TikTok’s algorithm and its popular feature that allows people to reuse audio from any video are enabling the spread of misinformation in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The video-sharing platform is currently flooded with raw footage of the conflict without any verification of its accuracy. Videos of missile strikes, explosions, and gunfire exchanges are garnering millions of views, even though some contain older footage unrelated to this conflict or videos manipulated through audio to capitalize on an anxious audience.
In particular, the reuseable audio feature -- the backbone of TikTok, originally designed for lip-syncing and making memes -- is proving to be a major source of digital misinformation in a time of conflict. Some users are putting their own videos on top of existing audios of explosions and armed conflict. Audio from a February 18 viral video (before the invasion began) containing gunfire was used in over 1,700 videos before TikTok finally removed it. Many of these videos added shaky camera footage on top of this audio to give the appearance of other videos of conflict.
Another viral video which garnered 5.8 million views in just 12 hours featured audio from a 2020 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, edited onto shaky footage of someone running away from their balcony. This audio wasn’t linked directly from another TikTok video, but it further demonstrates the way repurposed audio is contributing to the rapid spread of misinformation on the platform.
Beyond the platform’s features that are allowing misrepresentation to proliferate through these videos, TikTok’s algorithm is subsequently building on users’ anxiety surrounding the conflict by surfacing old or unrelated videos on the platform’s main feed, the “For You” page. For instance, there’s a February 4 post that features footage from Almaty, Kazakhstan, and has 32.5 million views. There's been a barrage of English-language comments on the video within the last two days indicating users think the footage is from Ukraine, even though the creator has noted the location of the footage and that it’s from January 5.
Similarly, a video of a crying woman and her child has gone viral, with over 2.5 million views. Its comments section is flooded with messages written in English and posted after the Russian invasion started that express support for Ukraine, even though the video was posted almost three weeks ago.
Both these videos suggest that TikTok’s algorithm is responding to users’ interest and pushing the videos to their custom feeds, resulting in the amplification of old, potentially unrelated content that users are responding to uncritically.
TikTok’s platform architecture is amplifying fear and permitting misinformation to thrive at a time of high anxiety. Though it’s crucial that the public remain informed of such high-stakes situations, it seems that the platform’s design is incompatible with the needs of the current moment.