Advancing technology means platforms like TikTok have an unprecedented ability to alter human behaviour like never before. They must step up if they’re to be a force for good, argues Lea Karam, Senior Behavioural Consultant and Scientist for Behave.
It seems like decades ago that President Trump issued an edict that new downloads of TikTok were to be banned (it was only 2020) over a perceived security threat.
In 2021, President Biden officially reversed the ban that was never actually enacted in the first place, but this hasn’t been the only hurdle the social media platform has faced in its short but somewhat dramatic existence so far.
As with any new social media platform, it has taken time to get used to how people interact with it. It has also taken a bit of time to understand exactly what guardrails need to be in place to mitigate extreme content, protect user privacy and just generally stop the place becoming the internet’s wild west.
TikTok’s algorithm has come in for scrutiny. The algorithm democratises discovery - it can give anyone the chance of going viral. But therein lies the problem - anyone can go viral. Just look at the recent rise of pyramid scheme misogynist Andrew Tate - who has become a living meme and acquired a large, impressionable, following. TikTok is the most refined form of snackable, attention-grabbing short-form content, consistently delivering addictive dopamine hits. To understand just how influential it is, look at how many of the established platforms have jumped on the Reels/Stories bandwagon. They’re all at it. Does this mean that Trump was right? That TikTok is ultimately undermining a generation with shortened attention spans, an addiction to screens and a vulnerability to extremism?
Not at all. And for marketers to discount it on this basis would be very short-sighted. Today’s new platforms are not the product of their inventors, but of the creators that use it and the audiences that view it.
As a result, it is a – very – fast learning curve for all involved. While TikTok has its challenges, it is also making significant inroads into tightening the rules. When Andrew Tate’s influence came to light, TikTok barred him from the platform (as did Meta from Instagram).
It is also taking a proactive stance in educating its creators on how to use the platform responsibility, to understand their potential reach and the responsibility they bear to their audience. As the platform becomes more stable in terms of content, it is beginning to reveal its potential. It is also showing marketers how audiences, especially the core Gen Z users, are changing the way they behave. Take search, for example.
Even the more savvy digital marketer might not immediately consider TikTok to be a prime search site, yet recent reports suggest that 40% of Gen Z users prefer to use TikTok or Instagram instead of Google to search. Search on TikTok isn’t going to deliver the neat categorisation you’d expect from Google, but that isn’t what this audience is looking for.
Instead, they’re revelling in the live content, the opinions, the demonstrations and the wider context that short form video is eminently better at delivering than a catalogue of hyperlinks. The critical thing to understand is that TikTok isn’t just serving information in a different way to the platforms that preceded it. It is changing the behaviour of the people looking for information.
And its owners have realised just how powerful that behavioural change is. As a result, it’s unsurprising that they’re now making concerted efforts to stem the tide of misinformation and extremism, and teach creators how to use the space responsibly. With this scale of behavioural insight and influence, comes great responsibility. Users are now searching for answers on TikTok - generally without exploring multiple posts that convey different points of views.
This means that formed opinions are likely to be shared amongst specific social bubbles, shaped by the fingerprint of a tailored TikTok feed. These are fertile conditions for misinformation. We can look at the effects of this through BJ Fogg’s behaviour model which explores what is needed for a behaviour to develop, and that is Motivation + Ability + Triggers (or prompts) taking place at the same time. In this case:
- The motivation to get on TikTok, for instance, could range from education, to entertainment - or to keep up with pop/meme culture.
- The ability to consume the content, the information is readily available - and so is the capacity to share it.
- The trigger is the content itself (In a negative case, Andrew Tate’s misogynist interviews. In a positive example, an empowering feed of activists raising awareness around climate change).
- This then all equals to a behaviour off the back of an opinion being shaped (e.g., voting).
The ‘shock of the new’ is nothing - well - new. Way back in the 50s, two phenomena collided and shook the world, changing culture, lifestyles and commerce forever.
These forces were teenagers and rock ‘n’ roll. At the time, the impact on the establishment was seismic. But who would challenge the existence of rock music today? Anything, be it music, art, movies or social media, that has the power to influence hearts and minds, also has a responsibility by all involved to be a force for good.
The power platforms like TikTok have to extend a single voice’s reach worldwide, seeking out like-minded groups in seconds, not days or weeks, simply means greater vigilance and a promise to act better. With that in place, platforms like TikTok can realise not just their own potential, but that of everyone else in their universe.
By Lea Karam
Senior Behavioural Consultant and Scientist