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More scrutiny needed of TikTok’s reach, influence on public health: B.C. researchers

Researchers need to get ahead of misinformation and not just in regards to COVID
FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2020 file photo, a view of the TikTok app logo, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File) FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2020 file photo, a view of the TikTok app logo, in Tokyo. The Biden administration is putting on hold a deal brokered by the Trump administration that would have had Oracle and Walmart buying a big stake in popular video app TikTok, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

A pair of University of B.C. researchers want there to be more studies done on TikTok’s reach and effects on public health news.

Associate professor Skye Barbic said that more than one billion people are using the social media for 17 hours each month, with 80 per cent of them under the age of 30.

“Given TikTok’s influence on discourse about important public health topics, I think it’s paramount that we understand what’s happening on the platform, how people are using it and how we can improve experiences from a safety perspective—especially for young people,” Barbic said. “It’s very rare that you see something so widely used that has so little research about it.”

Research associate Marco Zenone said that while TikTok does make some effort to weed out misinformation, it’s usually limited to being about COVID.

“We need that for cancer treatment misinformation or content promoting unproven medical interventions,” Zenone said.

“TikTok can be used for good but it can also be used for nefarious purposes. A bad actor who doesn’t have the best intentions can easily reach many people.”

Zenone said that in the past, research has focused too much on the public health opportunities provided by social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, instead of looking at the negative implications.

“For example, a recent study found that 98 of the top 100 TikTok videos with the hashtag #alcohol portrayed alcohol in a positive way. That’s concerning to us as public health researchers,” he said.

“With other platforms we’ve always had to play catchup and take action only after a significant harm has occurred, such as COVID-19 misinformation or the rapid spread of JUUL vaping products via Instagram.”

Barbic said researchers need to work with TikTok users to understand how information is being spread so that they can respond accurately.

“That may require us to be a little more non-traditional in our research methods, to be in new spaces and to listen and learn,” she said.

“We have so much work to do as a research community to engage users and understand their perspectives.”

READ MORE: Social media platforms ‘killing people’ with misinformation, says Biden


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