Coronavirus: how misinformation about the outbreak is driving NGOs to TikTok

The platform behind the latest dance crazes gives NGOs a chance to reach an audience of 500 million people

Using TikTok to beat Covid-19 pandemic

Using TikTok to beat Covid-19 pandemic
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Aid organisations and public health bodies are flocking to video platform TikTok in a bid to educate young people about coronavirus and combat misinformation.

As the Coronavirus epidemic continues to spread with just under 350,000 cases worldwide, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned of an “infodemic” involving ”an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

In an attempt to counter this issue, the World Health Organisation and others are using TikTok to inform and educate.

Unicef and the British Red Cross joined the platform last year, but for others it has taken an epidemic and a wave of disinformation to convince them to take the plunge.

Launched in 2016, TikTok evolved from lip-syncing app and has amassed 500 million users worldwide. Just over 40 per cent of those users are aged between 16 and 24, making the app a particularly good place to reach young people with health messages.

“On other social media platforms the majority of our followers are 25-35 years old, so TikTok gives us an opportunity to deliver our message to people younger than that,” said Aleksandra Kuzmanovic, a social media manager at the World Health Organisation, who joined the app in late February.

Authenticity is the key on platforms like TikTok - regular users can spot a video made by an amateur in moments. For some with younger staff members, it comes naturally.

The International Organisation for Migration, who created an account two months ago, has adopted meme formats that TikTok users will be familiar with. In one video, a woman holds up a paper towel with the word ‘stigma’ written on it. On placing the towel in water, another message shows, reading ‘sticking together makes us strong’.

The team’s social media know-how has led to 45 million views in less than three weeks, a figure Social Media Manager Luca Lamorte says is “unprecedented” for IOM.

"We were quite happy," he told The National.

“We are hoping to continue publishing videos against stigma and discrimination to remind our users that migrants should be protected and should have access to healthcare and be tested as well.”

TikTok has been working with those new to the app to give them the inside track on appealing to its young user base.

WHO, the organisation at the forefront of the pandemic, has partnered with TikTok to produce and share information. Less than a month after launching, the page has 750,000 followers and almost 4 million likes. Its most popular video yet, which showed an expert talking about proper mask use, clocked up 41.3m views.

"As Covid-19 is a serious issue, our posts are also more 'serious' than expected to be on TikTok - but working very well," said Ms Kuzmanovic.

"TikTok advised that there is a need for educational content on the platform, and that's what we started doing - providing educational videos from our experts."

For WHO, the immediate need to set up a TikTok account during the emerging health crisis meant merely adjusting their content on other platforms, but recent weeks have seen a more specific approach, including a #SafeHands hygiene challenge, mimicking dance and other challenges users set for each other on the platform daily.

“This is our first step towards 'TikTok style' content and we are preparing more to come in the following weeks,” said Ms Kuzmanovic.

Health authorities are doing well to pay attention to TikTok, said Alexia Youknovsky, CEO of science communications consultancy Agent Majeur.

“With the right ideas, TikTok can provide a novel medium to talk about science in under 15 seconds,” she said. “It is a great way to reach a different audience to traditional media; young people in particular. Videos can be produced on a smartphone at no cost, either as a single sequence shot or by using the app to edit the clip.”

The videos are reaching the intended audience, but could do with some refining, says Thea Paraskevaides, founder of Beaumont Music, who uses the platform for her business and personal life.

“WHO videos always pop up on For You [TikTok's personalised recommendation stream]. Though I don't think the videos are very engaging, they're there if people want to see them.”

More relevant, she said, are the hashtags in use. Any video which mentions #coronavirus #covid19 and #quarantine has a click-through to a page of recommended accounts, Q&A’s and myth-busting information on the virus.

The hashtag #coronavirus has over 21 billion views on TikTok and #Covid-19 around 2 billion.

“It's quite an accessible format and I think flagging each mention or hashtag is a really good way to remind everyone that this is a serious situation we're all facing together,” she added.

Nevertheless, there are some who are using the platform with less-than-positive intentions.

TikTok star Ava Louise was widely criticised after posting a video showing her licking a toilet seat in an aircraft, calling it a ‘corona challenge’. Elsewhere on the platform, racism towards Asian people, stemming from the virus’ origins in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has included videos showing people running away from flights coming in from China and more overt racism.

“As with all social media, anybody can post almost anything they like,” said Ms Youknovsky. “Hence, with regards to scientific content, it is essential that users are vigilant about the source(s) of information and credibility of the account posting the content.“

TikTok said it is trying to deal with misleading or offensive posts by allowing anyone who is watching the video, not just users, to report bad content. Last week, it launched the TikTok Content Advisory Council, led by Dawn Nunziato, a professor at George Washington University Law School and co-director of the Global Internet Freedom Project.

"Our Community Guidelines clearly outline what is not acceptable on our platform and this includes misinformation that could cause harm to people on TikTok or the wider public," a spokesman for the platform told The National.