Gone Viral: Misinformation on TikTok

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Article By Jessica Ly

The coronavirus outbreak, stemming from Wuhan, China, has been met with a wave of fear and misinformation on the Internet. People are using various social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter to share unfounded advice on how to protect oneself from the virus, make racist remarks about Asian people, and upload fake videos of infected individuals.

 

One app in particular, TikTok, has been an epicenter for spreading fake news about the coronavirus. TikTok is a popular video sharing app with over 500 million users, catering to an enormous young adult user base. Users are able to place text posts on minute-long or less videos and quickly reach a global audience. Many people are using the platform to spread hoax videos about the coronavirus. One video that has since been deleted depicts a man who is supposedly a doctor holding a vial of blood from “patient zero” who has the coronavirus, stating that “something’s not good about that blood” (Dazed). This is particularly alarming because users may trust this source of information, seeing it is from a person wearing a white coat. However, it has been known that many people have been impersonating medical professionals to spread misinformation about the coronavirus. It is also unlikely that a medical professional would post personal information onto TikTok let alone create demeaning, fear-inducing content to the public.

 

Similarly, another video portrays a nurse in China who claims that over 90,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus in China alone, which is far greater than the reported number of cases in China at the time. Once again, people may believe this information as it stems from a medical professional in the hub of an outbreak. While these clips may seem dramatic and real, they are not based on a trustworthy source of medical information. Videos like these that go viral demonstrate the troubling phenomenon in which young people rely on social media apps such as TikTok for news coverage where information is condensed, over-exaggerated, and oftentimes nonfactual.

TikTok videos can be harmful and certainly do not go unnoticed, with almost 70 million videos hashtagged #coronavirus. Some people use the app to make false claims about having the coronavirus. People have posted random clips of themselves staying in the hospital and appearing ill to say that they have the coronavirus as a part of the “coronavirus check” video trend. One user posted a video of their friend, claiming that he has the first case of the coronavirus in Canada. These videos especially worry local community users who see the videos and take the issue seriously. These videos may have become such a widely believed source of information that Stephen May, a spokesman for the British Columbia Department of Health, addressed the TikTok video to confirm that, in fact, it was false (The Daily Beast). Evidently, many of these coronavirus hoaxes are used to gain clout. Rather than using social media to spread useful information regarding the outbreak, Internet users have been using platforms for personal gain and, along the way, amassing widespread hysteria.

 

Another rampant issue regarding the coronavirus on TikTok is the spread of conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus. Many users claim that the virus was manufactured by the Chinese government and intentionally spread as a form of population control. Meanwhile, another video that had over 160,000 views claims that the virus was created as a bioweapon funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote vaccine sales. These conspiracy videos are highly appealing to people who are skeptical of the government, for instance those who distrust the Chinese government, believing the number of coronavirus cases are greatly underreported. Given China’s suspicious background in informing their citizens and the world, some people seek alternate information sources with a more cynical outlook and even consider conspiracy theories as plausible explanations. As for young users, conspiracy videos are outlandish. These grab their attention lead them to share the information to their friends, furthering the spread of questionable information.

One of the most popular videos on the TikTok app portrays a woman consuming bat soup. This video is one of many videos that has been causing one of the biggest issues to stem from the coronavirus outbreak: racism against East Asians. People are making malicious comments under videos of Asian people on TikTok accusing them of being “bat eaters” and mockingly saying, “It’s corona time!”. They have been accused of creating the virus for various reasons, from eating exotic animals to living in insanitary conditions. Some TikTok users, specifically of East Asian descent, are playing along with the racist joke on TikTok, for instance, saying that they would cough in order to make people avoid them. Meanwhile, others are actively fighting back the racist remarks that are putting down their community by posting videos with credible information on the coronavirus. Clearly, the coronavirus has become a racialized outbreak, similar to how Africans were perceived during the Ebola outbreak. Minorities are targeted, decimating many peoples’ sense of belonging and making many feel like foreigners in their own home country. People found the coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity for them to outwardly express their racist beliefs and influence others to share a similar mindset, promoting fear and hostility towards entire groups of people for something they have no control over.

 

The TikTok app guidelines prohibits posting information that could be harmful. The app, which is owned by the Chinese company, ByteDance, recently released a feature that allows users to flag videos that contain deceptive information. Tik Tok also states that it plans to collaborate with third-party fact-checkers to remove harmful videos. Many people condemn TikTok for lack of action taken, as thousands of videos with baseless claims continue to be posted without repercussions. Nonetheless, outspoken young users concerned with the credibility of TikTok videos on the coronavirus and a handful of TikTok-famous medical professionals dedicate their platforms to posting factual content in order to debunk myths about the outbreak.

 

For the most accurate, up-to-date information on the coronavirus outbreak, visit the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/.

 

Sources:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/dawnchmielewski/2020/01/28/tiktok-used-to-spread-misinformation-about-the-coronavirus/#2e12beb016d6.

https://www.dazeddigital.com/science-tech/article/47763/1/how-viral-coronavirus-hoax-videos-are-blowing-up-on-tiktok

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/laurenstrapagiel/asian-racism-coronavirus-tiktok

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/health/coronavirus-misinformation-social-media.html?auth=login-google

https://www.thedailybeast.com/teens-are-now-claiming-they-have-coronavirus-for-tik-tok-clout

 

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