The European Parliament's TikTok account


To Tik or not to Tok? Europe’s disinformation dilemma

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With the European Parliament elections just weeks away, the fight against online disinformation has risen to the top of EU leaders’ minds. 

French president Emmanuel Macron called on the EU to create a “digital democratic order” and proposed a minimum age limit of 15 for independent internet usage, during his Europe speech at the Sorbonne last week.

For her part, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen hinted at a possible ban on TikTok during the Maastricht debate on Monday (29 April), following the recent US ultimatum to the Chinese-owned platform. EU commissioner Nicolas Schmit, the lead candidate for the Socialists & Democrats, also told reporters that he was “quite American” in his attitude to TikTok, after the debate. 

The commission has also turned up the heat on social media giants by intensifying its efforts to regulate online disinformation, using the landmark Digital Services Act (DSA), which came into full effect in February. 

On Tuesday (30 April), the commission opened an investigation into Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, over disinformation by foreign actors amid fears about Russian election interference. Previously, the commission launched a similar probe into X, and blocked TikTok Lite, a reward-to-watch feature, for its addictive design.

Still, concerns over online disinformation and manipulation, but also far-right radicalisation have persisted. The proliferation of deepfakes has deepened these fears, after several fake videos with young women with altered faces purporting to be family of RN leader Marine Le Pen went viral in previous weeks.

Pursuing the youth vote

At the same time, European politicians are flocking to TikTok to woo Europe’s youth, with the European Parliament recently setting up an account. 

A large number of young Europeans, who increasingly rely on social media as their primary news source, will participate in the EU elections for the first time, especially with 16-year olds newly eligible to vote in Belgium and Germany. 

Though the youth vote is often assumed to be automatically progressive - commissioner Schinas, for example, called young voters “a wall of democracy” against populism and hate - elections in France, Italy and the Netherlands have shown young people increasingly supporting the far-right. 

“The youth is not a holistic entity”, Catherine de Vries, professor of political science at Bocconi University, told EUobserver, noting that education and socio-economic circumstances are crucial in determining young people’s political leanings. 

In fact, if there is something distinctive about Europe’s youth, it would be this polarisation, argued de Vries. “People who grow up in an environment dominated by anti-system politics, are more inclined to vote for anti-establishment parties for the rest of their lives,” de Vries said, noting the gradual normalisation of such parties across Europe. 

Combined with this tendency towards extremes, young people’s new media habits are a cause of concern, felt de Vries. “Traditional media provide a curated news position,” she pointed out, whereas social media tends to be unstructured, and often features direct messaging from politicians. “Young people are often not trained in contextualising this,” de Vries said, adding that most older people aren’t either. 

Far-right, far ahead?

The far-right seems to have most effectively capitalised on young people’s social media usage, especially on TikTok. With over a million TikTok followers, Jordan Bardella, head of the list for Rassemblement National’s (RN) in the European elections, dwarfs all other MEPs on the platform. 

In Germany too, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is way ahead of the competition, said Marcus Bösch, a disinformation researcher at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, who also runs the “Understanding TikTok” substack. 

It’s content. This is their job, they need to maintain engagement.

“If you compare follower numbers, at first glance it might not be so dramatic, but the huge problem with AfD’s success is that they have an entire fan army,” Bösch told EUobserver, explaining that both real and fake accounts amplified their message.

Though some of these users could be traced back to interference by Russia, the majority of fans are real people trying to spread the AfD’s message, according to Bösch.

According to Catalina Goanta, associate professor in law and technology at Utrecht University, the role of such “genuine” users was insufficiently addressed by EU policymakers. 

“We tend to think of disinformation as foreign adversaries trying to poison the minds of EU citizens with coordinated operations,” Goanta said. However, disinformation is often also simply diffused by content creators for monetisation purposes, she argued. “It’s content. This is their job, they need to maintain engagement.”

Moreover, the dynamics of content creation also complicate the difference between political advertising and free speech, according to Goanta. “We’re in an era of authenticity, with creators trying to make contact with followers, telling them: this is my genuine opinion”. 

Though most social media platforms have policies on political parties buying ads, this kind of “native” advertising is more difficult to regulate, she observed, with Instagram going so far as trying to limit the diffusion of “political” content altogether, though without clarifying what it considers “political”.

Targeted solutions

Despite the many problems, experts dismissed EU leaders’ muscular talk of banning TikTok or imposing age limits. Ella Jakubowska, head of policy at European Digital Rights, called the proposals “attention-grabbing, but ultimately not very meaningful”, arguing that banning a specific platform would do little to limit online harms and warned that age verification would limit young people’s autonomy and access to information, while also posing privacy risks. 

Instead, the EU should do more to regulate the “toxic features” of the platforms, Jakubuwska argued, citing hyper-targeted surveillance adverts and manipulative algorithmic content delivery systems as examples. 

Of course you can argue, TikTok stinks because of the brown shit

Such a targeted approach is favoured by Goanta as well, who particularly emphasised the need to improve reporting requirements under the DSA, to help researchers’ and regulators’ understanding of the platform's dynamics. 

The recent probe into Meta is therefore an important development, as it criticises Facebook's parent company for closing down Crowdtangle, a tool that allowed researchers to monitor election activity on its platforms. 

But ahead of the European elections, politicians should simply take the fight to TikTok, Bösch argued, praising the European Parliament for joining the platform. “Of course you can argue, TikTok stinks because of the brown shit,” he said. “But it’s a platform used by 21 out of 82 million Germans, you can’t ignore it. You have to be where the people are”. 

A positive example of such a fight is the #ReclaimTikTok campaign, a countermovement by German climate activists to challenge the AfD’s hold on the platform. “It’s a really nice try, it’s taking protest from the streets to the digital realm,” Bösch said. “They hit 60 million views, that’s very decent!”

Author Bio

Piet Ruig is a Brussels-based journalist who previously worked for the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO.

The European Parliament's TikTok account


Author Bio

Piet Ruig is a Brussels-based journalist who previously worked for the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO.


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