To be or not to be on TikTok | Inquirer Opinion

To be or not to be on TikTok

/ 04:20 AM April 22, 2024

In October 2020, a ByteDance representative—the parent company behind TikTok—reached out to me and my co-founders at She Talks Asia encouraging us to develop content centered around women’s empowerment for their platform. At the time, TikTok was mainly known for dance moves and lip-synced songs, and the company was actively looking for content creators who could produce more educational material. We initially considered the offer. But as older millennials less adept at producing concise video content and also dealing with other pandemic-related challenges in our work and personal lives, we ultimately decided not to move forward.

Reflecting on this decision recently, we now recognize it as a missed opportunity, especially considering the phenomenal growth TikTok has experienced in the Philippines, now boasting over 49 million active users. In a recently published survey, the Philippines came out as the eighth most avid user of the platform, with Filipinos watching an average of 127 videos a day. It has become a vital source of news and guidance on serious issues like finance, mental health, and current event updates, particularly among the younger demographic. Unfortunately, like other social media platforms, some of the content being pushed by its algorithm could be unreliable. In 2022, a research by journalism and technology tool NewsGuard, found that nearly 20 percent of TikTok’s search results featured videos with misinformation.

In the United States, the House of Representatives recently passed legislation that threatens to ban TikTok if ByteDance does not divest its American operations to a US entity within a year. The reason stated was primarily related to national security concerns, specifically the risk of user data being shared with the Chinese government. However, the lawmakers also highlighted the possibility of TikTok’s algorithm being manipulated to support China’s political interests, given that one-third of Americans under the age of 30 now get their news from the platform.


This move echoes broader global apprehensions about social media’s role in politics and democracy. A year and a half after our meeting with ByteDance, I found myself opening a TikTok account to try to understand the digital strategies being employed by politicians for the 2022 election campaigns. At the time, several local and international political analysts were raising concerns about how propagandists were using TikTok as a new tool to influence public opinion and win elections in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. However, merely banning TikTok will not address this problem. These strategies to manipulate public opinion could just be easily retooled for other social media platforms.


A powerful example of how to address this challenge comes from Mona Magno-Veluz, more known to the public by her username Mighty Magulang. A genealogist, history aficionado, and country manager for the Autism Society of the Philippines, she skyrocketed to online fame during the 2022 elections by debunking myths about martial law and doing explainers about the lineages of politicians running for office. She now has over 498,000 followers and serves as the sole Filipino member of TikTok’s Content and Safety Advisory Council.

When I met Mona in a small gathering last month, I asked her what motivates her to invest the time and effort to consistently develop content. She said that there are so many people online who want to learn and that it is important to nurture their curiosity with good resources. This compelled me to have a more open mind in considering the role that TikTok could play in the future of learning. Traditional modes of delivering education, while still valuable and irreplaceable, must always be complemented with innovative approaches that speak the language of present-day learners. TikTok presents educators with an opportunity to creatively engage with young minds right where they may be most receptive to learning.

It is important to note, however, that populating TikTok with more quality and reliable content will not solve the bigger underlying issue: the prevailing belief among users that obtaining information exclusively and solely from social media is acceptable, as opposed to actively searching for other thoroughly vetted sources and more contextualized content to arrive at a well-informed opinion.

Yes, maybe we should stop resisting TikTok as a powerful tool for education and advocacy. But we also should not stop teaching the youth how to critically examine how the technologies they use every day are influencing everything: From their taste in clothes and music to how they view themselves and who they will vote for in the next elections. This way, we could hopefully equip them with the right skills and habits to resist the temptation of passively consuming information, and to lessen the power of algorithms to shape the way they think.

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