The TikTok effect: How The App Shaped Political Discourse During Finnish European Elections

After focusing on YouTube & Google, a new report by Faktabaari and CheckFirst as part of the CrossOver Finland project has uncovered worrying trends around TikTok’s possible impact on the 2024 European elections in Finland.

Once known for its fun dance challenges and viral trends, TikTok has a growing influence in shaping political discourse. Around 47% of 18-24 year olds in Finland use TikTok, and around a third of European election candidates actively used TikTok in their campaigns. “Once known for its entertaining content, TikTok is now also an important platform for political campaigning,” says Mikko Salo, Executive Director of Faktabaari.

Our monitoring project CrossOver Finland examines what the algorithms of big tech platforms recommend to a ‘clean’ user with no browsing history. Our new study found that TikTok’s recommendation algorithm often reinforces negative stereotypes and uses crude language against women and minority groups. 

As leading author & researcher Aleksi Knuutila from Faktabaari explains, “The search recommendations contain a lot of harsh language towards female politicians and ethnic minorities. For example, searches for female politicians such as former Prime Minister Sanna Marin yielded inappropriate, sexualised content, while searches for party leaders such as Green Pekka Haavisto resulted in suggestions related to child abduction.”

TikTok applied its labels for election-related videos inconsistently (and that’s a problem)

Guillaume Kuster, CEO of CheckFirst, pointed out that TikTok’s search recommendations are too easy to manipulate. “Recommendations are partly based on hashtags, and even rarely used hashtags end up as search suggestions. This means search results can be easily influenced by automating videos with specific hashtags,” Kuster explained.

The report also found that TikTok’s efforts to secure elections by labelling official election-related videos were only partially implemented, with only two-thirds of the most popular election content receiving such labels.

Our recommendation: following Google’s lead in moderating search suggestions

“TikTok should clean up its recommendations by removing toxic language about women and minorities,” says Mikko Salo. “Google has done a better job of moderating search suggestions, and TikTok should follow suit,” Salo suggested.

Kuster adds: “TikTok should also explore other ways to direct users to accurate election information, as labelling videos as election content is clearly insufficient, TikTok could offer users information about elections and reminders to vote, similar to other platforms.”

Our findings highlight the significant impact social media platforms can have on the political process, and the responsibility they have to combat the spread of misinformation and harmful rhetoric. As the digital landscape continues to shape democratic life, transparency around algorithms will be critical.

The full report, How the app shaped political discourse during Finnish European elections 2024 is available for download.

The project began data collection in December-January and will continue until July. The dashboards are public & available here.

The TikTok effect: How The App Shaped Political Discourse During Finnish European Elections