Looking for a chewy chocolate-chip cookie recipe you can make in 10 minutes? Or tips on what to do if you win the lottery? What about fun budget-friendly date ideas?
Millions of people now actively seek answers to those kinds of questions on TikTok, with 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. surveyed by Google saying they use TikTok to find information, a Google spokeswoman said.
Still, more people using TikTok for answers to their search questions doesn’t mean everyone is being steered to the best and most accurate information. After all, anyone can share on the platform, regardless of experience. And TikTok doesn’t always weigh search results for reliability.
Gabby Brauner, 27, said she was shocked to see how inflation had driven up the price of her beloved six pack of avocados in May. Fearing that the expensive fruit would get too ripe before she could enjoy them, she said she was relieved to find a video in her TikTok feed showing how to refrigerate the fruit in water to prevent it from turning brown.
After videos of this hack gained popularity, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration said the storage suggestion was a bad idea. Pathogens on the avocado’s surface, such as salmonella and listeria, could flourish in water, even in a cold fridge, the spokeswoman said.
Inaccurate information can be found all over the internet. TikTok can exacerbate the problem because its algorithm sends you clip after clip based on the interests you reveal by tapping and watching. But it only knows if a video is factually accurate or not if it has been flagged or otherwise reviewed.
Since the app’s design feels like a series of face-to-face video chats, we have a natural tendency to trust the speaker, said Abbie Richards, an independent misinformation researcher who specializes in TikTok. Lowering your guard can be risky if you are seeking knowledge that comes with higher stakes, such as health and wellness recommendations or current-events coverage, she added.
The percentage of TikTok users who relied on the app for news rose to 29% in 2021, up from 22% in 2020, according to Pew Research Center. As with the other big social networks, misinformation has been a problem on TikTok, say media literacy experts, as videos containing inaccuracies about Covid-19 vaccines, the war in Ukraine and other topics spread.
Users can report videos to TikTok administrators by pressing and holding on the video and tapping Report. From there, a user can flag the video for misinformation or any other Community Guideline violation.
TikTok says it assesses flagged content or videos with sensitive keywords using publicly available information as well as information it receives from its fact-checking partners. TikTok says it keeps content it has deemed unsubstantiated out of the For You feeds—the most popular landing spot on the app—though it still might appear via search. If flagged content proves to be harmful, TikTok says it removes the video from the platform altogether.
It is likely that people, especially those under 30, will continue to expand their use of TikTok as a visual search engine. For anyone who does, here are some key practices to keep in mind.
Remember, it started with funny clips
TikTok is, first and foremost, a site for entertainment.
TikTok’s algorithm notes your completion of a video, bringing more recommendations based on that. What you search—a username, a sound, a hashtag or a video—is another signal to the app that you are interested in something, so more recommendations along those lines will appear automatically in your feed.
It doesn’t behave like Google, which says it ranks search results based on sites most relevant to a query and the likelihood of that information being reliable.
“When you search a key term or question on TikTok, the majority of the results you’re going to get are not from organizations or institutions or professionals in their respective fields,” said Kaylee Fagan, a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Typing “flash flooding” into TikTok’s search field presents a variety of videos: original footage, reposts and clips from the news or YouTube. Google, on the other hand, leads with definitions and primary sources such as Weather.gov.
TikTok doesn’t allow creators to link to webpages in video captions. Unless creators put links to more information in their bios, the information in the video clip itself is all you get. Videos in the feed also don’t show the dates they were added. This can be an issue if information has changed. You can check video dates, however, if you go to the creator’s page.
Cross-check the information—and its source
A key component of TikTok is the more intimate-feeling relationship between the creators and the viewers. Over time, you build up a level of trust with particular creators. While it helps if you follow their content long enough to get a sense of what they know, you should always keep some skepticism.
“You should be willing to accept that they can be wrong,” Ms. Richards said. “You want to look for people who have owned up and taken accountability for when they’ve been wrong in the past.”
Go off platform to learn more about who these people are, the level of their expertise and why their voices are valuable to the conversation. You could look for their education or employment credentials on LinkedIn, for instance, or check the websites of companies or organizations with whom they say they are affiliated.
Meagan Loyst, 25, often uses the app to find restaurants and things to do in New York. It is nice to take recommendations from people who look and feel like her, she said. Besides, quick immersive visuals can convey more than a general Google search.
She recalled searching #glutenfree and #newyorkcity on TikTok to find a restaurant to visit with her mom. It worked: The place she picked was as good in real life as it looked in the video, and Ms. Loyst said her mom visits the restaurant all the time now.
“To be able to go somewhere where she can eat everything and not have to worry about her allergies is amazing,” Ms. Loyst said.
What might seem like an innocent search can actually have risks, especially when one’s health is involved, said Scott Talan, a communications professor at American University. He said it is always good to do that additional research once you have used TikTok to generate some good leads.
“There are various levels of seriousness,” Mr. Talan said. Categories where accuracy really matters—and where TikTok users should be careful about taking action—include healthcare and personal finance, he said. If someone says they only use TikTok to find information, he added, “I’d be a little concerned about what they’re getting.”