How To Spot Misinformation & Scams On TikTok

How To Spot Misinformation & Scams On TikTok

TikTok’s algorithm continues to be a hot topic, as regulators across the world continue to argue about the platform’s potential as a tool for spreading misinformation.

As we enter a new age of social media, many businesses and news outlets have been shifting strategies to capture a wider audience, for better or for worse. Just recently, the Liberal Party of Australia has been receiving criticism for using video games like Lethal Company and Fortnite to appeal to younger audiences in political campaigns.

A study released by the Poynter Institute’s digital media literacy initiative MediaWise and Google found that Gen Z used the internet differently from previous generations and engaged in more lateral readings of information.

While Gen Z might be more savvy online, it is alarmingly becoming the fastest-growing victims of scams, as a study by the National Cybersecurity Alliance revealed. The study found that younger generations had more confidence in the knowledge their cybersecurity knowledge and that they had more access to training, yet often foregoed it.

Netflix’s recent film Leave The World Behind, starring Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali, explores how different classes of Americans respond to a global catastrophe, and what conclusions they may draw. After a sudden blackout blocks everyone’s access to the internet, everyone is left relying on their own pre-conceived biases to interact with others and figure out how to survive. Throughout the film, characters will refer to common survival myths and misinformation shared. The film asks, “If society were to collapse today, with all the information that we have had access to, would we be able to survive?”

So, with TikTok putting scams and misinformation front and centre, we asked Angel Zhong, an associate professor at RMIT about the types of scams appearing on TikTok and how we can better identify them. It’s worth checking in with our own pre-conceived biases and to make sure that we’re frequently updating ourselves on new and verified information as it comes out.

Gizmodo Australia: Hi Angel, what are the types of scams often seen on TikTok? How are scammers affecting users on TikTok?

Angel Zhong: Scammers use a variety of different tricks and schemes to lure people to hand over personal information. For example, scammers will use fake accounts, pretending to be famous people, influencers, or verified users. They use these accounts to fool fans into sending money, personal information, or following harmful links. You should always check the profile of the user you are talking to and look for the blue verification badge to avoid this scam. [Writer’s Note: This isn’t always foolproof, as many on X have shown it’s easy to impersonate a famous person with a paid for blue verification badge].

Another trick scammers use, is that they’ll tempt users with offers of easy money, such as doing surveys, downloading apps, or joining investment schemes. They ask users to pay a fee, provide their bank details, or click on a link that leads to malware or phishing sites. You should never trust offers that sound too good to be true and always do your research before giving out any money or information to avoid this scam.

Scammers will often offer free gifts, prizes, or products to users who follow, like, comment, or share their posts. They may also ask users to enter their personal or financial information, or to pay a shipping or handling fee. You should always verify the legitimacy of the giveaway and the sponsor. You should also never give out any information or money to claim a prize that you did not enter or win to avoid this scam.

Finally, a classic scheme scammers still use today is sending messages or comments to users with links that look like official TikTok pages, such as login, verification, or support pages. They try to trick users into entering their username, password, email, phone number, or other sensitive information. You should never click on links from unknown or suspicious sources and always check the URL of the site you are visiting to avoid this scam.

GizmodoAU: How can someone identify something as a scam? What can we do independently to be more media literate and critical of what we engage with to recognise scams?

Should something trigger skepticism or appear excessively promising, trust your instincts. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, steering clear of transactions that raise suspicion.

If something is too good to be true, it likely is. If someone is offering grand promises of high returns or benefits with minimal risk abound, it should be setting off some alarms.

Crafty scammers will often deploy high-pressure tactics to instill a sense of urgency, insisting swift action is imperative to seize an opportunity or avert dire consequences.

You should also approach investment opportunities with skepticism if they pledge foolproof returns or involve intricate, secretive strategies. Thorough research and consultation with financial experts are advisable.

And as always, validate the authenticity of provided contact details from the sender. Directly cross-reference official contact information for the company, ensuring the legitimacy of the communication.

GizmodoAU: Is Gen Z more likely to engage with and fall victim to scams?

There is evidence that Gen Z are highly exposed to scams. Gen Z is also more risk-tolerant, curious and open to new and unconventional ideas, which can expose them to deceptive practices. We’ve also seen that Gen Z is more active on social media platforms, where scammers often impersonate online stores, events, celebrities or organisations to lure them into giving up their personal or financial information. More recently, we’ve seen Gen Z take a more invested interest in emerging technologies, such as cryptocurrency, which are still unregulated and prone to fraud.

GizmodoAU: There was a trend last year of exposing bogus products on TikTok, be they cheap purchases from Amazon or food hacks. Why did these original videos get recommended to so many people?

Because the videos appeal to our sense of curiosity and emotion: these kinds of videos can trigger curiosity and emotion in us, such as surprise, shock, anger, or amusement. These videos can also make us feel smarter or more informed than others who fall for the scams or believe the hacks. These factors can increase the engagement and retention rate of the videos, which are important signals for the TikTok algorithm.

TikTok is built on the use of popular trends and hashtags. Videos often leverage popular trends and hashtags on TikTok, such as #amazonfinds, #tiktokmademebuyit, or #lifehacks. These trends and hashtags can help the videos reach a wider and more relevant audience, and also increase the chances of getting featured on the For You page. The TikTok algorithm considers the video information, such as captions, hashtags, and sounds, to rank the content and match it with user interests.

They also create a sense of community and conversation. When we see a video exposing bogus products or hacks can create a sense of community and conversation among viewers, who may share their own experiences, opinions, or reactions. These videos can also spark debates, controversies, or challenges, which can generate more comments and shares. The TikTok algorithm considers the user interactions, such as likes, comments, shares, and follows, to rank the content and recommend it to similar users.

GizmodoAU: With AI coming into the fold, will scams become more common?

It is very likely, given wide applications of AI. For instance, scammers can use AI to replicate someone’s voice and use it to trick their targets into giving up money or information. Scammers can use AI to craft personalized and persuasive emails or text messages that look like they are from legitimate sources, such as banks, online stores, or social media platforms.

They can also use AI to generate fake websites or links that lead to malware or phishing sites. They can also use AI to create fake images or videos that show the supposed rewards or winners.

Watch Leave the World Behind, now streaming only on Netflix.

Image Credit: 5./15 WEST / IStock

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