TikTok is the new front of election disinformation

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He’s the son of a brutal dictator, forged his own credentials, and his family owes up to $3.6 billion in property taxes, yet he still won a landslide election to become the Philippines’ next president. When Bongbong Marcos is sworn in on Thursday, the 64-year-old may want to add Chinese short-video service TikTok to his list of thanks.

Six years after Facebook was manipulated into helping Donald Trump become the 45th President of the United States, the American social media giant has given way to a much more viral and even harder-to-follow young upstart. We may never know just how big a role TikTok played in Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s return to Malacanang Palace, (1) but we can be sure he’s heading for a starring role in future elections in the United States and beyond.

“The Marcos family has been rehabilitated through this platform that has put a brilliant shine on the past,” Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst who tracks disinformation and extremism at the Institute for Strategic, recently told me. Dialogue, based in London.

TikTok is not the only platform used by political actors in recent elections. Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube are also popular in the Philippines and have become vectors for disinformation campaigns and targeted attacks on rivals.

What makes TikTok different is its abbreviated video feed, where users see content driven by an opaque algorithm instead of the people they follow. The combination of audio, video, text and graphics is an integral part of this process, allowing users to mix and match new content with old messages. Virality comes from hanging onto the parts that are popular – a skateboard dog, for example – and adding a creator’s own touch, like text or a musical soundtrack.

In the political realm, such videos can be used to cast doubt on historical events or push disinformation on opponents – with statements often misquoted or taken out of context. These posts can escape content moderators, who struggle to tell fact from fiction. In one example, anti-corruption comments by Marcos’ main rival, incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo, were manipulated to show her that she would in fact be leading a corrupt administration. And because the videos go by so quickly, these messages are both subtle and eye-catching.

Before throwing his hat in the ring and before being elected a senator, Marcos Jr. was best known as the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the Philippines for more than two decades, including nearly 10 years under the martial law. When his father was deposed, the president’s only son joined him in his flight to the United States. But instead of being seen as a man whose wealth and power was built on the brutality of his country’s most infamous leader – under whom thousands were killed – Bongbong enjoyed a retelling of that history that portrayed the Marcos dictatorship as a golden era for Filipinos and helped him land a landslide victory with over 58% of the vote.

TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., faces many of the same challenges in fighting misinformation as its American peers and has adopted policies to try to keep it under control. These measures include prohibiting political advertising and harmful political misinformation, as well as providing links to authoritative sources and partnering with external fact-checking organizations.

The company began publishing Transparency Reports in 2019 “to provide visibility into how well we are adhering to our Community Guidelines and responding to law enforcement information requests, government requests to remove content, and requests intellectual property removal,” she said in an email response to Bloomberg Opinion.

TikTok is also deploying machine learning tools to share the burden of content moderation. In addition to removing posts, this can slow down a video’s distribution through TikTok’s powerful For You feed, from which most content is discovered. According to TikTok, “95% of the videos we removed for violating our Community Guidelines were removed before they were reported to us, 94% were removed within 24 hours, and 90% were removed before they were received. views,” the company wrote. in the email.

Yet TikTok’s role in spreading misinformation to shape elections and public opinion is not limited to the Philippines.

According to the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, TikTok has already been used in American campaigns, while other research has pointed to its role in the Colombian elections and the increase in pro-war messages in Russia alongside a decline in content. anti-war at the time this country invades Ukraine. Kenya’s general elections in August are expected to be the next front. “Rather than learning from the mistakes of more established platforms like Facebook and Twitter, TikTok is following in their footsteps, harboring and spreading political misinformation ahead of a tricky African election,” wrote data journalist and Mozilla Fellow Odanga Madung, about the role of the platform. in Kenya.

There’s a good chance that TikTok won’t be able to toughen up its content and platform moderation policies in time to end its misuse before the elections in Kenya or the midterm elections in the United States this fall. . But there are still two years to go before the next race for the White House. Given its role in the recent elections in the Philippines, the United States should consider itself warned: TikTok is coming.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

• Biden’s TikTok movement sends message to allies on China: Tim Culpan

• Facebook’s biggest threat is the law, not the lawsuits: Parmy Olson

• The powerful machine that led Marcos to victory: Daniel Moss

(1) Marcos lived in the palace when his father was president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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