Google is unbeatable. For the last 20 years this statement has been held as a self-evident truth. The search engine’s ability to yield fast, seemingly unbiased and accurate results could not be matched by competitors such as Yahoo Search, Bing and Ask Jeeves. Google’s objectivity – its neutral presentation of results, ranked by their relevance to as wide a user base as possible – was seen as its strength (even if evidence suggests results weren’t as impartial as they appeared). Discussions about Google’s effective monopoly focused on how to reduce its oversized power, with few considering that people might one day organically move to a different platform.
Today, Google faces new, unlikely competitors: social media platforms. Younger generations are increasingly seeking a different type of search result, turning to apps such as TikTok and Instagram specifically for their personal, curated touch. Instead of scrolling through Google’s long list of generic results, they look to social platforms for travel tips, recipes and news. According to an internal study by Google, 40 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds are now using social media as their primary search engine. In September the New York Times exclaimed that “For Gen Z, TikTok is the New Search Engine” in a piece that interviewed teenagers and young adults who had come to rely on the app as an information-gathering tool.
This is a worrying development. While Gen-Z has embraced TikTok as both entertainment and news source, the platform is not a natural search engine; its heavy-duty algorithm rewards attention-grabbing, high-engagement content over useful information. If the app were to become a go-to search engine, it could lead to a sharp rise in misinformation.
Herein lies the crucial difference between social media and search engines. Something that is algorithmically popular on a social platform isn’t necessarily the best result for a search, and users are incentivised to post content that fits the narrow metrics of what does well on each platform. Take restaurant recommendations: the kind of restaurants that perform well on social media are glitzy, trendy new openings often aimed specifically at millennials and Gen Z – rather than tried-and-tested, unpretentious local institutions serving great food. If social apps replaced search engines or traditional media reviews, the impacts on the industry might be stark – speeding up the already brutal pace of gentrification. More broadly, a social-first approach to news and information would inevitably be one in which misinformation and inaccuracy proliferated.
On this latter issue, TikTok does appear to have a specific problem, with evidence increasingly suggesting that it is especially volatile and unreliable when it comes to finding accurate information. Though the platform had other problems before this year (such as safeguarding issues alleged by children’s groups and the popularity of harmful challenges), it had largely managed to avoid mainstream associations with misinformation. Then, in March, the war in Ukraine presented a major problem for the platform when unverified videos and misleading content, such as old footage from others wars claiming to be from Kyiv, began to go viral.
This showed not just how quickly misinformation could travel on TikTok but how difficult it was for TikTok to moderate its own hyper-fast algorithm. The company has since experienced similar issues with moderating misleading or harmful content, from posts about US elections to videos featuring the misogynist Andrew Tate. A study by NewsGuard released last week found that when searching for news stories on TikTok – from school shootings to abortion to Covid-19 – nearly 20 per cent of the results contained false and misleading claims. NewsGuard specifically warned that this would become an even greater social issue if younger generations continued to use the app as a search engine.
These shifts in TikTok usage point to a wider, well-established trend: the rise of infotainment, which has already played out in broadcast media. But social media platforms are not bound by the same vetting processes as most traditional media outlets. They are often also poorly moderated, and algorithms continue to develop and become more sophisticated at a far faster rate than the legislation and artificial intelligence needed to regulate them.
We should all be concerned if TikTok outranks Google for search, but ultimately our access to news and information remains in the hands of a few Big Tech corporations. We should be arguing for our digital tools – those that we rely on for news, facts, and accurate information – to be heavily regulated, fair and untied to popular thinking. That may mean we have to unlearn our expectation that we should be able to hit “enter” and find exactly what we were looking for.
[See also: We should fear TikTok’s influence on news media]