The World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified COVID-19 as a pandemic and the disease’s spread has disrupted many aspects of people’s lives. Around the world, schools are being shut down, offices are being closed, and people are being quarantined at home to minimize the spread of the virus. With “social distancing” in full swing, people have turned to social media to stay in touch with friends and find out the latest developments in the battle against the virus. Young adults, especially Generation Z (born between 1997 – 2012) increasingly turn to TikTok, the popular social media app to connect with one another.
However, the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media platforms has led to confusion, fear, and even violence. The WHO termed the deluge of COVID-19 related misinformation as an “infodemic” – an over-abundance of information, making it hard and confusing to find trustworthy sources and reliable advice. What steps have open-sourced social media platforms such as TikTok taken to combat the infodemic?
TikTok is a social-sharing platform that lets users create and share short videos between three and 15 seconds long. Branded as an entertainment and creative app, TikTok allows users to post lip-synch, comedy, and talent content online, using sounds, songs, and special effects to create a video. Marketers and companies have shifted advertising campaigns onto the platform in effort to target the Generation Z consumers, as young people predominantly obtain news and information on social media.
TikTok has been used by young people to combat boredom while under quarantine due to the virus. Some users on the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, regularly upload videos providing a glimpse into life in quarantine. Others attend virtual party raves, attend virtual fitness classes, and meet up online. TikTok users in the United States and Europe frequently post reactions and commentary on how their lives have changed due to COVID-19. However, misinformation on the disease, despite best efforts, continue to abound online.
COVID-19 is seen as a litmus test for social media companies in assessing their effectiveness against misinformation. Social media companies, in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, are keenly aware of the dangers misinformation can bring.
As more countries report an increasing number of infections, social media has been inundated with false information, conspiracy theories, and unverified rumors about the virus. Misinformation and a lack of factual content have the potential to create fear, sparking panic and even violence. The impact of COVID-19 related misinformation has been most significantly felt in Ukraine, where the proliferation of rumors, limited information from the government, and an atmosphere of tension contributed to violent riots and unrest.
Fake news and rumors that are tagged “COVID-19” and other related tags often come up alongside accurate and verified official posts in search results when users search for content on social media platforms. Dubious cures and remedies for COVID-19 have also been circulating, with some TikTok users claiming that vinegar is a suitable remedy against the virus (It isn’t). In January this year, a TikTok user from British Columbia, Canada, claimed to have the virus in order to boost his likes and followers. While it was later debunked by authorities and fact-checkers as false, and removed by TikTok, the bogus prank video had already obtained 4.1 million views online. The subsequent debunking, however, was not executed on TikTok – where users first saw the video – but on other mainstream media channels, missing the opportunity to target the demographic that was engaged with the fake content on TikTok.
This example highlights the growing need to reach out to the Generation Z demographic where they “congregate” online – through platforms such as TikTok. This helps to ensure that myth-busting about COVID-19 reaches them in a way that they can understand and share with their community online. Reaching out to young people and ensuring they have accurate information on COVID-19 is crucial.
Organizations and health authorities are paying attention, and have launched resources to fill the gap. The WHO has forged a collaboration with American internet companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter in cracking down on misinformation about the epidemic. This equips the WHO with a direct line to the platforms to flag posts that could harm people’s health. The WHO has also worked with Chinese companies Tencent (owner of WeChat) and Sina Weibo to weed out misinformation on their channels.
Social media platforms such as Facebook have taken measures to remove fake claims and conspiracy theories, and to block advertisements from people who may try to exploit and amplify concerns over the virus. Companies have promoted links to reputable sources (e.g. the WHO website) when users search for terms related to COVID-19.
In efforts to engage young people, the WHO is also targeting TikTok. The WHO has posted information on its official social media accounts, and has expanded to include short video explainers on TikTok. TikTok could be an effective way for health organizations like the WHO to get information out to younger people who often get news directly from social media. With its first two TikTok videos getting 60 million views, the strategy seems to be working. Users have further amplified the message – young adults have been lip-syncing the video’s audio while miming hand washing, or dancing to the audio.
While official channels such as the WHO are on TikTok, more engaging sources of information could support and complement official messaging. In Singapore, comedian Jack Neo, reprising one of his famous drag characters, educated users on how Singaporeans can fight against COVID-19 misinformation and support frontline workers. Other countries have caught on. A video on proper hand-washing, created by the Vietnam’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, drew over 9.4 million views on YouTube. Quang Dang, a Vietnamese TikTok user, created a dance inspired by the video, to enable young people to get the right kind of information on COVID-19. The #GhenCoVyChallenge now has users around the world parroting the dance, enabling young people to be aware of proper hygiene steps while using a catchy tune – and ensuring that it sticks.
The more popular the video, the greater the likelihood that it would be recommended by TikTok’s algorithm to a user. “For You” is the landing page that users see when they first open the app, and if content related to COVID-19 is viral enough to land on the front page, the opportunities for engagement with users are higher. Social media platforms could also boost official accounts and videos to enhance visibility and ensure such content remains prominent.
While viral memes and videos may help support educational efforts, social media platforms such as TikTok should also be aware of users trying to make matters worse in their attempts to capitalize on the crisis in order to gain more likes. Fact-checking by official TikTok channels and reporting by users can help mitigate the flow of misinformation online.
While making memes and dances viral might be the aspiration of every bored teenager stuck home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is potential for education and awareness of the virus to be broadened, reaching out to young people with factual and accurate information. Various challenges and videos from accurate channels of information (e.g. the WHO or news outlets) on TikTok can contribute to brining positive, factual information to the Generation Z audience online.
Dymples Leong is a Senior Analyst with Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.