FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 8, 2023
CONTACT: Peter Murray, President, [email protected]
Boston, MA – Accelerate Change, a nonprofit media lab, has released the results of a study that reveals TikTok consistently and dramatically suppressed videos related to voting throughout the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.
Accelerate Change’s study concludes that TikTok suppressed over 35 billion views of voting videos by TikTok users in 2022–more than 200 videos suppressed per user in the U.S.
Based on previous studies of the impact of voting messages on social media platforms, Accelerate Change estimates that TikTok may have suppressed over 2 million votes from young people in 2022 by curtailing voting messages from the influencers that they trust.
Youth voter turnout dropped from 31% in 2018 to 27% in 2022 (CIRCLE, Tufts University, 2022)–a total of 2.5M fewer youth voters in 2022.
“TikTok’s suppression of billions of nonpartisan voting videos is the largest anti-democratic intervention by a media platform in U.S. history,” says Peter Murray, President of Accelerate Change.
Mr. Murray noted that, “Often with an algorithm performance experiment like this, you struggle to see a pattern in the data, but in this case the result was dramatic and clear: TikTok is suppressing more than 59 percent of voting video views.”
The study included parallel experiments on YouTube and Instagram that did not detect any algorithmic suppression of voting videos on those platforms.
The study engaged 22 TikTok influencers, who each created two nonpartisan videos, to determine if the platform’s algorithm is suppressing videos that include election information and encouragement to vote.
In one version of the videos, election-related words—such as “voting” and “midterms”—were included verbally, in captions, and in hashtags for the video. In the other nearly identical version of the video, the influencer did not speak, caption, or hashtag the video with election words, instead relying exclusively on hand-written signs to provide the nonpartisan voting message.
All of the influencers posted their paired videos on TikTok, and more than two thirds of the influencers also posted on either Instagram or YouTube as a comparison.
To view examples, reference this influencer video from the experiment, which includes election captions and hashtags vs. this video from the same influencer, which does not; or this video, which has spoken voting-related words and hashtags vs. this video from the same influencer, which does not.)
Videos in which influencers include election words, captions, and hashtags generated just 43 percent of the views that the handmade sign versions received.
The TikTok experiments included nearly 1 million views across 44 influencer videos, and included data from both the November 8, 2022 election and Georgia’s runoff Senate election on December 6, 2022. The result was highly statistically significant (P=0.0027), which is explained further in this summary of the experiment.
In the parallel YouTube and Instagram experiments where the influencers posted the same paired videos on those platforms, the two versions generated very similar average views and showed no signs of suppression. The consistent performances of the paired videos on YouTube and Instagram provides additional evidence that TikTok’s algorithm is driving the gap in voting views between the two versions on TikTok.
TikTok has over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S., most of whom are young Americans. Voting messages on TikTok largely come from influencers, who are trusted sources for younger generations.
Based on a hashtag analysis (explained here), Accelerate Change estimates that TikTok has over 23 billion views of voting-related videos on its platform, and that TikTok suppressed over 35 billion views of voting-related videos in 2022. This means that for each user in the United States, TikTok suppressed hundreds of voting-related video views in 2022.
Previous studies by Facebook and independent researchers have shown that receiving voting messages on social platforms can lead voters to turnout at higher rates. Accelerate Change found that even with conservative assumptions of voting impact (less than one tenth of the impact shown by Facebook’s two large-scale voter turnout studies), TikTok suppressed over 2 million youth votes in 2022.
“TikTok’s suppression of nonpartisan voter turnout videos is unprecedented,” Murray noted. “We were stunned by the scale of voting video suppression—tens of billions of views of voting messages curtailed by TikTok. Based on previous studies of the impact of voting messages on social platforms, we estimate that TikTok may have suppressed over 2 million votes by young people by curtailing voting messages from the influencers they trust.”
Other digital platforms have struggled with misinformation and foreign election interference, but TikTok’s suppression of voting videos is the first proven instance of a major platform actively suppressing nonpartisan voter turnout content at scale.
Other platforms, such as Meta (Facebook and Instagram), YouTube, and Snapchat have launched programs that add vetted voting information to posts about voting and elections. But TikTok’s actions are the first instance of widespread suppression of nonpartisan voting content.
In addition to suppressing nonpartisan voter video content, TikTok has also chosen not to incorporate nonpartisan voter engagement programs that platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have implemented, which encourage users to register to vote, find their polling place, make a voting plan, and share voting messages with friends and family.
Murray says, “TikTok could be a positive force for democracy and voter engagement, but instead they have chosen to intensely suppress nonpartisan voting messages on their platform. Given the scale of their platform, this suppression likely significantly depressed youth voter turnout throughout the country. ”
This evidence of nonpartisan voter turnout video suppression comes amidst rising scrutiny of TikTok for its ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Murray remarked, “Many have been closely watching TikTok’s management of videos about Taiwan and Hong Kong, but it turns out that we need to be watching closer to home: TikTok is running a massive suppression of voter turnout videos in the U.S. election.”
Full Summary of Experiment Design and Results