AI fakes, abuse and misinformation pushed to young voters on TikTok

AI fakes, abuse and misinformation pushed to young voters on TikTok

1 hour agoMarianna Spring,Disinformation reporter and social media correspondentBBCMisinformation about Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak is among the content promoted to young voters’ TikTok feeds

Young voters in key election battlegrounds are being recommended fake AI-generated videos featuring party leaders, misinformation, and clips littered with abusive comments, the BBC has found.

With TikTok emerging as a new social media battleground in this election, the political parties have begun a war of memes on the app in a bid to reach its audience of young voters.

But a BBC project to investigate the content promoted by social media algorithms has found – alongside funny montages – young people on TikTok are being exposed to misleading and divisive content. It is being shared by everyone from students and political activists to comedians and anonymous bot-like accounts.

Videos which have racked up hundreds of thousands of views have promoted unfounded rumours that a major scandal prompted Rishi Sunak to call an early election and the baseless claim that Sir Keir Starmer was responsible for the failure to prosecute serial paedophile Jimmy Savile.

Satirical, fake AI-generated clips show Rishi Sunak declaring, “Please don’t vote us out, we would be proper gutted!” and making unevidenced claims about how the Conservative leader is spending public money – including how he will send his “mates loads of dosh”.

Watch: Marianna Spring explains the Undercover Voters project in 60 seconds

Other AI-generated videos share misleading claims about his national service pledge for 18-year-olds, suggesting young people would be sent to current war zones in Ukraine and Gaza.

Some of these are described as satire or parody in captions, but the comments suggest some users are confused about which claims are factual.

TikTok told the BBC it had increased its investment in countering misinformation for the UK general election, including adding a fact-checking expert to existing resources and employing AI-labelling technology.

The videos were spotted as part of the BBC’s Undercover Voters project, which has created profiles for 24 fictional people on all the major social media sites, based on data and analysis by the National Centre for Social Research (Natcen).

In a satirical deepfake, Rishi Sunak appeared to say he would be “proper gutted” if he lost – but some users were confused about whether it was real

The fictional profiles represent a range of voters in battleground constituencies across the UK, giving an insight into what content is promoted to different types of people. The profiles are private, with no friends. They just like, follow and watch content relevant to their character traits informed by the Natcen research.

I examined the feeds of the profiles of three of these fictional voters in the former “red wall” constituency of Bishop Auckland, a target for Labour which is currently held by the Conservatives – and where our Undercover Voters are younger.

Their social media feeds revealed that, while other sites have also experienced a flurry of political content, TikTok had the most lively conversation, particularly among younger voters.

TikTok has boomed since the last election. According to media regulator Ofcom, it was the fastest-growing source of news in the UK for the second year in a row in 2023 – used by 10% of adults in this way. One in 10 teenagers say it is their most important news source.

TikTok is engaging a new generation in the democratic process. Whether you use the social media app or not, what is unfolding on its site could shape narratives about the election and its candidates – including in ways that may be unfounded.

Content promoted to Undercover Voter character Jack, a disaffected 31-year-old, include TikToks misrepresenting remarks made by Labour politicians in speech bubbles. These include comments about immigration, transgender rights, Brexit – and false claims that the shadow international development secretary called to “abolish the Army”.

A video made reference to the unfounded story that Sir Keir Starmer was involved in the decision not to prosecute serial paedophile Jimmy Savile

Several other videos repeated the unfounded allegations about Sir Keir and Jimmy Savile.

Other videos Jack was served on his feed included clips with threats in the comments about “euthanizing” Rishi Sunak and racist remarks about him.

Messages such as “vote Reform UK” were shared repeatedly in the comments of many videos, much more than those I saw in support of any other party. TikTok users have begun to notice the comments, with many calling the posters “Reform bots”, suggesting they could be fake, automated accounts.

I contacted some of the commenters who had photos and names on their profiles, and they told me they were real people based in the UK with no official affiliation to Reform UK and with no encouragement or instruction from the party. But others were anonymous with no profile image and numerical usernames – common hallmarks of fake accounts – and they did not respond to my messages.

Repeated comments supporting Reform UK have prompted the nickname “Reform bots”

Whether they are real people or not, their comments can create the impression that their preferred party has greater support.

Another Undercover Voter character based in Bishop Auckland, 25-year-old Chloe, was created to have no prior interest in politics. But about one in 10 posts on her TikTok feed was a political meme or funny video, including official content coming from the Labour Party, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Reform UK.

These include Rishi Sunak’s first TikTok on the Conservatives’ new account about national service, clarifying that he is not forcing all 18-year-olds to join the army.

They also include a video of Cilla Black singing Surprise Surprise from the official Labour profile – with a caption saying “POV: Rishi Sunak turning up on your 18th birthday to send you to war”.

One post claimed without evidence that the election had been called because a scandal about Rishi Sunak was “about to erupt”

A third Undercover Voter named Louise – in her 50s and politically undecided – was pushed more TikToks targeting political leaders with abusive comments, as well as satirical montages and parody videos about policy announcements such as national service.

I tracked down some of the people behind the videos and posts shown to our Undercover Voters.

One 16-year-old from the south of England, who made a satirical edit of that first Rishi Sunak TikTok about national service, said she was surprised how quickly her content took off.

“I didn’t specifically create this account for the election and the reason I made the TikTok initially was just for a joke – I didn’t expect to get over 400k bloody views,” she said, adding that she is not affiliated with any party and has not received any money for creating the TikTok.

“Social media really is the only platform for young people to have a voice nowadays in my opinion.”

She said she knows satirical content can be “controversial” and she understands how her video “could mislead people” but would hope people could tell it was supposed to be a bit of fun.

Alongside the video, some users had posted threatening comments towards Mr Sunak, but the 16-year-old said she did not think anyone would actually want to harm a politician.

There are 24 Undercover Voters in eight consituencies across the UK. For this story, we looked at three in Bishop Auckland

Dozens of other users I messaged who are creating this content are also in their late teens or early 20s, and want to get involved in creating political videos to engage other people their age in the election.

They all tell me that while they may support a political party, they have not been paid for their posts and are not officially affiliated with any of the campaigns.

One politics student tells me they “don’t worry about misleading people because the parties mislead others with their opinions about other parties”.

Another person based in Coventry, who shares his videos about Reform UK, tells me he hopes to “boost their popularity in an unofficial way” and says he set up his account back in February. He say he is a member of the party and has not received any money for making his TikToks.

He is concerned that satirical content – including his own – might unintentionally mislead people on TikTok. His account was restricted by TikTok for posting spam.

A spokesperson for TikTok told the BBC that it had increased its investment “in efforts to ensure reliable information can be found on TikTok”, launching a “UK Election Centre with a fact-checking expert” and adopting an “industry-leading AI labelling technology”.

It also said it was introducing “more policies to aggressively counter foreign election interference” and that it removed 97% of videos with misinformation about elections and civic issues before anyone had viewed them.

You can find out more about the Undercover Voters project on Sunday’s episode of Newscast here

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