UK lawmakers meeting on April 30 will question executives from some of the world’s biggest technology companies on their efforts to eliminate the spread of misinformation during the pandemic.
But TikTok, the most-downloaded app in the world outside China during the crisis according to analytics firm App Annie, has not been asked to appear – despite the popularity of posts made by its enthusiastic users falsely connecting 5G wireless technology to the spread of Covid-19.
"It is missing an important platform, one that’s growing rapidly,” Mark Andrejevic, professor at the School of Media, Film & Journalism at Monash University in Melbourne, said of the hearing. "It’s a platform to watch out for in the circulation of conspiracy theories and attention should be paid to that, not least because of its popularity among young people.”
Case in point: A post on April 27 names various virus hotspots in the U.S. and points out that the same locations also have 5G. The implication is the two are connected, with a tone as anxious as one might expect from a video about a conspiracy theory.
Autocomplete suggestions in a search on the TikTok app for "5G” include "virus” ,"conspiracy” and "coronavirus”. A click on one of these on Tuesday lead to a post with a video of a telecom mast on fire with the headline "5g gettin burned down” followed by hashtags including "#5g” and "#coronavirus”.
One of the comments said "all in this together keep it going!!” with two emojis of a flame. Another said "One down, keep going and they might have to do something about it.” A similar video of a burning tower was cited in British media at the start of the month, and which turned out to be an early example in a series of attacks.
It’s part of a baseless conspiracy claiming that 5G helps spread Covid-19, which has proliferated through multiple social media services and fueled a wave of attacks on telecommunications staff and equipment. A BT Group Plc engineer has been hospitalised in the UK after a stabbing, chief executive officer Philip Jansen said last week. That’s in addition to attacks and arson on more than 60 masts in Britain, according to industry body Mobile UK.
While rivals such as Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google, and Twitter Inc – all of whom will be represented on Thursday’s hearing with British lawmakers – have been dealing with misinformation for a while, TikTok is the new kid on the block, having grown out of Bytedance’s November 2017 purchase of Musical.ly, a teen social video app.
Controversy about its content lately has focused on censorship and security worries. The platform responded in part by moving much of its content moderation to the US.
However, the coronavirus has opened a new frontier of concern for social media companies. Like the Silicon Valley giants, TikTok highlights virus content from the World Health Organisation and other official bodies, offers quick links to trusted sources of information, and has a lot of fun content about handwashing. That’s in addition to its efforts to prevent conspiracy theories from surfacing.
Michael Beckerman, head of US policy for TikTok, told Bloomberg Television on Friday the company has "focused a lot of resources” to tackle misinformation about the coronavirus and the effort is "a really important one”.
A spokeswoman for the platform said it does not allow misinformation, including conspiracy theories, which could cause harm to its users or the wider public. She declined to comment on specific issues raised by this story.
The platform should "absolutely” be assessed by regulators, said Vey-Sern Ling, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in Singapore. "The company is less experienced than Facebook and Google at content moderation currently due to its youth, but it will eventually have to get to a similar level if it hopes to operate globally.”
Still, officials should bear in mind the company’s position relative to established platforms, Ling said."Near-term I think there should be some flexibility, because the company is young, and it is trying hard,” he said. – Bloomberg
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