TikTok Sounds Are Spreading COVID-19 Misinformation, Report Shows

The trend of repurposing sounds from other videos has helped perpetuate anti-vaccine theories on the app long after the original posts were taken down.

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A popular feature on TikTok that allows users to take another video’s audio and use it for their own content is being used to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, a recent report shows.

The Institute for Strategic Design analyzed 124 videos on the popular app using audio containing misleading vaccine information. The report, which was published on Monday, found that those 124 videos collectively had more than 20 million views, nearly 1.7 million likes, and more than 339,000 shares.

TikTok sounds, which can be music, clips from movies or TV shows, or audio originally created by another user, have helped fuel viral videos on the app since users often repurpose popular sounds over their own videos.

In one example cited by the ISD, a TikTok user posted a since-deleted video in December 2020 speculating about the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The report called his video “overly simplistic and misleading.”

“You’re telling me in 40 years there has been no vaccine for HIV… no vaccine for cancer, no vaccine for the common cold. Yet in one year we’ve developed a vaccine for COVID-19 and you want me to take that… thanks, but no thanks,” the user said in the video.

Even though the video itself no longer exists on the app, the audio from the post continues to reverberate on the app through TikTok’s sounds. The audio has been used in more than 4,500 videos, according to ISD. The top 25 videos using this sound have amassed more than 16.7 million views, and only one of those 25 videos has a flag attached to it directing users to TikTok’s COVID-19 information hub. The report states that many people who share the audio agree with the musings in the original post, and that the users who post comments share similar anti-vaccine sentiments. ISD also noted that many of the videos that incorporated this particular sound featured users who appear to work in the medical field.

“This serves to potentially add credibility to the anti-vaccination sentiments expressed by way of their professional background,” the report continues.

According to TikTok, the company said it quickly removes any videos that contain misinformation related to COVID-19 or the vaccine, but did not comment specifically about the sounds.

“The vast majority of misleading videos about the coronavirus are removed within 24 hours of upload,” the company wrote.

Last week, the video-sharing app said it plans to begin using a technology that automatically deletes videos that violate TikTok policies. The deleted posts will then be reviewed by the company’s Safety team. TikTok said the new approach is meant to combat “bullying and harassment, misinformation, and hateful behavior.”

Despite TikTok’s changes, the ISD study shows that damage related to vaccine misinformation may have already been done. The report found two other instances of widely-shared sounds that have gained millions of views and likes in other videos, including one video featuring a woman who said she developed Bell’s palsy after getting vaccinated. Another video warned the Black community not to get vaccinated, a post which could have severe consequences given that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color.

The three approved COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be overwhelmingly effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and severe illness or death resulting from the virus. Yet vaccine hesitancy still persists nationwide: a little more than 50% of the U.S. population remains unvaccinated.

So far, more than 159 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the report did not specify the geographic origins of the videos, TikTok is estimated to have over 1 billion users across the 150 countries where it’s available, with U.S.-based users alone being responsible for 200 million downloads of the app.

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