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The political TikToks in your feed might be ads in disguise

While TikTok doesn’t sell political ad space, a new study from Mozilla found political orgs are paying TikTok influencers to publish talking points masked as organic opinion.

The political TikToks in your feed might be ads in disguise
[Source photos: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash; Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash; Bagus Hernawan/Unsplash]
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There is a lot of political content on TikTok. Much of it has the spontaneous, home-made look of other TikTok content.

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But looks can be deceiving. Some political TikToks are financed by political influence organizations like Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA, and, worse, they often give no indication that they are, in essence, paid political ads.

That’s the troubling finding of a new study by researchers at Mozilla. “What we found was evidence of paid or material relationships between political influencer influencers on TikTok and political organizations in the U.S. across both sides of the (political) spectrum,” said Mozilla researcher Becca Ricks, who co-authored the report.

Mozilla is now calling on TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, to be more transparent about which short videos on its app are posted by influencers receiving funds from political groups. On Thursday, the nonprofit launched a public petition urging TikTok to prioritize ad transparency.

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“[W]e looked into the metadata of posts on TikTok and found that TikTok does not seem to be monitoring these posts and considering them as advertising,” Geurkink says.

Mozilla found more than a dozen TikTok influencers across the political spectrum that have undisclosed paid relationships—or “dark money” arrangements—with various political organizations in the U.S.

(Turning Point USA spokesperson Andrew Kolvet says all TPUSA “activists” post organically on TikTok and are not paid by the organization.)

TikTok has managed to stay mostly out of the discussion of the social media mis/disinformation crisis by proclaiming that it would not sell political ads on its platform. But, Mozilla points out, even though TikTok doesn’t sell political ads via its social platform (as Facebook does), it’s still easy for political organizations to form direct financial arrangements with TikTok influencers to spread a certain point of view.

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“As a brand you can email someone who you saw on TikTok who has 20,000 followers . . . and then you can have a creative contractual relationship with them where you say, ‘Hey, I’ll pay you this much money to post [a given political message],'” says Brandi Geurkink, Mozilla’s senior manager for advocacy, who authored the report with Ricks.

“Each relationship is different,” Geurkink says. “Some of them are quite specific about what they want to see from the influencer; other times they’ll say, ‘We don’t really care what you do with this.'” In that last scenario, the influencer might already be regularly posting the desired political message; the sponsor may just want more of it.

The researchers tell me that at minimum, sponsored political TikToks should be tagged as paid or sponsored. But they often aren’t.

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Mozilla’s research suggests that political groups are very aware of this blind spot and are exploiting it. Geurkink and Ricks found more than a dozen TikTok influencers that have undisclosed paid relationships with various political organizations in the U.S.

TikTok’s assurances that its platform does not host political ads may give its young users the impression that the TikTok community engages in an organic political conversation. This might make users more inclined to believe what they see and hear, when, in reality, they’re being manipulated by political advertisers.

Even if TikTok isn’t making a dime from political ads processed through its platform, that doesn’t absolve it from its responsibility to properly label political ads.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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