TikTok’s Struggle with Climate Change Denial: Insights from BBC Investigation

Earlier this year, TikTok pledged to combat climate change denial on its platform. However, a recent BBC investigation has revealed the persistent spread of climate disinformation on TikTok, highlighting the company's challenges in effectively addressing the spiralling issue.

Misinformation spreads:

Despite TikTok’s community guidelines aimed at preventing climate change denial, a video featuring Dan Peña, a self-proclaimed “business success coach,” went viral on the platform. Peña dismisses climate change as a fraud without credible evidence. Multiple users re-uploaded the edited clip, accumulating over nine million views.

TikTok’s enforcement gap:

The BBC identified 365 English videos denying man-made climate change. TikTok, however, only removed around 5% of the reported content that violated their guidelines, allowing false claims to gain significant attention.

Around the world:

Unfortunately, climate change denial is not limited to English-speaking TikTok; the investigation also found similar videos in other languages. And it’s this extensive global reach which poses a great challenge in comprehensively addressing the issue of climate disinformation, and thereby critical efforts to mitigate climate change.

Tik Tok’s content moderation is not a sustainable solution:

Jennie King, head of climate research and response at ISD and CAAD Intelligence Unit Coordinator, said that inconsistent enforcement of rules emboldens bad actors to manipulate the system, and that Tik Tok’s content moderation overlooks the broader issue at hand. TikTok stands as a stark example due to the immense power of its recommendation algorithm. The platform’s low barrier to entry enables the rapid spread of conspiracist or misleading content, leveraging its expansive suite of tools like duet, stitch, and audio features. Consequently, adopting a removal-based approach quickly becomes impractical and often unhelpful.

A more practical approach, Jennie King highlights, would be to designate certain content as ‘For You Feed ineligible’ to prevent amplification while preserving freedom of expression. However, TikTok’s architecture currently makes enforcement almost impossible.

TikTok’s response:

Following the BBC investigation, TikTok permanently removed 65 accounts violating their guidelines on climate change misinformation. Some videos, including those featuring Dan Peña, were also removed. However, copies of the controversial video can still be found on the platform.

Can or should Big Tech decide the right approach?

The BBC investigation really puts this question in the spotlight. There’s no denying that TikTok should work to be a good corporate citizen, but centralising control within Big Tech may conflict with important areas like public discourse and scientific literacy. Addressing this issue requires a combination of platform responsibility and transparency, as well as democratically-informed regulatory measures.