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Friday, March 1, 2024

TikTok search suggestions are manufacturing influencer drama

Recently, when the influencer Landon Romano uploaded a video, TikTok inserted a small search bar below his content with the phrase “Landon Romano HIV.” Romano, a gay man with over 2 million followers on the app, does not have HIV, has never had HIV and has never been suspected of having HIV. He was alerted to this phenomenon only after his followers began messaging him about it.

Romano repeatedly attempted to contact TikTok to have the search suggestion removed from his content. Finally, after receiving no response, he posted a public video aimed at TikTok.

“You continue to add insinuations that I have HIV under my videos,” he said in the video. “This is defamatory, and it’s discrimination. I’m a gay male. Do you know the implications behind that?” Romano told The Washington Post that he’s sought legal counsel to bring a defamation suit against TikTok.

Over the past year, TikTok has moved aggressively into search. It has expanded search functionality across the app, adding search suggestions below creator content on individual videos. It also now prompts users with additional search suggestions on its search page and amplifies trending search phrases with an upward arrow sign.

All these changes have been paying off in terms of user engagement. TikTok is now one of the world’s most popular search engines, with more than 40 percent of Americans using it as a search engine, according to a 2024 report by Adobe. Nearly 40 percent of Gen Z users prefer TikTok and Instagram for search over Google, according to Google’s own data. In 2021, TikTok dethroned Google as the world’s most popular domain, according to Cloudflare, a web security firm. “In an age where social media platforms evolve rapidly, TikTok has emerged not just as an entertainment hub but also as a search engine,” Adobe announced in its report.

But problems are beginning to emerge. Dozens of creators have reported that some search suggestions appended to the bottom of their videos are manufacturing controversy, affecting their reputations and harming their businesses and personal relationships. TikTok acknowledged the problem and removed several search suggestions flagged by The Post, but declined to comment on the record.

“There is extreme reputational harm with these incidents of misinformation being placed in [TikTok] search bars,” said Molly McPherson, a crisis communications adviser who also posts on TikTok. “Platforms like TikTok have a responsibility to create guardrails to protect users’ reputations. They should also be alerting the public … to let people know what the function of that search bar is. Just like someone flags inappropriate content or hate speech, there should be a place on the platform where people can flag misinformation in search suggestions.”

Search suggestions aren’t appended to all videos. They’re most likely to appear on videos with high engagement or on large creators’ accounts.

Romano said he was forced to address the rumors that he’d contracted HIV with family members and friends after the suggested searches began appearing on his videos, putting him in a difficult and uncomfortable situation.

“I’ve been a creator for over a decade, and I’ve never, ever seen a platform … literally create a rumor about a creator,” he said. “It’s shocking. Not only is it damaging to me, it’s damaging to an entire community because TikTok is continuing this stereotype that gay people must have HIV.”

Other large, high-profile creators, some of whom are LGBTQ+, have had their names and the words “HIV” or “herpes” placed below their videos as search suggestions. Many creators have had to deal with other terms or phrases implying they are bigoted or problematic, or that their families are breaking apart. Other creators and pop stars such as Bebe Rexha have had hurtful terms attached to their names, such as “weight gain” or “plastic surgery.”

The search suggestions often make their way onto Reddit, where so-called influencer “snark” communities discuss the validity of the suggestions. Those discussions can then be surfaced by Google. Once it begins to gain traction on Google, sites whose traffic comes largely through search will spread the term, trying to take advantage of supposed reader interest.

Creators can add specific words to their comment filters to potentially hide the terms from TikTok search suggestions, but that solution is cumbersome, forcing a creator to add dozens of generic words. Also, some creators aren’t aware of the inflammatory search suggestions until the controversy has already spread across the internet.

Jules Terpak, a creator who makes content about tech and digital culture, said that she began noticing that when people searched her name, TikTok would suggest “Jules Terpak racist” and “Jules Terpak transphobic.” Terpak has never been publicly accused of any form of discrimination or bigotry, and she eventually made a video addressing the issue. But she said she was frustrated that TikTok appeared to manufacture these allegations through search suggestions and worries she’s lost opportunities because of it.

“When people become aware of you, they search for you, and then these are the things next to your name,” she said. “They get a preconceived notion of ‘Oh, this is what her platform must be about.’ ”

Jacob Wallach, a former TikTok employee who helped companies leverage the platform and is now CEO and founder of Social4TheWin, a social media consulting firm, said that negative search suggestions about a creator can have serious business implications.

“It becomes a huge, huge issue, whether it’s true or not,” he said. Brands often have a plethora of creators to choose from when orchestrating campaigns, so having negative search terms tied to your name is like having a “black spot on your résumé,” he said. “It can impact creators’ ability to make money.”

Experts in search who spoke to The Post said that TikTok functions very differently from other search engines. While Google has sophisticated ranking systems in place and extensive restrictions around what search suggestions will appear, TikTok does not appear to have those types of restrictions, they said.

“As a source for people to get content and information, the platform has a responsibility to moderate the search function and ensure that any information that people are getting is factually accurate and obviously not really inflammatory or toxic like this,” said Kaz Mirza, director of search engine optimization at eAccountable, a digital marketing agency.

Mirza said that Google, for instance, would never put controversial allegations about a creator or celebrity into their search suggestions unless a highly authoritative news organization had published an article about it.

TikTok, he said, appears to be “showing very outrageous search suggestions” to boost engagement. Rather than relying on authoritative news sources, its algorithms seem to be optimized for “a series of selection processes that it knows people will be willing to click on,” he said.

By promoting inflammatory search suggestions, he says, TikTok is incentivizing people to make content feeding into them. “When people see those search suggestions, it leads to more content being created based off something that’s not true and not moderated in the first place,” Mirza said. “People absolutely take that and run with it, the drama channels, react channels and stuff like that.”

Recently, a woman named Taylor Paré posted a TikTok detailing a nightmare experience of living with a Victoria’s Secret model whom she accused of being a kleptomaniac and engaging in other harmful behavior.

Paré never named the model in her video, but it amassed more than 8.3 million views. Almost immediately, the allegations Paré had made in her video began to appear as search suggestions below videos from several unaffiliated models on the app, leading users to believe that they’d been identified as the misbehaving model.

Despite the fact that there’s no evidence she’s the woman Paré was speaking about, TikTok has appended the phrase “Taylor Hill kleptomaniac” to videos by Taylor Hill, a former Victoria’s Secret model. Hill responded to one comment, attempting to clarify that she’s not the woman Paré was speaking about, but her comment received only nine likes and was quickly buried.

The same happened to model Devon Windsor. She posted a video, explaining that she wasn’t the model Paré was speaking about and that the two had never met. Still, TikTok suggested the search phrases “Devon Windsor klepto” and “Devon Windsor kleptomaniac.”

Meanwhile, Hill’s and Windsor’s names were attached to the controversy on Reddit snark pages. Search-optimized articles included both of their names in stories implying that they both might be kleptomaniacs.

Coco Mocoe, a trend forecaster in Los Angeles who helps brands and creators understand internet dynamics, said that the TikTok search bar now drives more negative sentiment toward creators than do the comment sections of their videos.

She said that despite the fact that information that appears in TikTok search suggestions is unverified, speculative and often flat-out wrong, users read the search suggestions as facts. “Since the TikTok search bar has been introduced to the platform, it has become this kind of authority,” she said.

Romano said he’s still waiting to hear directly from TikTok about his search suggestion issues, but the experience has already caused significant harm.

“People have said things about me that aren’t true online, of course,” he said. “But the app was the launching pad for this rumor. They are the ones that created this. No one made a video about this, no one commented about this before. Not one of my followers, not an enemy of mine. TikTok created this controversy.”

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