TikTok is Actively Suppressing Voter Turnout Videos, New Study Shows
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 6, 2022
CONTACT: Peter Murray, President, [email protected]
Boston, MA – Accelerate Change, a nonprofit media lab, is releasing the results of an experiment showing that TikTok is consistently and dramatically suppressing nonpartisan voting videos on its platform.
The study engages TikTok influencers to carefully construct paired nonpartisan voting videos: one in which the influencer says voting-related words out loud (and with captions); another with the same voting pitch but in which the influencer instead holds up a handmade sign for words such as “elections,” “voting,” “mid-terms,” of “get out and vote.” For example, this video with the election words and this video with election signs; this video with the election words and this video with election signs; and this video with election words and this video with election signs.
This study has generated over 370,000 views from 20 different paired videos. The videos in which influencers said any election-related words out loud garnered almost 3 times fewer views than the videos in which influencers instead held up signs with those words. This result is statistically significant (P=0.0206). For more, see this summary of the experiment and data on each video.
Peter Murray, President of Accelerate Change, 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 65% of voting video views.”
TikTok has over 100 million monthly active users in the United States, most of whom are young people. Voting messages on TikTok largely come from influencers who are trusted sources for young people.
Based on a hashtag analysis (explained here), Accelerate Change estimates that TikTok has over 25 billion views of voting messages on the platform, and that TikTok’s voter video suppression may cut off over 30 billion views of voting messages in 2022.
Mr. Murray noted that, “TikTok’s suppression of nonpartisan voter turnout videos is unprecedented and an attack on our democracy. We were stunned by the scale of voting video suppression–tens of billions of views of voting messages curtailed by TikTok– which could lead to millions of young people not voting because they aren’t getting 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.
Mr. 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 could significantly depress 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. Mr. 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.”
11/8/2022 Update: Experiment Follow Up
The day after TikTok videos were all posted, we asked the influencers who have significant YouTube and Instagram followers to post the paired videos on YouTube and Instagram.
This cross-posting test further validated that TikTok is suppressing nonpartisan voter engagement content. Instagram and YouTube cross posting tests do not show the same suppression as TikTok in these paired video tests. They also show that there does not appear to be any consistent advantage for hand made sign videos vs. videos with spoken election words. If anything, the spoken word videos may have a slight advantage (which means that our estimate of TikTok suppression may be too low).
We had 4 influencers repost pairs of videos on Instagram (8 videos total) and 2 repost pairs of videos on YouTube (4 videos total). See detailed results and video links.