Worries Grow That TikTok Is New Home for Manipulated Video and Photos

Misinformation has become a problem on the platform ahead of the midterms. In recent days, researchers from SumOfUs, a corporate accountability advocacy group, tested TikTok’s algorithm by creating an account and searching for and searching for 20 widely viewed videos that sowed doubt about the election system. Within an hour, the algorithm had switched from serving neutral content to pushing more election disinformation, polarizing content, far-right extremism, QAnon conspiracy theories and false Covid-19 narratives, the researchers found.

TikTok said it had removed content, cited by the report, that violated its guidelines and would update its system to catch the search terms used to find the videos.

“Platforms like TikTok in particular, but really all of these social media feeds, are all about getting you through stuff quickly — they’re designed to be this fire hose barrage of content, and that’s a recipe for eliminating nuance,” said Halsey Burgund , a creative technologist in residence at the MIT Open Documentary Lab. “The vestiges of these quick, quick, quick emotional reactions just sit inside our brains and build up, and it’s kind of terrifying.”

In 2019, Mr. Burgund worked on a documentary project with the multimedia artist and journalist Francesca Panetta that engineered a deepfake Richard Nixon announcing the failure of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. (The actual expedition landed the first humans on the moon.) The project, “In Event of Moon Disaster,” won an Emmy last year.

The team used methods that are common in the online spread ofinformation, which can include miscaptioning photos, cutting footage or changing its speed or sequence, splitting sound from images, clonings, creating hoax text messages, creating synthetic accounts, automating lip sync and text-to-speech, or even making a deepfake.

Most examples of manipulated content currently on social media are shoddily and obviously fabricated. But the technologies that can alter and synthesize with much more finesse are accessible and often easily learned, experts said.

“In the right hands, it’s quite creative, and there’s a lot of potential there,” Mr. Burgund said. “In the wrong hands, it’s all bad.”

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