During my inaugural plunge into TikTok, in 2019, I wanted to throw my phone into a volcano. It wasn’t that I hated what I saw—quite the opposite. Within a couple of hours of swiping and “hearting,” TikTok knew more about precisely what my 40-year-old brain found amusing than some friends who had known me for years. The algorithm was eerily accurate, and I didn’t want to reward it with time and attention. It had to go.

It was unsurprising in the years since to see TikTok’s popularity explode to the level of a billion-plus global users. What was shocking, however, is how many of the app’s fans are now using it not just for animal videos and Beyoncé drops but to consume news. According to the Pew Research Center, a growing number of U.S. adults who use TikTok say they get at least some of their news from it—up from 3% in 2020 to 14% in late 2023. As a voracious news reader and TikTok teetotaler, I had to know: What kind of news were they actually getting?

In order to find out, I spent a week getting my news exclusively from TikTok. 

Keeping all breaking news from finding me any other way would be nearly impossible without the aid of a sensory deprivation tank, but I did my best. All subscribed newsletters would go unread, all current events-related podcasts would stay unplayed, and I would go on other social media only to share things like the spanakopita pasta I successfully cooked one night. I also abstained from watching cable news, but like a growing number of Americans I already do that all the time anyway.

With a weeklong limit to the experiment, I didn’t have enough time to see how news coverage would organically seep into my TikTok consumption. There would have to be some reverse-engineering. I went to the Society tab of the Explore page and started clicking on anything even vaguely resembling news or commentary. I followed every news-spewing TikToker I could find—professional reporters like Taylor Lorenz and pure internet personalities like ImNotaLawyerBut—along with some of the accounts those accounts were following. I made sure to watch posts from across the political spectrum.

One of the first things I noticed after I started spending a lot of time on TikTok was the staggering increase in advertising on the app, and the way those ads mimicked the style, tone, and vocab of the videos that aired in between them. (“Send this to someone with rizz,” a cursed missive from Kellogg’s cereal suggested.)

It didn’t take long before my For You page was overflowing with all kinds of topical content. I quickly discovered that there are two basic forms of news content on TikTok—video clips or screenshots that users repurpose from actual news sources, and people describing or explaining news items, with a side air of opinion. I learned that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died from a still image on an account called Russian American Daily, offering no further information. I learned that Pedro Pascal and Vanessa Kirby were cast in the upcoming Fantastic 4 reboot from a guy complaining about the pair’s age gap.

Between the two forms of Newsy TikTok, I began to experience the Twitter effect of finding out the news while simultaneously finding out what people are saying about the news.

My main issue with the first form—simple repurposed media—was that it was often difficult to tell when it originally surfaced. I saw a snippet of CNN’s Abby Phillips pressing Florida Representative Matt Gaetz about President Joe Biden’s potential impeachment, unsure if it was from the previous week or five months earlier (it turned out to be the latter). I wasn’t sure what to feel about Senator Bernie Sanders’s thoughts on Gaza, because I had no idea when he expressed them in this particular clip. The quickest way I found to discern when a Tiktok was released is to check the comments, which are time-stamped, and even that can be unreliable. Time isn’t a flat circle on Newsy TikTok—it’s a Las Vegas casino with no clocks or windows in sight.

The other dominant form of news content on the platform—the explainer—usually consists of a person green screened in front of a blown-up image of whichever news item they are talking about. Some of these news items are mercifully dated, which helps. (Fast Company’s TikTok, for what it’s worth, often uses this format, with the dates clearly visible above the headline.) The more compelling of these TikTokers hit viewers with their main point immediately, and appear to edit their commentary with a zero-attention-span audience in mind. 

Many other videos, though, are bloated and ponderous and underline the problems with consuming news this way. Unlike a modest-size article or a 280-character tweet, you can’t skim a boring TikTok to get to the point.

Pretty soon, I was seeing contradictory takeaways from different sources about the same newsworthy video clips, which made it difficult to tell exactly what happened. Getting both-sides coverage of something like Donald Trump presenting gilded-flag shoes at Sneakercon is kind of fun, because I don’t need goofy liberal jokes about “Treason 45s” and “January 6’s” or fawning praise of them to make my own judgment. (The shoes are terrible, and paying $400 for them is preposterous.)

When it comes to a story with a more ambiguous outcome, though, like the hearing to determine whether Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis engaged in misconduct in her case against Trump, the commentary on both sides is actively unhelpful. One TikToker says Willis has been “permanently removed” from the case while another salutes her “epic clapbacks,” and they are both talking about the same footage.

Interestingly, TikTok also surfaces videos from Fox News and MSNBC anchors talking about the hearing, and it’s equally vapid.

Near the end of this experiment, I became desperate for straightforward, reliable information—the kind that comes with easily checkable sources. While some TikTokers over the course of the week pointed me toward stories I might not otherwise have seen and others helpfully offered their lived experience as context, many of them were obviously angling for virality with hypercharged rhetoric and alternative facts.

Like every other social media platform, TikTok has a sizable misinformation problem. Is an attack on American soil imminent and will it lead to World War III? Did the judge in the E. Jean Carroll civil defamation trial take a $5 million bribe to convict Trump? According to some TikToks I saw, yes on both counts. Anybody can green screen themselves in front of a news headline and say anything they want about the supposed contents of an article, and it’s up to viewers to decide whether they’re just making stuff up.

Once the week was over, I eagerly devoured all my usual newsletters and topical podcasts to see what I’d missed. It was far less than I’d imagined. Britain and Japan had slipped into a recession, Nike and Cisco and a bunch of other companies were cutting hundreds of jobs, and Open AI unveiled a demo of its terrifyingly on-point text-to-video model, Sora. I missed a lot of specifics about what is happening in Gaza and the indictment of Alexander Smirnov for feeding false information about the Bidens to the FBI, but the big picture was fairly intact.

Incredible as the idea seemed just a week earlier, anyone with a healthy level of media literacy can safely supplement their news diet with TikTok. It’s an inefficient way to get certain information—I learned more about what happened in the Fani Willis hearing in literally one sentence of a Semafor newsletter than I had all week—but hopefully not too many people are trying to get all their news from TikTok.

While I finished this strange experiment with a more positive perception of TikTok’s newsiness, something about the platform kept nagging at me. It wasn’t just the earwormy audio cues either. It was the way so many news commenters opened their videos with lines straight out of a late-night talk show monologue. “Did you hear about this?” “Let me get this straight.” The desperation to hook viewers in for an entire video preys on those viewers’ desperation to stay up to speed with what they imagine “everybody else” is enjoying right now.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that news on TikTok too often felt like everything else on the platform, especially the people and brands selling stuff. “You’ve probably been hearing about the benefits of magnesium all over TikTok.” In the same way I felt intoxicatingly included by witnessing the Glee meme coalesce in real time, I also found myself eager to sop up whichever juicy tidbits Newsy TikTok seemed most eager to divulge. Much like the algorithm itself, creators serve up only what viewers tend to respond to, in the way that most reliably prompts a response. And when it comes to news, what we apparently most respond to is the promise of finding out what we imagine “everyone else” already knows. 

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