Dakota Fink didn’t mean to spread a lie. Honestly, she didn’t.
It was May 2021 and the 23-year-old LA-based model was wearing a face mask. “I was thinking I needed to be more involved with TikTok,” she says. So she decided to record a video as a joke: She’d pull off the flesh-coloured face mask on camera, and subtitle it with a claim that women had to peel layers of their skin off after their period.
The video, captioned “How did they not know this wtf ??”, was clearly tongue in cheek. And people loved it: the video has now been liked 4.4 million times, and shared more than 220,000. But not everyone got the joke.
Of those 220,000 people, some began sharing it earnestly, explaining that they’d never realised the extra tribulations that come with a woman’s menstrual cycle. They were, unsurprisingly, mostly men – though some women played along with the joke so convincingly that the video took on a life of its own, and even convinced some women that this was a fate they had avoided through luck alone.
“I was getting a lot of messages on Instagram from grown women saying: ‘This never happens to me, is this something common in your family?’,” Fink says. “That shocked me.”
It’s a demonstration of how earnestly we tend to believe what we see on TikTok. Credulity in shortform video content is a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed on social media: Some users have compared their willingness to believe whatever they see on the app with the same gullibility their parents had for lowest common denominator churnable content on Facebook a generation before. Aside from people spreading mistruths about the effectiveness of COVID vaccines, there are regular scare stories that seem too good to be true, because they are. Take for instance the video where a victim of Hurricane Aida encountered an alligator in her home (not true), or the continued existence of Deepfake Tom Cruise (in reality, an actor using deepfake technology to look more like Cruise, but convincing enough to trick people before he admitted to being an impersonator).
In part, it’s a broader issue that is a drawback of one of the boons of social media – the removal of people telling us what is and isn’t newsworthy. “After the end of traditional media providing a gatekeeper functionality that always came with some sort of journalistic quality check, we as users are all alone in the midst of an endless supply of information in the palm of our hands,” says Marcus Bösch, a TikTok researcher and fellow at HAW-Hamburg in Germany.
And that supply is endless. The endless scroll on TikTok disguises that at least 1.6 million videos a day are posted to the platform in the UK alone, with five million uploaded an hour worldwide. Both of those numbers date from 2020, and as the app has grown, so those numbers are likely to have, too. “We are consuming so much content so fast that comes along in a very personal and intimate way that we constantly have to choose sides,” says Bösch. “And if we decide to listen to a person, there is a quick but momentary foundation of trust.”
Because of TikTok’s shortform content and design, which is fine-tuned to try and get users to consume as much content as possible in a short space of time, some social media experts think we’re no longer thinking carefully about what we’re watching. The incentives for creators to publish honest if earnest content are also lower than publishing outlandish viral catnip.
“The reason why TikTok videos are so easily believed is not solely a result of the platform itself, but is also connected to the evolution of our attention economy,” says Tom Divon, who studies TikTok at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. “On TikTok, this tendency to consume information in bite-sized nuggets is accelerated by the platform's For You page, which is designed as a conduit for virality, and adhering to the truth in one's videos is not always a guarantee for achieving the desired level of exposure.” In essence, the wilder the story, the more likely it is to go stratospheric.
That desire from creators to have the next viral sensation crashes up against how we users want to use the app. We’re increasingly using TikTok as an educational platform. The app itself touts its #LearnonTikTok initiative, while headlines have breathlessly covered how TikTok is replacing Google as Gen Z’s first port of call when they have questions about the world. “TikTok is such a big platform that even though it can be silly, people are constantly learning new things,” says Fink. “I’m constantly learning new stuff every day.”
It's notable that users of these platforms claim they’re sceptical of the content they encounter, even while being tricked by it. A September 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University found that just 20 percent of users in the UK and US said they trusted news they encountered on TikTok, compared to 53 percent (UK) and 49 percent (US) of news they encountered off the platform.
Yet despite saying they’re hyperconscious of being hoodwinked, they continue to gullibly consume information from TikTok and pass it off as legitimate. “That could well be down to the way we have been taught media literacy historically, believes Bösch. “For ages the audience has been trained to believe ‘only what we see with our own eyes’, or ‘pic or it didn't happen’, and most users obviously need to learn that this is not necessarily true given a new era of synthetic media [where one or more parts of a video, image or audio file have been altered or faked].”
There’s also an overwhelming trust in TikTok’s algorithm and design that aids credulity, says Jess Maddox, assistant professor at the University of Alabama, and an internet culture expert. “A lot of misinformation circulates on TikTok, in part because of the app design, and in part because of the culture,” she says. “Users seem to have a heightened level of trust in TikTok because of its scarily accurate For You page and algorithm.”
That’s something Divon agrees with. “The personalisation of content by TikTok's algorithm has a significant impact on the way users perceive the videos they see on the platform,” he says. “Users recognise that the videos they are shown are tailored to their individual preferences and beliefs, which can contribute to a sense of alignment and credibility. Consequently, this can heighten their willingness to accept and share the information they encounter on the platform.”
But Maddox also believes that there’s something in the way that information is presented on TikTok that makes it more credible to users. “Things like capturing video via front facing cameras increases intimacy,” she says. “This is what makes influencers and content creators so successful. It makes the user feel as if they are in a one-on-one conversation with a friend, as opposed to a stranger – and would a friend lie to you?”
The reality is yes, yes they would – especially if it means they could make money from views. So how do we tackle it? Fink, who nearly set off an entire generational rethink of women’s biology through TikTok, has some ideas. “I think the number one thing is you should not believe everything, especially on social media,” she says. “Don’t let the popular platform fool you too much.”
Perspective also helps. “Look at our own lives and ourselves, and think: ‘How much stuff is on social media that may not 100 percent be like real life?’” she says. “We present the funniest versions or the most beautiful versions of ourselves on social media.”