Since becoming available for worldwide download in August of 2018, TikTok has not only made headlines all around the globe, but it has also become a catalyst for fake news and conspiracy theories.

An app for making and sharing short videos, TikTok encourages interactivity among its users. Not only can they create response videos, but they can create duets where users duplicate videos and film themselves side-by-side with the original. The app makes videos of users lip-syncing and dancing into viral sensations. 

TikTok, along with other social media sites, is not immune to becoming a hotbed of fake news. Beyond being under heavy scrutiny for its ties with the Chinese government, talks about election misinformation and the reemergence of the #PizzaGate conspiracy theory caused the app to come under fire—no surprise considering its almost unique appeal to young people. Why these conspiracy theories have taken root is not a simple question to answer.

Although advertisements on TikTok cannot be political and no 2020 presidential candidate attempted to campaign on TikTok, that’s a moot point considering what content creators are putting out. It’s a free-for-all, and that means anything from music to political hot takes and reactions to breaking news of all forms. There’s no need for sponsored advertisements when your supporters can publish their views so easily. While TikTok’s algorithm is hidden in the shadows, what is known is that videos get popular thanks to both user engagement and being news—in fact once a video is uploaded, TikTok shows it to users in their feed (the “For You” page, a curated mix of videos from creators a user follows and new videos recommended by the algorithm), so they won’t get bored.

Thanks to neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez Psy.D., we know that, “When you scroll and hit upon something that makes you laugh, your brain receives a hit of dopamine.” This means  that each time you see a new video, you feel good. Because videos on TikTok are so short, one can go through a large amount of videos in a short time just for that dopamine hit. As a result, users need more videos and so the news becomes shorter, with the only side effect being that key bits of information get lost, somewhat like a game of telephone.

This is where conspiracies come in, specifically QAnon (a debunked far-right conspiracy group occasionally referred to as a “cult”). In 2017, the conspiracy focused on Hilary Clinton, claiming that she had struck a deal with several counties in case of “a cross border run.” The fact that this was an outright lie didn’t slow the conspiracy down; instead it evolved, widening its focus onto #PizzaGate, the censorship of Alex Jones, COVID-19, and Joe Biden. This ever-changing narrative made it akin to many sitcoms, with plotlines changing on the fly. It became pure entertainment and easy to understand with its good-vs-evil narrative—perfect for short videos on social media platforms, including TikTok.

Following the attack on the US Capitol, a host of media sharing apps including TikTok took steps to combat the widespread fake and misleading news on their platform. In a statement, TikTok was careful to note that they eliminate videos that contain “disinformation” about COVID-19, but following the attack, it expanded this disinformation screening into topics relating to QAnon.

The strength of these restrictions is up for debate. While creators and consumers both are notified that certain videos are flagged as “Unverified Content,” sharing said videos is still as easy as a few clicks. The addition of an informational message reminding users that the content is marked “Not verified” can be simply barreling through by clicking “Share anyway.”

It seems that, regardless of how much fake news and conspiracy theories take root, TikTok is here to stay. When the 24-hour televised news cycle entered the mainstream, the morning news seemed like a relic. Now, with news being a click away on your cell phone, who needs to be told what’s happening when you can read about it in real time? However, the widespread effects of breaking stories becoming as familiar as videos of your friends can only be fully understood in time – and by then it might be too late.


Bouygues, Helen Lee. “The TikTok Of The Fake News Clock: Thinking Our Way Out Of The Fake News Crisis.Forbes, 9 February 2021.

Gonzalez, Oscar. “QAnon FAQ: It’s been a year since Q’s last drop, but people still believe.CNET, 22 November 2021.

Herrman, John. “How TikTok Is Rewriting the World.The New York Times, 10 March 2019.

Keselj, Maria. “The Future is TikTok.Harvard Political Review, 7 October 2020.a

LaFrance, Adrienne. “The Prophecies of Q: American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.The Atlantic, June 2020 edition, 14 May 2020 (online). 

Martin, Nicole. “How Social Media Has Changed How We Consume News.” Forbes, 30 November 2018.

Mlot, Stephanie. “TikTok Bans Deepfakes, Expands Fact-Checking to Fight Election Misinformation.” Entrepreneur, 6 August 2020.

Stone, Tyler. “TikTok is having a major impact on today’s world.” Mountaineer, Stroudsburg High School, 13 March 2020. 

Sweney, Mark. “Is Facebook for Old People? Over-55s flock in as the young leave.The Guardian, 12 February 2018.

Thorpe, J.R. “Why You Shouldn’t Worry About TikTok Destroying Your Attention Span.Bustle, 10 February 2021.

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

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