Merchants on TikTok Shop are creating deepfake doctors to deceive users into believing the health products they sell are being promoted by medical professionals. The videos found as part of this deepfake scheme, which seems to operate by taking images of real doctors from popular accounts on TikTok and superimposing different digital faces over theirs, have racked up well over 10 million views.
TikTok is aiming to rake in $20 billion this year by rapidly expanding its marketplace feature, TikTok Shop. This speedy expansion in pursuit of enormous profit seems to come at the expense of consumer safety, as the platform has already established a pattern of insufficiently vetting products and allowing deceptive advertising.
Now, TikTok Shop merchants are attempting to sell a variety of health products using deepfake doctors — a legally questionable advertising strategy that misleads consumers, potentially violating truth-in-advertising laws enforced by the FTC. And it doesn’t just negatively impact consumers, but also appears to steal the likeness and credentials of real doctors.
The accounts using this strategy seem to be in an affiliated network, as all of the products they’re selling originate from China, are affiliated with the same LLC, and link to the same TikTok Shop store.
Videos we found featuring deepfake doctors nearly all share the same basic format: a split-screen video with the first panel displaying the product being used successfully and the second panel featuring a deepfake doctor giving their approval of it.
The two items most commonly featured in the videos reviewed by Media Matters were a supposed fat-burning cream and a teeth-whitening solution. Both products promise some sort of dramatic (and clearly bogus) physical transformation in the form of extreme weight loss or teeth whitening.
There are a number of explicit indicators suggesting that these doctors are deepfakes: flickering around the edges of faces, glitching, and strange or inconsistent shadows. Even more suspicious, some of the deepfake doctors were wearing embroidered scrubs with names of real doctors, but the faces in the videos did not match those of the actual doctors.
The people connected to the embroidered names are all real doctors with large TikTok followings: Drs. Richard J. Brown, Dana Brems, and Brian Boxer Wachler. It seems as though these creators downloaded videos from those real doctors on TikTok and used deepfake technology to modify their faces (Dr. Brems' deepfake doppelganger appears to have the face of Selena Gomez, for example).
This deceptive marketing tactic is similar to a strategy employed by TikTok scammers in the past, but this time instead of stealing and recycling the same video of a real doctor nodding and smiling (edited as a reaction to a weight loss product), they’re using deepfake technology to falsify a doctor’s approval.
And worse, TikTok’s new marketplace feature has made it even easier for these fraudulent businesses to sell their products to users because shopping can be done in-app. So not only has TikTok approved, hosted, and elevated these predatory merchants, but the platform is profiting from their deceptive advertising by taking a cut of each sale.
TikTok continues to chase quick profit at the expense of its own users’ safety.