Environment

TikTok is seeking to ban climate misinformation on the app. Will it work?

Almost 20 per cent of videos on TikTok in 2022 contained misinformation

white hand holding an iphone with a black screen and a TikTok logo

The policies go live from April 21. (Image: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash)

TikTok has announced its new climate change misinformation policy, which will target any misleading content about the climate crisis on the app.

In a policy change that goes into effect from April 21, the video sharing platform will remove content which “undermines well-established scientific consensus” about global warming and climate change.

TikTok announced its “commitment to climate literacy” in a blog post celebrating Earth Day. It said: “Trust and authenticity fuel the creativity of TikTok – and we believe we have an important role to play in empowering informed climate discussions on our platform.”

This will be added to its existing misinformation policy, which states TikTok does not “allow inaccurate, misleading or false content that may cause significant harm”.

Michael A. Spikes, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism focusing on media literacy and misinformation, said this change might be “a marker towards acknowledging that their current [misinformation] efforts don’t work”, but that it might not be as effective as one might expect.

“Trying to block content on open media platforms like TikTok is a game of whack-a-mole. Once you think you’ve stopped it in one place, it’ll just pop back up elsewhere on the platform,” he told the Big Issue.

“The only effective way to prevent the spread of climate misinformation would be to monitor all of the content that is shared on the platform, which would translate into roadblocks for creators. Those roadblocks, however, would push the creators to another platform,” Spikes added.

Research by NewsGuard in September 2022 found almost 20 per cent of videos on TikTok contained some types of misinformation on prominent topics such as Covid-19, the invasion of Ukraine, school shootings and the climate crisis. 

NewsGuard also found TikTok would often suggest more controversial terms to search for after a user typed in a neutral phrase: “For example, when a user enters the term “climate change,” TikTok suggests searches for “climate change debunked” and “climate change doesn’t exist,” it said.

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As part of the new policy, TikTok said it will also be working in partnership with the United Nations to source “authoritative information” about climate change, which will be bumped up to the top of its search pages when users look for climate-related information. This feature goes live on April 21 in the UK and will be subsequently rolled out globally.

“We believe that taken holistically, these updates will help empower accurate climate discussions on TikTok and reduce harmful misinformation,” a spokesperson for TikTok told The Big Issue.

TikTok’s current community guidelines state they “seek to operate on a shared set of facts and reality” and that any content containing “general conspiracy theories or unverified information related to emergencies” is ineligible to be shown on the app’s ‘For You’ feed and could be removed.

A search for phrases like “climate change scam” on TikTok by The Big Issue brought up a number of videos declaring why climate change isn’t real and suggesting they had “proof” that the climate crisis is a lie. 

People standing at a climate change protest with one person holding up a sign that says "stop denying earth is dying" to combat climate misinformation
As many as 23 per cent of people don’t believe in climate change. (Image: Shayna Douglas/Unsplash)

A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found nearly 50 per cent of people in the US regularly get their news from social media, while a spokesperson for TikTok said the app “has emerged as a destination for conversations about important environmental and sustainability issues”.

But Spikes warns against using social media as a source of “credible information on climate change”.

He said: “Social media is certainly a place where I might become aware of the issue, but not the place that would tell me what I needed to know about it. Entertainment platforms like TikTok don’t have the spreading of credible information on topics like climate change as a primary goal.”

A report by Friends of the Earth, Avaaz, and Greenpeace USA published in January 2023 found all social media companies had “major lapses in their transparency surrounding climate disinformation and their strategies for enforcing policies against it,” according to Gizmodo.

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The report ranked major social media platforms in order from best to worst in terms of tackling climate misinformation as follows: Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter.

YouTube and its parent company Google already bans ads for and monetisation of content that denies climate change. Both platforms also promote links to the United Nations’ pages on climate change. These measures were implemented after a 2020 report by Avaaz, a US-based non-profit organisation that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, accused YouTube of “driving millions of people to watch climate misinformation videos”.

Facebook and Instagram are also subject to many posts denying the existence of climate change or distorting facts about the climate crisis, as First Draft News found in 2021 when they identified thousands of posts associated with hashtags like #climatehoax, #globalwarmingisfake, and #climatescam. All three of these hashtags are still active on Instagram today, with thousands of posts tagged under each.

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♬ original sound – SOPHIA 菲

Meta, which owns both Facebook and Instagram, said in 2020 that it is “committed to tackling climate misinformation” and that it applies “a warning label on top of these posts both on Facebook and Instagram so people understand that the content has been rated false”.

None of the posts found by The Big Issue on Instagram with these tags had warning labels attached to suggest that the information presented might be false.

When information is shown without any indication that it could be false or should be fact-checked, it can lead to “misunderstandings” about climate change and what it means for people, Spikes said.

An international survey by the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) found between six and 23 per cent respondents, depending on the country, “do not believe in climate change or are uncertain about whether climate change is happening” at all.

Young people at a climate protest in birmingham with a sign that says "don't be a fossil fool" and "think globally act locally"
Social media platforms continue to have posts denying climate change is real. (Image: Callum Shaw/Unsplash)

An average of 30 per cent of respondents further believe that climate change is not caused by human activity, despite a consensus among scientists that human activity is the primary driver of the changes in our climate and global warming.

“Scientists overwhelmingly agree that tough and urgent action is needed to prevent catastrophic climate change, so the widespread dissemination of false information is highly dangerous and could slow down the move to a zero-carbon future,” Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s head of policy told the Big Issue.

“Social media platforms must do far more to prevent climate change misinformation being fed to millions of people across the world.” 

Spikes thinks that social media companies are “in a bind” when it comes to tackling misinformation.

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“These companies have created platforms that by their nature are meant to be open for anyone to use and share content on. To do otherwise would fundamentally shift the meaning of ‘social media’. I don’t think there is much else they can do except show they’re doing something,” he said.

So whose responsibility is it then? Spikes said social media users should be more wary: “It’s on the consumer to make sense of what they’re seeing and show some discretion and critical thinking when engaging with this kind of content.”

But this might not be the best way forward, considering a 2021 survey conducted by YouGov in collaboration found almost half of respondents were unable to correctly distinguish between fake and real climate change news headlines.

“I would encourage people to stop getting information on climate change from social media platforms or to be more critical about the actual source of the information when viewing it,” Spikes added.

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