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The TikTok election: why it’s hard to tell who’s ‘winning’

By Trina Garnett, Head of research

May 31, 2024 | 4 min read

Trina Garnett, head of research for social trend-spotting platform Shooglebox, explains why looks can be deceiving when it comes to the UK general election battle on TikTok.

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

In the past 24 hours, there have been many interesting conversations about the growth of the political parties on TikTok, particularly Reform UK. Much of the media commentary has focused on the content the parties are posting and how “big” they are on TikTok relative to each other. However, this is only part of the picture. It’s in the comments where things get even more interesting – and that’s much harder to track and analyze.

Looking at followers alone, Labour and Reform UK and Labour have the biggest followings, with 137,000 and 131,000, respectively, at the time of writing, compared with 40,000 for the Conservatives. But we also know that follower count doesn’t matter on TikTok. If you’re posting great content that people want to share it doesn’t matter if you have 100 followers or 100,000 followers, TikTok’s algorithm will ensure it finds a way into people’s FYP feeds.

Social media users are already familiar with fake profiles and automated bot accounts. We know that people can “buy” followers to make them appear more influential. This isn’t a TikTok issue – fake profiles have been around as long as social media itself. What’s harder to spot are fake profiles interacting with political content posing as real voters.

In this TikTok, Emlyn Pearce asks “Is Reform UK using bots to appear popular?”.

He shows how a TikTok has been overrun by people saying they’re planning to vote for the party but that the accounts behind the comments are fake.

There are ways to spot when comments are fake. For example, their followers might all have similar-sounding names (Elon Musk is a popular one!) or lack a profile picture or their own content. Of course, you can click into each profile to check and form your own judgment, but realistically, will the majority of people bother? Or will they simply get a false view of how “their” community is voting?

It’s a problem that’s going to get worse as the tools for generating fake profiles and comments improve. In fact, there’s no automated way of analyzing comments from TikTok at all via social listening tools (but that’s another story!). Which is why it’s easier for political commentators to talk about follower count and content.

TikTok says it is proactively tackling the issue of fake accounts – and claims it detects and removes millions of fake accounts every month. In TikTok’s own Transparency Center, it outlines the steps it is taking to counter covert influence operations: “We prohibit and constantly work to disrupt attempts to engage in covert influence operations by manipulating our platform and/or harmfully misleading our community.” This includes “attempting to undermine the results of an election, influencing parts of an armed conflict or shaping public discussion of social issues.”

TikTok also admits it’s an ongoing challenge “because the adversarial actors behind them continuously evolve the ways they hide the linkage between their accounts. They also frequently spread their efforts across multiple platforms and may try returning to platforms after they’ve been removed, using lessons from how they were previously detected.”

So will the proliferation of fake profiles influence public opinion? Only polling day itself will reveal what people are thinking – despite the pollsters’ best efforts. Until then, it’s a question of working out who you trust – in politics and on social media.

This story is part of Tik-Talks, The Drum’s special content series developed in partnership with online social media insight and trend-spotting platform Shooglebox. Alongside their TikTok trend-spotting and insights analysis service Buzz, the Shooglebox team will be tracking the way the General Election campaign is playing out on TikTok – or Genny Lec as some on the platform are calling it!

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