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COMMENT: TikTok is the new front in election misinformation

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - MAY 07: Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. waves to supporters during his last campaign rally before the election on May 07, 2022 in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

By Tim Culpan

He’s the son of a brutal dictator, fudged his own educational credentials, and his family owes up to $3.6 billion in estate taxes, yet he still won a landslide election to become the Philippines’ next president. When Bongbong Marcos gets sworn in Thursday, the 64-year-old might want to add the Chinese short-video service TikTok to his thank-you list.

Six years after Facebook was manipulated to help Donald Trump become America’s 45th president, the US social media giant has ceded ground to a young upstart that’s far more viral, and even harder to track. We may never know just how important TikTok was in getting Ferdinand Marcos Jr (back) to the Malacanang Palace, but we can be sure that it’s headed for a starring role at future elections in the US and beyond.

“The Marcos family has been rehabilitated through this platform that's put a glossy sheen on the past,” Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst tracking disinformation and extremism at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told me recently.

TikTok isn’t the only platform to be used by political actors in the recent election. Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube are also vastly popular in the Philippines and have become conduits for disinformation campaigns and targeted attacks on rivals.

What makes TikTok different is its short-form video feed, where users see content driven by an opaque algorithm instead of the people they follow. Integral to that process is the combination of audio, video, text and graphics that allows people to mix and match fresh content with old posts. Virality comes from latching onto to the parts that are popular — a skateboarding dog, for example — and adding a creator’s own spin such as text or music soundtrack.

In the political realm, such videos can be used to cast doubt on historical events or push misinformation about opponents — with statements often incorrectly quoted or used out of context. These posts may elude content moderators, who struggle to even sort fact from fiction. In one example, anti-corruption comments made by Marcos’s main rival, outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo, were manipulated to show her saying she would, in fact, lead a corrupt administration. And because the videos pass by so quickly, such messaging is both subtle and catchy.

Prior to throwing his hat in the ring, and before becoming elected a senator, Marcos Jr. was best known as the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the Philippines for more than two decades, including almost 10 years under martial law. When his father was deposed, the only son of the president joined him in fleeing to the US. But instead of being seen as a man whose wealth and power were built on the brutality of his nation’s most infamous leader — under whom thousands of people were killed — Bongbong has enjoyed a rewriting of that history that paints the Marcos dictatorship as a golden era for Filipinos and helped him clinch a landslide win with more than 58% of the vote.

TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., faces many of the same struggles in tackling disinformation as its US peers and has enacted policies to try keep it under control. Among those measures are a ban on political advertising and harmful political misinformation, as well as providing links to authoritative sources, and partnerships with external fact-checking organizations.

The company began releasing transparency reports in 2019 “to provide visibility into how we uphold our Community Guidelines and respond to law enforcement requests for information, government requests for content removals, and intellectual property removal requests,” it said in emailed response to Bloomberg Opinion.

TikTok also deploys machine-learning tools to share the burden of content moderation. In addition to removing posts, it can slow down a video’s distribution through TikTok’s powerful For You feed, from which most content is discovered. According to TikTok, “95% of the video we removed for breaching our Community Guidelines were taken down before they were reported to us, 94% were removed within 24 hours and 90% were removed before they had received any views,” the company wrote in the email.

Yet, TikTok’s role in spreading misinformation to shape elections and public opinion isn’t limited to the Philippines.

According to the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, TikTok has already been used in US campaigns, while other research has pointed to its role in Colombian elections and increased pro-war messages in Russia alongside a drop in anti-war content around the time that country invaded Ukraine. Kenya’s general elections in August are set to be the next front. “Rather than learn from the mistakes of more established platforms like Facebook and Twitter, TikTok is following in their footsteps, hosting and spreading political disinformation ahead of a delicate African election,” Odanga Madung, a data journalist and Mozilla Fellow wrote of the platform’s role in Kenya.

There’s a good chance TikTok won’t be able to get its content moderation and platform policies hardened in time to stop its misuse ahead of the Kenyan elections or the US midterms this fall. But there are still two years before the next run for the White House. Given its role in the recent Philippines election, the US should consider itself warned: TikTok is coming.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News. @tculpan

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.