TikTok, not Google, is increasingly turned to by Gen Z for information – but can we trust social media to tell us the truth?
- From health advice to dating tips, young people are increasingly choosing TikTok for information, preferring it to Google for its ‘authenticity’ and directness
- But watchdogs have found social media to be awash with misinformation, some of which can be dangerous. So is TikTok for learning, or just for entertainment?
When Ashley Storino wants a new pair of black boots or book recommendations, she knows what gets results – and it isn’t Google.
Rather than scour pages of search results, she opens TikTok, quickly scans video after video and checks the comments to make sure she can trust the content. Only when she knows precisely what she’s looking for does she turn to Google.
“Let’s say I want to find the best mascara. Before, I used to look it up on Google, and those results would feature articles and blogs with ‘top 10’ lists. As someone who has worked in marketing and public relations, I know these lists are often, if not always, influenced by outside parties or brands trying to get products in an article,” Storino says.
“Now I turn to TikTok to get honest reviews from real people. I can look up a brand of mascara or ‘best mascara’ and there are all of these people who have done reviews and can speak about the product. It’s much more relatable, and you know who’s telling you the information. And then you can go into the comments section and see if the same information is reinforced.”
A growing number of young people are using the short-form video app better known for dance moves and viral high jinks the way others use Google – to find a new lunch spot or a film to watch, or to plan a weekend getaway or update their wardrobe.
“Consumers are switching to social media, specifically TikTok, because it feels more authentic,” says Jenna Drenten, associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago in the US. “Google feels incredibly overwhelming in today’s internet economy. It’s just inundated with content.”
A Google-commissioned study of US users aged between 18 to 24 found that nearly 40 per cent use TikTok or Instagram to search online.
“We keep learning, over and over again, that new internet users don’t have the expectations and the mindset that we have become accustomed to,” Prabhakar Raghavan, who runs Google’s knowledge and information organisation, said at business magazine Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in July.
Google, under heavy antitrust scrutiny in the US and Europe, has an incentive to point out rising competition.
“You know, none of us were talking about TikTok three years ago,” Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said at Vox Media’s Code conference earlier this month.
Google has more than 90 per cent market share and isn’t likely to get toppled. Whereas TikTok can be an inspirational place to find a Halloween costume or ideas for your autumn wardrobe, Google is the fastest way to look up a news article or get directions to the post office.
Google spokesperson Mallory De Leon says the company’s research “did not find that they are using TikTok instead of Google, but often in addition to [it].”
These changing habits among teens and young adults signal a generational sea change, says Natalie Pennington, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the US.
With many videos less than a minute long, “I can consume that information and move on quickly. There’s a very visual component to it,” says Pennington.
She turned to TikTok when searching for a travel bag that would comply with US low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines’ personal item dimensions.
“It was fantastic. [I could] see [the bag], and could see people loading the bag, as opposed to a Google search, where someone would be like: ‘This is the best bag’.”
Social media apps like TikTok and Instagram also give users the ability to interact with content creators with comments, questions and likes.
“It’s a pretty social process, from which people can gain a lot of gratification,” says Yini Zhang, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo’s Department of Communication in the US.
Karishma Jashani relies on the internet for all sorts of questions: where should she go for date night? How will a certain make-up brand pair with her skin tone? What’s a good salad recipe?
But instead of typing her queries into a traditional search engine, Jashani turns to social media. The 26-year-old, Singapore-based content creator says she goes to Google for less than 30 per cent of her searches now, reserving it for “serious” matters like maps and news.
For most other things, she opens TikTok.
“It’s so much more effective. It’s just faster to get information rather than navigating through multiple sources.”
Unlike Google, TikTok has a feeling of immediacy. “It’s so bite-sized. With Google, it’s more static where you just have to scroll through a bunch of text,” Jashani says.
Zhang notes that apps like TikTok and Instagram have an advantage by sourcing from dozens of users – “average people from all corners of society” – instead of a few large websites or media outlets.
While that can help broadcast more diverse voices, it can also lead to lower quality results. Zhang warns that social media can be a hotbed of misinformation and disinformation.
TikTok increasingly markets itself as a place for people to learn, and last month began testing a new feature that highlights key words in the comment section to take users to search results for the term. Earlier this year it launched an ad campaign, #TikTokTaughtMe, with the slogan “there is no limit to the knowledge that can be discovered on TikTok.”
Yet users – mostly teens and young adults – routinely encounter false or misleading claims when they search for information on TikTok, according to a study by media watchdog Newsguard.
Almost 20 per cent of searches sampled on news topics such as Covid-19 vaccines and the Russian invasion of Ukraine contained misinformation, the study found.
“TikTok – whose library of user-generated videos can be easily searched by typing in keywords in its search bar – repeatedly delivered videos containing false claims in the first 20 results, often within the first five. Google, by comparison, provided higher-quality and less-polarising results, with far less misinformation,” the Newsguard report said.
Viral TikToks can be dangerous. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers that a hack to keep avocados fresh longer by putting them in an airtight container filled with water inside the refrigerator could make people seriously ill.
“I do see a lot of downsides related to this trend, particularly with TikTok, which is such an algorithmically driven platform. It’s difficult for people to spot misinformation and disinformation,” says Zhang.
While many internet users have been trained on how to spot trusted sources on Google – websites with a .edu or .gov tag, for example – the same rules don’t apply to social media.
“I think [TikTok is] more entertaining than informative,” Zhang says.