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Researchers find loophole in TikTok’s political advertising ban

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Political groups are exploiting a loophole in TikTok’s advertising guidelines to promote their interests without a trace, according to a new study by the Mozilla Foundation on Thursday.

Although the short video app has claimed not to allow political advertising on its platform, organizations have circumvented the ban by channeling money to influential users.

The nonprofit group analyzed a number of political TikToks and identified several of influencers with ties to organizations that are neither publicly nor internally identified as advertisements.

Political organizations have taken advantage of this apparent lack of oversight by paying already popular users to distribute their ads to unsuspecting users.

“None of this was really revealed,” Becca Ricks, a Mozilla researcher, told The Hill. “Nor did it appear that TikTok was doing its own kind of self-monitoring and self-assessment of the platform.”

Mozilla’s report uncovered several users who have formal links with conservative organizations Turning Point USA (TPUSA), Prague University, and Today is America, which post political messages with no details on their connections.

TPUSA, the group founded by Charlie Kirk that focuses on high school and college students, appears to have flown several content creators to Florida last year for an event where several of them posted videos without clearing see if they received financial compensation.

The report also refers to two previously public examples of liberal groups exploiting the same loophole.

The BBC reported that Bigtent Creative agency, which receives part of the funding from democratic political organizations, was paying influencers in the run-up to the 2020 US election to shoot videos that didn’t disclose that funding. TikTok removed these videos after being contacted by the news agency.

A Reuters research in 2020 found that The 99 Problems, a left-wing PAC, paid eight users to create content in support of the then-presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenMcConnell: Rounds Told the Truth About the 2020 Election Abrams thanks Biden for speaking in Georgia and supports call for Senate health care rules to be changed overnight – Biden officials get hot at the Senate hearing (D) that did not contain any disclaimers such as #ad or #sponsored. Mozilla also found organization-funded jobs in the run-up to the general.

A spokesman for TikTok, which requires users to indicate whether content has been paid for, told The Hill that the platform continues to “invest in people and technology to rigorously enforce its ban on political advertising.”

“As we develop our approach, we value feedback from experts, including researchers from the Mozilla Foundation, and look forward to ongoing dialogue as we work to develop fair guidelines and tools that promote transparency, accountability and creativity,” they added .

Mozilla’s report comes amid growing concerns about the weaponization of influencer advertising in general.

French and German social media characters were recently offered money by a public relations agency to post content suggesting that the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine was responsible for killing hundreds of people, according to The Guardian.

Reputation washing through established figures with sizeable following is likely to become a more popular tactic for interest groups attempting to clandestinely spread the word.

“We are already seeing that political actors and organizations on social media in general are looking for novel tactics,” Brandi Geurkink, Mozilla’s senior advocacy manager, told The Hill.

Mozilla’s report includes three recommendations for TikTok to address its political ad transparency issues, which most competing social media platforms have already adopted.

First of all, it states that the platform should add self-disclosure tools to make it easier for creators to share that certain posts are sponsored content at the time of upload. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube all have mechanisms in place to help users do this.

The report also suggests that TikTok should update its policy and enforcement to proactively address new forms of political advertising.

“We believe there should be a shared responsibility between the platform and the content creators,” said Geurkink.

Eventually, Mozilla urges TikTok to keep a publicly available record of all the ads served on its platform. Facebook, Google, and Snapchat all have these types of repositories.

This level of transparency is useful both for users who want to know who is funding the content they are viewing and for groups trying to follow the spread of political narratives.

“There must be opportunities for civil society organizations, journalists and watchdogs of all kinds to make transparent how the impact on the platform as a whole takes place in order to be able to monitor and understand threats,” said Geurkink.

Mozilla is launching a campaign Thursday to pressure TikTok to adopt their recommendations, especially the ad library.

“With elections coming up around the world, including a major election in Germany in September, TikTok must take immediate action to implement ad transparency and prevent their platform from becoming the next hotspot for disinformation and shady political influence,” it said in the group’s petition.

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