TikTok flunks 'misinformation test' ahead of European elections

Popular social network TikTok has approved ads containing political misinformation ahead of European elections, a new report shows.

The platform has broken its own rules, raising questions about its ability to detect fraud during elections.

The international group Global Witness has created 16 ads targeting Irish audiences with false information about this week's EU elections and tried to distribute them across three platforms - TikTok, Google-owned YouTube and Elon Musk's X (Twitter).

TikTok, which is particularly popular among young voters, approved all 16 ads for publication, YouTube "caught" 14, and X filters all ads and blocks fake accounts.

"TikTok failed miserably in this test," Henry Peck, senior specialist at Global Witness, told AFP.

All of the fake ads created by the group last month contained content that could pose a risk to the election process - including warnings to voters to stay home because of the risk of violence during the vote and a spike in infectious diseases.

They also included a false message about raising the legal voting age to 21 and calls for people to vote by email, which is not allowed in European elections.

TikTok acknowledged that the ads violated its policies.

Citing an internal investigation, the Chinese app, owned by ByteDance, said its systems correctly identified the breach, but the ads were approved due to "human error" by a moderator.

"We immediately implemented new processes to prevent similar incidents in the future," a TikTok spokesperson told AFP.

The failure to detect the fakes comes as tech campaigners are pleading with the platforms to heed growing concerns about the flood of disinformation affecting elections around the world.

Peck insists it is "absolutely imperative" that social media sites act against threats to democracy in a year full of important elections culminating in the US presidential vote in November.

"I was surprised because in the past TikTok has caught content that violates its rules, and in this case it didn't catch anything," Peck said.

"It appears to have systems in place, capabilities in place, and yet nothing was deleted," he explained.

Global Witness has filed a formal complaint with Irish regulators, saying the platform may be in breach of European rules to reduce election-related threats.

Earlier this year, the EU published guidelines under its massive Digital Services Act (DSA) requiring major platforms, including TikTok, to take action to reduce the risk of vote interference.

Last month, TikTok released a statement detailing the "comprehensive" measures it was taking, stressing that it was "deeply committed" to protecting the integrity of elections.

Global Witness deletes the fake ads after receiving notification from TikTok that they have been accepted for publication to prevent any trace.

The group additionally submitted an ad that did not contain misinformation but violated TikTok's ban on political ads.

The group paid 10 pounds ($13) for this ad and found it was shown 12,000 times.

Dozens of fact-checking organizations are paid by TikTok in several countries to check videos that potentially contain false information.

TikTok has become a major field for election battle. Politicians in Europe and the United States, including presidential contender Donald Trump, are trying to capitalize on the massive user base on the platform.

This trend has emerged even as TikTok has come under pressure in the United States. President Joe Biden recently signed a law that would ban the platform if its owner fails to find a buyer for the app within a year.

"Yet in Europe they seem to be asleep, as if they are not attuned to this very blatant pre-election disinformation," Peck noted. | BGNES