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27 July 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 11:11am

We should fear TikTok’s influence on news media

The social media platform is now the fastest growing news source for adults. The potential consequences are disturbing.

By Sarah Manavis

There’s a scene in the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s the mid Noughties, and three of the characters are sitting in a living room watching the news, which is showing footage of a bus crash in central London. One character starts to complain about modern news channels. “Bad news, bad news, bad news,” she says. “What about all the buses that made it safely to their destinations?”

Nearly 20 years later, this absurdity – that the news should neglect the most urgent stories of the day to satisfy an emotional craving for lighter, more positive content – is rapidly becoming reality. A new report from Ofcom shows that TikTok is the fastest growing news source for adults (over-16s) in the UK, with 7 per cent using it specifically to access news – typically from charismatic personalities on the app, rather than accounts belonging to traditional news outlets. In the US the share is even greater, with a quarter of adults using TikTok to get their news – rising to half of millennial and Gen-Z adults (under-41s).

A month ago the annual Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University found that nearly four in ten people regularly avoid the news because they find it too depressing, and that more people are forgoing traditional news channels to get their news from TikTok and Instagram. As Nic Newman, a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute, told the Guardian: “Even young people, mostly, don’t see [TikTok] as a platform for serious news.”

Though the platform is dominated by viral skits, lip-syncing videos, dances and memes, “news” is delivered on TikTok in a number of ways. Yes, professional journalists post their stories to the app, and many traditional news outlets have a presence on the platform too. These accounts tend to favour straight reporting, but such videos typically receive fewer views than those riffing on TikTok lip-sync trends. The most popular news videos on the app tend to come from people who are effectively “news influencers”, individual creators who record themselves discussing news stories to camera.

[See also: Can Twitter force Elon Musk to pay up?]

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Some, such as Matilda Head’s @matildasnewsroom, post simple videos with text and images summarising mainstream stories, such as the heatwave, with a newsreader cadence. Other more popular accounts, like Matt Welland’s @itsmattw_01, which has 2.4 million followers, are more “offbeat”. Welland’s videos include reports on “insane” psychological phenomena, “weird” discoveries in different parts of the world, and outright conspiracy theories, reported in a colloquial tone (“nah this is actually CRAZY”) with clickbait-style headlines such as “THEY JUST FOUND WHAT UNDER THE ICE…” and “North Korea have just done WHAT…” Regardless of who is delivering the news, the most popular topics on TikTok are usually more light-hearted issues or celebrity stories, such as the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial.

So, if adults are increasingly using TikTok as a news source, should news organisations be embracing it as a platform for their reporting? Some in the industry see the Ofcom report as a call-to-action, arguing that traditional media needs to move with the times to reach younger audiences. There is a bigger problem, however, with how users obtain trustworthy information online. The increasing dominance of social media means that valuable news is quickly being crowded out by oversimplified (and often inaccurate) stories that prove to be algorithmically popular.

“Infotainment” as a phenomenon is not unique to social media (nor is it always inherently sinister). Traditional news is more often than not a for-profit business, and creating stories that grab attention – on television, in print and in digital formats – has long been a priority. But the benefits of many long-established news organisations (and those that aren’t for profit, such as the BBC) include substantial funding and thorough vetting processes, rigorous research and fact-checking, and reliable codes of ethics – whatever the topic, their stories are usually well-reported. This is, of course, not a flawless or perfect system, but it is for these reasons that major outlets are considered more trustworthy and produce more reliably accurate information. There are structures in place ensuring that every aspect is considered when choosing what stories to run – not simply which is the most attention-grabbing.

On TikTok, there are undoubtedly individual news influencers who share these priorities, but the problem is just that: many accounts are run by individuals, with their own interests and motivations, most obviously making their own account more popular. TikTok’s algorithms give news influencers and incentive to cover topics that gain views. “Crazy”, “fun” or oversimplified versions of serious stories flourish. Social media is a place where serious news is disregarded to make room for alternative types of light infotainment that are more profitable, more extreme and more likely to be riddled with misinformation. It is a place where reality can be simply ignored.

The solutions to this problem would be challenging: the education of young people, the regulation of content on social media platforms, and greater investment in the valuable news outlets we have, as well as new ones. News outlets might reach a younger audience on TikTok, but doing so well will be less straightforward than “just get BBC news presenters to lip-sync along with clips of Rishi Sunak”.

Advocating for news spread through social media inevitably rewards an attention economy that allows news influencers, misinformation, conspiracy theories and polarising content to flourish. This fallible, profit-driven approach will always prioritise the sensational over the substantial, resulting in a world in which each of us is gradually less informed.

[See also: Social media’s consent problem]

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