TikTok is being overlooked as a tool for COVID-19 guidance

by | Aug 12, 2020

Research reveals regrettably little health information in coronavirus-tagged videos.

Image credit: Amanda Vicky on Unsplash

The latest new social media platform, TikTok, has soared in popularity since its 2018 debut, with roughly 800 million global monthly users. With such an extensive reach, researchers at William Paterson University and Columbia University were interested in exploring how coronavirus information is being communicated on the platform.

Since traffic on the app is extremely high, the team led by Dr. Corey Basch suggest that is has untapped potential as an educational tool. “For public health officials to combat potential misinformation, they must understand the type of information accessed and explore the potential platforms for disseminating information with widespread reach for the intended audience,” they wrote. “While public health content has been widely studied on platforms like YouTube and Instagram, other platforms emerging in popularity have been under-investigated.”

In their study published in the journal International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, the researchers examined 117 TikTok videos tagged with the hashtag #Coronavirus as it had the greatest number of views (∼68 billion views) compared to other circulating tags, such as #COVID19 (∼20 billion views) at the time of data collection. The data set included the first 100 videos that appeared under this hashtag as well as 17 videos which were created and posted by the World Health Organization (WHO).

What they found through their analysis was that few of the videos posted misinformation about COVID-19, but surprisingly, none of the videos, including those posted by the WHO, discussed death and death rates, viral incubation time, wearing a facemask when caring for the ill, and restricting travel. Additionally, less than 10% of the videos mentioned how the virus is transmitted, symptoms, and prevention.

“The presence of the WHO on TikTok is recent, and despite the popularity of posts to date, the content covered is lacking in terms of conveying comprehensive information on prevention and transmission,” said the team.

“The videos in our sample were viewed more than one billion times collectively demonstrating the widespread reach of this platform. That the content of these videos provided little to no useful information in videos with a Coronavirus hashtag represents a lost opportunity of monumental proportions.”

Instead, what they found was that the most commonly portrayed topics posted by users revolved around anxiety and quarantine, which may stem from the social and mental health challenges users face as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s paramount for public health professionals to tailor messaging in ways that make it most accessible,” says the study’s lead researcher Dr. Corey Basch. “It’s also essential to note that the credibility of TikTok as a source of information is threatened by those whose intentions are to undermine the health and safety of viewers. Identifying the types of barriers to using social media platforms for the benefit of health and safety is a crucial next step,” concludes Basch.

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