Why We Should Fear TikTok’s Influence on News Media

There’s a scene in the Channel 4 comedy peep show I’ve been thinking a lot lately. It’s the mid-2000s and three of the characters are sitting in a living room watching the news, which shows footage of a bus crash in central London. A character begins to complain about modern news channels. “Bad news, bad news, bad news,” she said. “What about all the buses that made it safely to their destinations?”

Nearly 20 years later, this nonsense — that the news should neglect the most pressing stories of the day to satisfy an emotional need for lighter, more positive content — is fast becoming reality. A new Ofcom report shows that TikTok is the fastest growing news source for adults (over 16) in the UK, with 7% using it specifically to access news – usually from charismatic personalities on the app, rather than accounts belonging to traditional news outlets. In the US, the share is even larger, with a quarter of adults using TikTok to get their news – rising to half of millennials and gen Z adults (under 41).

A month ago, the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report found that nearly four in ten people regularly avoid the news because they find it too depressing, and that more and more people are forgoing traditional news channels to get their news from TikTok and Instagram. . As Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute, told the Guardian“Even young people, for the most part, do not see [TikTok] as a platform for serious news.

Although the platform is dominated by viral sketches, lip-syncing videos, dances and memes, “news” is spread on TikTok in many ways. Yes, professional journalists publish their stories on the app, and many traditional media are also present on the platform. These accounts tend to favor direct reports, but these videos generally receive fewer views than those inspired by TikTok’s lip-syncing trends. The most popular news videos on the app tend to come from people who are actually “news influencers”, individual creators who record themselves discussing news on camera.

[See also: Can Twitter force Elon Musk to pay up?]

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Some, like Matilda Head’s @matildasnewsroom, post simple videos with text and images summarizing mainstream stories, such as the heatwave, with a newsreader cadence. Other more popular accounts, such as Matt Welland’s @itsmattw_01, which has 2.4 million followers, are more “shifted”. Welland’s videos include reports of “insane” psychological phenomena, “strange” discoveries in different parts of the world, and outright conspiracy theories, reported in a familiar tone (“no, it’s actually CRAZY” ) with clickbait-style headlines such as “THEY JUST FOUND WHAT UNDER THE ICE…” and “North Korea just did WHAT…” No matter who delivers the news, the most popular topics on TikTok are usually questions lighter or celebrity stories, like Johnny Depp vs. Amber Trial Heard.

So if adults are increasingly using TikTok as a source of news, should news outlets embrace it as a platform for their reporting? Some industry players view the Ofcom report as a call to action, saying traditional media must evolve with the times to reach younger audiences. There is, however, a bigger problem with how users get reliable information online. The growing dominance of social media means that valuable news is quickly crowded out by oversimplified (and often inaccurate) stories that prove algorithmically popular.

“Infotainment” as a phenomenon is not unique to social media (it is not always inherently sinister). Traditional news is most often a for-profit business, and creating attention-grabbing stories – on TV, in print and in digital format – has long been a priority. But the benefits of many long-established news organizations (and those that aren’t for profit, like the BBC) include substantial funding and thorough vetting processes, rigorous research and fact-checking, and industry codes. reliable ethics – whatever the subject, their stories are generally well reported. It is of course not a flawless or perfect system, but it is for these reasons that major outlets are considered more reliable and produce more accurate and reliable information. Structures are in place to ensure that every aspect is considered when deciding which stories to air, not just the one that gets the most attention.

On TikTok, there are undoubtedly individual influencers who share these priorities, but the problem is just that: many accounts are run by individuals, with their own interests and motivations, which obviously makes their own account more popular. TikTok’s algorithms give influencers news and incentives to cover topics that gain views. “Crazy”, “fun” or simplified versions of serious stories flourish. Social media is a place where serious news is ignored to make way for alternative types of light infotainment that are more profitable, more extreme, and more likely to be full of misinformation. It is a place where reality can simply be ignored.

The solutions to this problem would be difficult: educating young people, regulating content on social media platforms, and greater investment in the valuable news outlets we have, as well as new ones. News outlets could reach younger audiences on TikTok, but doing so well will be less straightforward than “just getting BBC news presenters to lip-synch to clips of Rishi Sunak”.

Advocating for the dissemination of information through social media inevitably rewards an attention economy that allows information influencers, misinformation, conspiracy theories and polarizing content to thrive. This fallible, profit-driven approach will always favor the sensational over the substantial, resulting in a world in which each of us is progressively less informed.

[See also: Social media’s consent problem]