What Does it Mean that TikTok Users Are Getting Their News From the Platform?
By Shreya Pandit & Lane Florsheim
Social media is revolutionizing the way we receive information, from beauty hacks to geopolitical conflict. Why misinformation can spread this way—and how to minimize consuming it in your own reading.
Rahib Taher, a high school student and avid TikTok user, initially downloaded the video-based social media app to watch political memes, but soon found himself watching videos that gave him news in real time, too. He says he admires the platform’s ability to include a diverse range of voices: “I think most news conglomerates are pretty center or right-leaning, and I like platforms where there’s a wide range of public involvement like TikTok.”
Social media is revolutionizing the way we receive information, from beauty hacks to geopolitical conflict. However, its influence can also vastly affect the spread of information—and misinformation—even potentially altering elections. In 2019, NPR reported that Facebook says Russian operatives may have reached up to 126 million people on its platform ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In addition to Facebook, Twitter has long been a news source for its users, and even Instagram has taken on this function—the 2020 Reuters Institute Digital News report found the use of Instagram for the news had doubled since 2018. TikTok is the latest entrant.
There isn’t as much data available on TikTok as on other social media platforms. However, the nonprofit organization Media Matters, which fights misinformation online, cites recent research that found TikTok to be a rapidly growing platform with the largest percentage of users between the ages of 16 and 24. Media Matters researcher Olivia Little also cites a recent Pew Research Center report that found about half of adults get their news “often” or “sometimes” from social media.
“So while there is limited data available that explicitly shows how many TikTok users are getting their news from the platform, we can all see that the app is used to intentionally circulate and sometimes explain current events to young people,” says Little. She cites examples including Black Lives Matter organizers using TikTok to broadcast information about the movement, as well as creators who used TikTok videos to brief their followers on the Georgia Senate runoff elections that took place in January.
Users can benefit from this content. Says Little: “TikTok users often create content breaking down difficult concepts or events, making them accessible to users of all ages. TikToks can be fun and funny and also add critical details and perspectives that might be omitted from mainstream media narratives.” However, like any social media platform, Little adds that a major drawback to getting your news from TikTok is that misinformation can go undetected or unmoderated, making it look like it’s reliable when it’s not. “Reliable news outlets thoroughly fact check reports prior to their release, but individual creators on TikTok don’t have editors like a newsroom would and are not faced with that same review process before posting.”
This is the process of social media users like Amy*, a high school student in New York. Amy uses TikTok for entertainment and news, even making some of her own videos. “I get a good amount of my news from social media … [but] if I find something interesting, then I go off TikTok and onto Safari, and I look up stuff on my own.”
Another issue, as Amy put it is that, “social media is an echo chamber.” The app’s algorithm picks up on your specific tastes and what topics you may interact with the most. Because of this, the news you get is chosen specifically for you, not completely diversifying the opinions you interact with—potentially preventing a more comprehensive overview of a situation.
Although Gen Z makes up the majority of TikTok’s users, millennials are also getting their news from the platform. Noah*, 29, a New York–based editor, has been a TikTok user since 2019. Although he joined the platform primarily to watch comedy, the algorithm regularly shows him videos about politics and current events.
A recent example he points to is learning from a TikTok video why his stimulus check had been delayed. “A lady made a video after she had spoken to TurboTax and it turned out that [for] anyone who had filed their taxes with a certain method on TurboTax, last year’s stimulus checks were delayed,” he says. “A day later, I got an email from TurboTax saying everything that she said. But I found it out on TikTok first.”
He says the best part of getting some of his news from TikTok is the way it’s sandwiched between pieces of entertainment. Others like Rahib admire TikTok’s accessibility, too: “I think that the format is just way better than some other social media sites. It is more user friendly.”
While TikTok and other social media apps were not created with the circulation of news being their primary function, there is no denying that they now have a large effect on our consumption of the news. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has made activism more challenging, apps like TikTok and Twitter allow for a more accessible way to make your voice heard. Apps like these are a good way to expose yourself to events going on, but take what you see, hear, and read with a grain of salt and always remember to fact check.
*Names have been changed
Over the course of the first semester at Girls Write Now, we discussed potential topics for our shared piece. We have interests in common including sustainability and social media, and we eventually landed on writing about TikTok—a platform Shreya knows well and Lane was curious to learn more about. We spent the last couple of months finding sources to reach out to; we wanted to be sure to include both TikTok users and at least one expert on social media. Then, we arranged for phone and email interviews. After we finished the interview process, we each wrote up separate sections of the piece, then combined them into a draft that we edited into the final version of our article. It was interesting to see how many people use social media for purposes other than entertainment and was an eye-opening experience that allowed us to reflect on the impact social media has on us.
Shreya Pandit is a high school senior. She is interested in a variety of writing mediums, specifically journalism and nonfiction. After high school, Shreya is majoring in Policy Analysis at Indiana University Bloomington. In her free time, Shreya likes to read palms and play with her dog, Lemon. She looks forward to publishing more journalism articles, specifically in Opinion and Arts & Entertainment.
Lane is a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal Magazine, where she writes the My Monday Morning column and covers style, culture and art. She was previously an editor at the WSJ and before that worked at Marie Claire and The New Republic.