By Em Kuntze at smartocto
The interesting thing about TikTok is that it’s deeply reflective of the GenZ audience that make up 60% of its user base. A recent report says that 40% of Gen Z use TikTok and Instagram over Google. This is a generation of people who prize individuality and personalisation, and actively seek out content that reflects that. The appeal of TikTok is the ease with which users can find their tribe and be part of their community – digital or otherwise.
Sure, there are issues with data privacy, or the influence of the Chinese government on the platform. And yes, these micro-communities can spawn questionable issues getting more airtime than they should, but there’s a lot to be learned.
So, Marieke, let’s just dive straight in. How did you start working on TikTok?
Well, I’d been working as a journalist for a couple of years, so I was looking critically at what was going on around me. Social media is one of my special interests as a journalist, as well as a human being. So I spent – and spend – a lot of time on it in general. During the pandemic, especially the first lockdown, I started going on TikTok, because I had a lot of time, and I kind of got hooked on the app.
What was its appeal?
It felt like a new kind of social media that I hadn’t seen before. I just really liked the way I found different things on there that I wouldn’t have found on Instagram, or YouTube or whatever, because the recommendation algorithm is just really, really good. So I would spend hours on there.
But then I started noticing there were some videos that were very dubious, but which had got a lot of views. Some videos were kind of scary: people saying things like if you drink Diet Coke, you’re going to get cancer, or if you eat a certain kind of potato chip it’ll kill you. I knew those things weren’t true, but I saw from the comments that a lot of people were pretty scared by these posts, and there was no kind of fact checking – and certainly not by any Dutch journalists on there. So I thought: I’ll do it. That’s how I started doing my fact checking thing.
Do journalists need to reconsider their relationship with social media and TikTok? As you say, there are a few newsrooms responding to viral trends, but do journalists need to pay more attention in general?
Yeah, I think so. When journalists aren’t on there, they miss what’s happening there, and what people are engaging with – and they definitely don’t see the disinformation.
But it goes the other way too. If they don’t really know the platform or how it works well enough, they won’t be able to critically look at the negative stories about TikTok either. A while back there was a lot of news about dangerous challenges on TikTok. It was interesting to me because it was getting blown up really big in the news, but I’d barely seen anything like that at all. If you’re a parent or a journalist and you’re not active on TikTok, the image you’re getting is that it’s really scary on TikTok. Sure, once in a while something bad happens there, but not to the extent the news was reporting it. Things were getting blown out of proportion by journalists who didn’t really understand the platform. In fact, there’s a lot more stuff that’s going on there that’s much more interesting.
Is that partly to do with the recommendation algorithm on TikTok, though? Is it more likely that vulnerable people are more likely to see that kind of content? Or is it simply that it has been overstated?
Well, the algorithm does play a very important role – and that’s worth knowing more about. When you’re on the app, the algorithm is very good at finding what you think is interesting. So if you’re a journalist, and you like reliable news, you’re probably going to get more of that and less of the disinformation than other people might get, so you might not see it.
Sounds like the ultimate filter bubble?
Well, yes. But it can work to your advantage. What I’ve done is to create another account, separate from my professional one, where I just watch what I like. But on the other account, (and I do this on all social media platforms), I deliberately like and follow and watch everything that I normally wouldn’t. So I kind of knowingly steer the algorithm more towards the conspiracy theories and the disinformation so I can find it. And then, because the algorithm is so good, I don’t even have to search for it anymore. TikTok just gives it to me.
You’re now pretty well known on Dutch TikTok for fact checking. How does that actually work?
As I see it, there are two categories. I have the lighter stuff that probably wouldn’t get fact checked in major news outlets, because it just isn’t ‘newsy’ enough. There was a video I did that got a lot of views about a chocolate bar that was supposed to have worms in it. Even though it was kind of obvious that there probably weren’t worms in the chocolate bars, that rumour had scared a lot of children. I just explained it carefully. The video got 400,000 views, and a lot of kids were happy to know that they could eat the chocolate bars again…
But then I have the more serious topics like conspiracy theories and misinformation. I did a video about the Great Reset, explaining where it originated, and what's really behind that name – because there are a lot of conspiracy theories about it.
Is there ever an issue that you might be stoking the flames of some of these more ‘out there’ theories?
Yeah, so there are a lot of polarising topics out there. I always look at what’s already getting a lot of views on TikTok. I’m not going to fact check something that has 300 views, because I have 100,000 followers and I don’t want to give something dubious more air or attention – it’s better to just leave it alone. But, if something’s getting traction or has already blown up, that’s when I consider fact checking it. And because I’m now known for being the TikTok fact checker, I get tagged in a lot of videos by other people.
How often do you respond to those requests?
I try to respond as often as possible. Sometimes if they’re really obviously fake videos, I’ll just confirm that it’s fake, but not go too deep into it – and that already helps some people, especially teens and younger people. I’ll look into things more carefully when I’m tagged in videos that are also getting a lot of views and attention. Dutch-language content has my priority, because I’m one of the few people doing it.
Can you talk a little about any TikToks you’ve published that you think have been particularly good or successful?
Well, you can measure it in views, but often the things I’m most proud of are the videos helping people who otherwise wouldn’t get that information. They might not get as many views as ones about worms in the chocolate bars, but they are very satisfying to me.
One video I’m really proud of didn’t even get that many views compared with some. It was of these girls who were wearing headscarves – they were Muslim – and they were in the streets handing out roses to people. Somebody had put a caption on it saying they were Gulen supporters, and other TikTok users were getting very angry at these girls in the comments.
I checked into the video and found that they had nothing to do with Gulen, and I said so. When I set the record straight, one of the girls sent me a message.
She thanked me because she didn’t know what to do. She had told the guy whose video it was that what he had posted was false, but he deleted the comment. She had no real way to let people know it was fake, and she was getting a lot of hate from it.
So when I used my platform in that way to fact check it. And it really helped her, which made me really happy. Sometimes success looks different to what we think.
“I think there are multiple reasons to be on TikTok as a journalist, but you don’t have to be making videos yourself.”
– Marieke Kuypers, journalist
So here’s the big question: should journalists be more present on TikTok?
The short answer is yes. I think there are multiple reasons to be on TikTok as a journalist, but you don’t have to be making videos yourself. But being a content creator on there is only one use for it. You need to think about TikTok (or social media in general) as a place where you can reach people, not just as source material, but also as a source of conversation and expertise.
Besides just seeing what’s going on and posting your own stuff, it’s also a way to research. It’s really useful as a tool to connect with sources if you’re a journalist, and you want to find a specific group of people.
It’s much easier to find specific groups of people on TikTok, thanks to the search mechanism and the tagging system. You wouldn’t really know where to look for paediatric nurses or French teachers on Twitter or Instagram, but you can here. It’s so useful to start conversations.
Marieke’s top four tips for winning at TikTok
1. When there’s a time limit, you have to get to the point – fast
“At Pointer, people have noted that I’m able to tell a whole story in a minute. When you have a limit on time, you have to innovate, but you also have to lead with something that grabs people. You only have a couple of seconds otherwise they’ll swipe away. Tell people why the story matters to them. Start with a question or something that makes people realise that it’s interesting to them.”
2. Be more personal
“One of my favourite journalists on TikTok is Sophia Smith Galer, who now works for Vice. She’s so creative with the platform. She told a news story as a sea shanty and it went viral. It was still really informed, and really informative, but it had her personality all over it.”
3. Build trust through transparency
“Another thing Smith Galer does is that she makes videos when the story is not done yet and she’s researching. Apart from being really interesting, seeing the work behind the story helps people understand journalism more and also helps build trust. I think, in general, it’s easier to trust a person than a news organisation. Things like this help.”
4. Use the algorithm to your advantage
As Marieke says, TikTok is designed to give you more or what you want. If you’re using it for news gathering, keep your personal interests out of your feed. Setting up a ‘work’ account is a good idea. It’ll help you find the communities you’d like to talk to much more easily.
This article, authored by Em Kuntze, is a piece from the smartocto blog.