fábio Giacomelli. 2021. “Beyond challenges and viral dance moves: TikTok as a vehicle for disinformation and fact-checking in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and the USA.” Anàlisi: Quaderns de Comunicació i Cultura 64: pp. 65-84. https://doi.org/10.5565/rev/analisi.3411.

[9] Madung, Odanga. 27 June 2022. “If it cared, TikTok could stop itself being used to stir up tribal hatred in Kenya.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jun/27/tiktok-kenya-elections-violence-tribal-hatred

[10] Mateo, Janvic. 26 January 2022. “Election fact-checking initiative launched.” PhilStar, https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2022/01/26/2156377/election-fact-checking-initiative-launched

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