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TikTok is not news-friendly

October 24, 2023 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN

As audiences increasingly turn to social media platforms for news and information, the strategic priorities of these platforms play a critical role in news exposure. New research, Algorithmic indifference: The dearth of news recommendations on TikTok, delves into the role of algorithmic recommendation systems in news consumption in the U.S. The findings reveal minimal instances of TikTok proactively exposing users to news content. Furthermore, while TikTok’s algorithms respond somewhat to signals of news interest, the response does not significantly increase exposure to credible news content.

User interest and algorithmic recommendations

The dynamic interplay between user feedback and algorithm-driven recommendations shapes the social media platform experience. However, this cycle is insufficient on many platforms regarding news consumption. A platform must also maintain a repository of trustworthy journalism. Achieving this necessitates news providers sharing their coverage on the platform. On many platforms, this can be as straightforward as sharing a hyperlink. Yet, it represents a more substantial commitment to a multimedia-oriented and entertainment-focused platform like TikTok.

Further, TikTok lacks explicit distinctions and prioritization of news content. News exposure on TikTok is rooted in the interplay between user intents, platform responsiveness, and the availability of news content. Researchers Nick Hagar and Nicholas Diakopoulos explore how users interact with news producers and news-related topics on TikTok.

To assess TikTok’s algorithmic behavior, the researchers adopted a multifaceted approach. First, they examined recommended accounts, starting with four prominent U.S. news organizations’ TikTok accounts. They collected a dataset of 10,000 recommended accounts by scaping multiple layers of suggested accounts to follow. They also simulated the personalized “For You Page” experience on TikTok using 60 programmed bots designed to detect and decide whether to watch or skip videos based on their overlap with the day’s New York Times headlines. These bots had varying levels of news interest and collectively viewed over 6,500 videos. Additionally, the researchers gathered daily trending hashtags for a week and analyzed metrics for more than 100 U.S. news accounts.

Limited user interest in news

The findings reveal a considerable lack of user interest in news coverage on TikTok. However, whether or not this disinterest in news stems from users or the platform’s limited efforts to promote news is unclear. TikTok’s “For You Page” algorithm rarely presents news content, even with user engagement signals (18% of recommendations and 6% of traffic).

Two possibilities arise from these results. Firstly, there may not be enough active news producers on TikTok to saturate account recommendations. Secondly, the recommendation algorithm might struggle to recognize news producers as a distinct cluster of accounts, hindering its ability to suggest them effectively. Among the appearing news accounts, PBS News is the most frequent, representing diverse news producers, including TikTok accounts from newspapers like @latimes, individual journalists like @itsrachelscott, and news commentators like @briantylercohen.

Identifying challenges

TikTok’s rise as a dominant social media platform has introduced unique challenges for news consumption. The research’s examination of algorithmic news exposure on TikTok reveals a significant lack of proactive news distribution on the platform. Users are primarily exposed to entertainment content, trending news topics tend to lean towards entertainment, and news producers receive limited engagement.

To ensure broader access to journalism on TikTok, explicit platform interventions, such as labeling credible news outlets, elevating relevant news coverage, or giving journalism prominent placement, may be necessary. Balancing user preferences and facilitating incidental news exposure is challenging, but it is essential for fostering a well-informed and engaged citizenry in the digital age.

TikTok’s algorithmic indifference towards news content and limited user interest pose challenges for news consumption on the platform. Explicit interventions on the platform are needed to promote credible journalism and ensure a well-informed citizen.

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