Political groups are exploiting a loophole in TikTok’s advertising policies to promote their interests without a trace, according to new research released Thursday by the Mozilla Foundation.
Although the short-form video app has claimed not to allow political advertising on its platform, organizations have evaded the ban by funneling money to influential users.
The nonprofit group analyzed a slew of political TikToks and identified several from influencers with links to organizations that are not being identified as ads publicly or internally.
Political organizations have been using that apparent lack of oversight to their advantage by paying already popular users to disseminate their ads to unsuspecting users.
“None of that was really being disclosed,” Becca Ricks, a Mozilla researcher, told The Hill. “Nor did it appear that TikTok was doing its own sort of self-monitoring and self assessment of the platform.”
Mozilla’s report uncovered several users with formal ties to conservative organizations Turning Point USA (TPUSA), Prager University and Today is America posting political messages without details about their connections.
TPUSA, the Charlie Kirk-founded group that focuses on high school and college students, appears to have flown multiple content creators to an event in Florida last year where several of them posted videos without making clear whether they were receiving financial compensation.
The report also pulls on two previously public examples of liberal groups exploiting the same loophole.
The BBC reported that the agency Bigtent Creative, which receives some funding from Democratic political organizations, paid influencers to make videos in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. election that did not disclose that funding. TikTok removed those videos after being contacted by the news outlet.
An investigation by Reuters in 2020 found that The 99 Problems, a left-leaning PAC, paid eight users to create content supporting then-presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE (D) that did not include disclaimers like #ad or #sponsored. Mozilla found posts funded by the organization in the lead-up to the general as well.
A spokesperson for TikTok, which requires users to declare if content has been paid for, told The Hill that the platform continues to “invest in people and technology to consistently enforce” its ban on political advertising.
“As we evolve our approach we appreciate feedback from experts, including researchers at the Mozilla Foundation, and we look forward to a continuing dialogue as we work to develop equitable policies and tools that promote transparency, accountability, and creativity,” they added.
Mozilla’s report comes amid rising growing concern about the weaponization of influencer advertising more broadly.
French and German social media figures were recently offered money by a public relations agency to post content suggesting that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was responsible for killing hundreds of people, according to The Guardian.
Laundering reputation through established figures with sizable followings is likely to become a more popular tactic for interest groups trying to covertly spread messaging moving forward.
“We're already seeing political actors and organizations looking to more novel forms of tactics on social media generally,” Brandi Geurkink, Mozilla’s senior advocacy manager, told The Hill.
Mozilla’s report makes three recommendations for TikTok to address its political ad transparency issues, most of which rival social media platforms have already adopted.
First, it says that the platform should add self-disclosure tools to make it easier for creators to share that particular posts are sponsored content at the time of upload. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube all have mechanisms to help users do that.
The report also suggests that TikTok should update its policies and enforcement to proactively address novel forms of political advertising.
“We feel like there should be a shared responsibility between the platform and the content creators,” Geurkink explained.
Finally, Mozilla is pushing for TikTok to create a publicly available record of all ads running on its platform. Facebook, Google and Snapchat all have those kinds of repositories.
That level of transparency is both useful for users who want to know who is funding the content they see and groups trying to track how political narratives are spread.
“There needs to be ways for civil society organizations, journalists, watchdogs of any sort, to also have transparency into how influence is happening on the platform at large to be able to monitor and understand threats,” Geurkink said.
Mozilla is launching a campaign Thursday to put pressure on TikTok to adopt their recommendations, particularly the ad library.
“With upcoming elections around the world, including a major election in Germany this September, TikTok must take immediate action to implement ad transparency and prevent their platform from becoming the next hotspot for disinformation and shady political influence,” the group’s petition reads.