Thinking about Authenticity vs. Deception on TikTok 

I like my social media to be text-focused. I’m not camera shy, but I don’t like that to be my primary form of exposure to the world. TikTok isn’t for me, and fair disclaimer: I still have no experience with it. However, when I reflect on my preferences, I remember one significant difference between the internet experienced by Zoomers vs. previous generations: the sheer deluge of disinformation that proliferates in more recent times. In this respect, the desire for a social media platform that emphasizes personal-feeling videos might allow for a slightly better (but inevitably imperfect) defense against bad actors.

One of the challenges of appealing to younger people on TikTok is that they value authenticity. It’s a nebulous term to be sure, but sleek traditional marketing campaigns can fall short for people who feel distrust when things look a little too polished. This is not to say that TikTok is free from scam artists and propagandists—far from it—but when I began to think more about the nature of text-based online communication, I recall the sheer number of fake accounts that are created to spread false information.

A white supremacist can grab a stock photo of a black person and then engage in digital blackface to share harmful political and social messages. Bots use artificially generated profile pictures to create entirely fake personalities to amplify some poisonous ideology, and if people aren’t looking carefully, one can be fooled into thinking they’re authentic. In contrast, it takes a lot more work to pretend to be black on a video platform than it is on one where all you need is a stolen or fabricated headshot. Deepfakes are an issue, but they’re not at the point where they’re nigh-impossible to spot—at least not yet.

Of course, TikTok is not immune to disinformation. It just disseminates differently, and adjusts itself to an online culture that is not only more video-based but also focused on being “short and sweet”—little nuggets of “wisdom” and “knowledge” that are anything but. I have my concerns about the way TikTok’s algorithm might be even better at sucking people down rabbit holes. That said, I think the difference in this moment in time might be that the imposter who’s claiming to be someone they’re not has to at least put in more effort to pull the charade off.

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