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Monsters, Vampires, Asteroids: Apocalypse Conspiracy Theories

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In Washington, researchers have identified a concerning trend on TikTok, where users are increasingly sharing outlandish conspiracy theories about the end of the world. From vampires and wendigos to killer asteroids, these theories are gaining traction on the platform, contributing to a broader issue of misinformation. The nonprofit Media Matters has highlighted this phenomenon, pointing out that TikTok users are producing viral videos that make unfounded claims, such as the US government secretly capturing or preserving mythical monsters like King Kong.

The prevalence of conspiracy theory videos underscores the persistent challenge of misinformation on TikTok, a platform that has faced scrutiny over its content moderation practices and potential national security risks. Despite ongoing policy debates about the platform's future in the United States, misinformation has largely been absent from these discussions until now. Many of these conspiracy theory videos feature eerie background music and AI-generated voices, with some even impersonating celebrities like podcaster Joe Rogan.

One viral video, for instance, claims that an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, allegedly leaked by a government official who discovered a classified folder titled "keep secret from the public." While such claims may seem absurd, they garner millions of views and contribute to the dissemination of misinformation. Although TikTok has mechanisms in place to combat harmful content, including prohibiting conspiracy theories from earning money or being recommended, the sheer volume of content makes it challenging to enforce these policies effectively.

TikTok misinformation researcher Abbie Richards has noted that conspiracy theory videos often exhibit tell-tale signs of AI-generated imagery, such as distortions and extra fingers. Despite efforts to address misinformation, TikTok's "Creativity Program," which financially rewards creators for their content, inadvertently incentivizes the production of sensationalist videos. This has led to the proliferation of conspiracy theories fueled by readily available AI tools, including text-to-speech applications.

While TikTok claims to proactively remove 95 percent of harmful misinformation, concerns about the platform's role in spreading conspiracy theories persist. Tutorials on platforms like YouTube instruct users on how to create viral conspiracy theory videos and profit from TikTok's Creativity Program. This financial incentive, coupled with the platform's algorithmic emphasis on engagement, creates an environment conducive to the proliferation of misinformation.

The rise of AI-driven misinformation is particularly concerning in the context of upcoming elections worldwide. The European Union recently pressed platforms like TikTok on the risks posed by AI, including the spread of deepfakes, in the context of elections. In the United States, where TikTok boasts approximately 170 million users, policymakers have proposed banning the app unless its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, divests within six months. However, such a move could alienate young voters and exacerbate tensions between the US and China.

Critics argue that TikTok's alleged ties to the Chinese government, data privacy concerns, and potential national security implications justify regulatory action. A report from the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence suggests that the Chinese government exploits TikTok to advance its agenda and undermine American democracy through disinformation campaigns. Media studies professor Aynne Kokas emphasizes the importance of considering disinformation in debates about TikTok's future, highlighting its potential impact on democratic processes.

However, banning TikTok or granting the government broad authority to suppress misinformation raises constitutional and ethical concerns. Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, warns against giving the government unchecked power to regulate online content, arguing that it would undermine free speech principles. Instead, he advocates for a more nuanced approach that addresses the root causes of misinformation without infringing on individuals' rights.

Ultimately, the proliferation of conspiracy theories on TikTok underscores the need for robust content moderation policies and greater transparency from social media platforms. As policymakers grapple with the complex challenges posed by online misinformation, it is essential to strike a balance between safeguarding public discourse and protecting individual freedoms in the digital age.

March 18, 2024 11:54 a.m. 3441

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