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TikTok is the New Gen Z Search Engine. Are They in Trouble?

A study from Google found that nearly 40% of Gen Z use TikTok as their primary search engine. This shift is part of a larger trend among Gen Z which boils down to trust. Even before TikTok, young people were increasingly going to influencers and celebrities for advice, recommendations, and news, prioritizing visual platforms like YouTube and Instagram. These platforms may provide content that is more digestible, discoverable, and entertaining, but bring dangerous ramifications when it comes to the question of truth.

Transcript

How worried should we be that gen-z is using Tiktok to search for facts?

A study from Google found that nearly 40% of gen-z use Tiktok as their primary search engine, having grown frustrated by the ads that populate the top of Google searches . This shift is part of a larger trend among gen-z which boils down to trust. Even before TikTok, young people were increasingly going to influencers and celebrities for advice, recommendations, and news, prioritizing visual platforms like YouTube and Instagram.

These platforms may provide content that is more digestible, discoverable, and entertaining, but bring dangerous ramifications when it comes to the question of truth. A study from 2022 revealed that 1 in 5 videos automatically suggested by TikTok’s algorithm contain misinformation Despite this, the power and influence of Tiktok is so great that other social media platforms are changing to try and cater more directly to gen-z’s habits. So is the war against misinformation being lost as companies compete for the most eyeballs?

@julesterpak: “We grew up making fun of our parents and grandparents falling for spam emails, but every single day I see young people falling for false narratives that can change their entire world view.” -TikTok

Here’s our take on how gen-z are reshaping the internet and how we can escape false narratives as the way we all digest news radically shifts.

CHAPTER: What Are Gen-Z Searching For?

Older generations use search engines to find answers to questions, looking to sources like Google or Wikipedia to help them reliably traverse the internet’s sea of information. Gen-Z, on the other hand, is looking for other people’s experiences, as a way to help guide their own choices. This is why TikTok has become so successful. Whereas a Google search for an ingredient or a product or a movie might bring up de-personalised listings, TikTok searches for the same things will drive users toward real people.

Wanda Pogue writes: ”The appeal of TikTok is that it’s a non-curated space where users don’t know what to expect, where relevance, as opposed to reach, is king and where search options are more relatable, convenient and experiential.” TikTok recognises that gen-z put more trust in influencers than brands, and so elevate those accounts, instead of the perhaps more high profile names that would rise to the top — or pay to be at the top — of a Google search.

Still, until recently, Gen-z may not have been going to TikTok as the primary place for their hard-hitting news. That changed with the start of the war on Ukraine. The Guardian’s Kari Paul referred to the conflict as the world’s first “TikTok War”, given how influential and reactive the platform has been since the Russian invasion. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy called on TikTokers early on to help combat Russian misinformation and get the truth of the war out into the world.

At the same time, war related misinformation on TikTok itself has been a real problem; researcher Abbie Richards calling the platform “structurally incompatible with the needs of the current moment regarding disinformation,” because of how easily users can remix and recontextualize content, and disseminate it to a large audience.

Tulika Bose: “If the social platforms aren’t doing their job, then who is? Sadly friend, that’s you. It’ll be up to you to debunk viral misinformation before it spreads.” -NowThis News

The highly subjective and impassioned Influential TikTok coverage of events like the the Johnny-Depp-Amber-Heard Trial also illustrate just how merged entertainment, news and opinion can become on this platform.

But despite the problems and risks inherent to this picture, many in power are adopting an attitude of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Not long after the Ukraine war began, the White House briefed thirty of TikTok’s most influential creators on what was going on in the country Knowing that that’s where the most eyeballs would be, they made a concerted effort to put their information in the mouths of people gen-z were already listening to. This was a deliberate attempt to combat misinformation. And this is pragmatic, because facts suggest that this isn’t just a passing trend. In the US, a quarter of adults (nearly half of millennials and Gen Z) say they’re using TikTok for news.

CHAPTER: “Factual” Content Tailor-Made For You

One thing that’s helped drive TikTok as a search engine is the fact that users don’t even have to search. This is arguably its biggest selling-point for gen-z– like with Youtube, its algorithm is always learning and trying to figure out what it is you like, and serves you that content as soon as you open the app.

This tallies with a broader way younger generations have become accustomed to consuming content on streamers like Netflix. Or take Spotify. The dominant streaming app of the moment has taken over largely thanks to its algorithm that allows you to discover new music based on mood, or vibe, or what you’ve already been listening to . And we’ve already seen how Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have all shifted away from their initial models that served you content only from people you’d chosen to follow, toward content that’s algorithmically generated.

The problem with this focus on what users might like is that it invariably leads to echo chambers. TikTok the company has even admitted to this, recently opening up about how users do get placed into filter bubbles

“Tiktok learns your most hidden interests and emotions, and drives you deep into rabbit holes of content that are hard to escape.”- Wall Street Journal

What’s interesting about this statement is that it’s also a tacit admission of just how much data that algorithm, and that company, are collecting from its user base. This question over TikTok’s data practices — plus the fact it’s owned by the Chinese company ByteDance — has led to a lot of concern about its impact on the world. Some US officials have called it a threat to national security, and many older adults have a deep suspicion and fear of TikTok.

Again, though, there’s a key generational difference at play. In 2020, when Donald Trump threatened to ban the app, 59% of gen-z opposed the idea. And overall, there seems to be less concern over data privacy among younger generations.

Uptin: “If you’re born into a time where technology is immersive and part of your everyday life, you probably won’t question data and privacy because you never really knew anything different.”

CHAPTER: The Link Between Authenticity And Truth

An Ernst & Young study from 2021 found that the most important value for gen-z was authenticity, and a belief that everyone should be empowered to be their most authentic selves. Of course, authenticity sounds pretty closely connected to truth, so you’d assume that valuing authenticity would mean you’d be highly concerned about the trustworthiness of information you’re receiving. But also implicit in the value of authenticity is a respect for, and curiosity about, different points of view. On the positive side, while younger generations may be navigating a chaotic sea of sources with varying degrees of factuality, they do show signs of being well equipped to counter some of the problems that come with turning social media channels into search engines.

For example, one of the biggest paradoxes around the idea of echo chambers and filter bubbles is that gen-z seem to be able to navigate around them. Retuters senior research associate Nic Newman revealed that gen-z’s preference for using TikTok to find news doesn’t mean they aren’t supplementing that with other sources, too. So even if they are getting served some echo chambers, they’re seeking out a range of voices and platforms – and that variety hopefully sets them up to think more critically and make up their own minds.


Mk_who: “My research does consist of reading both sides of an argument so I can learn both sides of views and compare the arguments to see which side I agree with most. / If I’m going to hold an opinion, I want to make sure that I can back it up.”- TikTok

Curiosity and critical thinking are the best weapons they have in the fight against misinformation. 76% of gen-z are confident about their ability to detect fake news online. Stanford communications professor Jeff Hancock argues that the generation is more responsive to fact-checking, and Ph.D candidate Angela Lee notes that they are quick to jump in the comments of a post to debunk any suspicious or false information contained therein.

OUTRO

TikTok is still the new kid on the block. The real test will be how TikTok changes as it tries to establish sustainable monetization. It’s already begun to move into e-commerce, and has allowed users to upload videos up to ten minutes long. Will this alienate the generation who’ve helped it take off?
Right now, it’s clear the people gen-z trust the most is each other, and so it makes sense they’ve gravitated toward an app that’s lifted them up and given them a platform. Older generations may have some good reasons for doubts, but gen-z is acutely aware that their power as a generation is growing. They built TikTok into what it is. They could just as easily tear it down if it stops giving them what they want.