What TikTok is doing to history
A new report examines the role of history content on the world's dominant social app
The report can be downloaded for free from the HCI website: https://historycommunication.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/HCI-TikTok-White-Paper-1.pdf
The hashtag #history now exceeds 56 billion views on TikTok. History content is a massive category of content on the platform, and people are interacting with history every minute of every day on the app.
More broadly, TikTok has become the sixth largest social media platform in the world, with an estimated 1 billion monthly active users. American viewers now watch TikTok for 80 minutes per day, more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram combined. TikTok users watch approximately 167 million videos on TikTok every minute of every day.
For these reasons, we felt it was critical to try and understand what is happening on TikTok and how history content on TikTok is shaping people’s understandings of the past. Due to its size, audience and influence, history institutions and history communicators must now decide whether to use TikTok to try and connect with modern audiences. This has become a pressing concern for all who communicate in the public interest—including media, journalists, government, diplomats, scientists, scholars, museums and other institutions.
Our report offers an overview of TikTok, articulates several concerns that we have about the app, details case studies of usage within the history profession, and offers differing views on the ethical usage of the platform. Ultimately, individuals and organizations will decide for themselves how / if to use TikTok. Our goal is to provide honest and accurate insights, which can be used to make informed decisions.
Our key findings include:
History is a massive category of content on TikTok. The hashtag #history exceeds 56 billion views on the platform.
TikTok seems to reward and incentivize history content that is simplistic or, in some cases, fabricated. This is, in part, due to the algorithmic design of the app and, in part, due to the culture that has developed on the app. Both seem to work together to urge users to categorize content into simplistic frameworks, as opposed to sparking critical reflection.
The radicalization pathways on TikTok appear to be similar to those of YouTube and other social sites. This means that history content has the potential to become weaponized in misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
Hate speech continues to be a concern on TikTok. Particularly for historians from marginalized communities who work on difficult or controversial subjects, there are challenges and limitations in using TikTok, due to both algorithmic bias and user behavior.
TikTok continues to contain a wide array of antisemitism, the propagators of which have not been removed or suspended with the urgency we might have hoped.
Our report also raises questions about TikTok’s parent company ByteDance. Much remains unknown about ByteDance’s business practices and objectives, particularly given how much biometric data is captured from TikTok’s users. TikTok may be the means by which ByteDance builds a massive AI facial recognition database for a yet unknown or undisclosed purpose.
TikTok’s appeal and influence
Despite these concerns, a growing number of history organizations and history communicators have established TikTok accounts. In some instances, these accounts have accumulated large numbers of followers, generated media attention, connected with diverse audiences, and leveraged their TikTok followings to raise money or earn a living.
In our report, we spotlighted the Sacramento History Museum, which has accumulated more than 2.3 million TikTok followers; Kahlil Greene, a Gen Z historian who earns a living from being a TikTok influencer; and a cohort of Holocaust memorial sites in Europe that united in 2022 to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the app. TikTok has also been used by historically marginalized communities to surface their voices and stories through hashtags such as #LGBTQHistory, #NativeTikTok and #BlackHistory.
Need for further research
We conclude our report by noting that additional funding and research are needed to better understand the effects of TikTok on public history and historical learning. It is difficult to conduct thorough empirical research since TikTok does not currently make an API available for researchers.
Is TikTok offering something unique for history learning, or is TikTok diluting historical content and discouraging critical thinking about the past? Do the opportunities afforded by TikTok outweigh the very real concerns? More research is needed to answer these questions definitively, but we hope our report will initiate important conversations about the ethical usage of the platform.
To further discuss our findings, please contact me directly or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also find the History Communication Institute on Twitter at @histcomm.
We have a Slack channel where scholars and practitioners from around the world are actively discussing these and other related questions. If you’re interested in joining, please fill out this form.
Whether you use TikTok or not, I hope you’ll read and share the report, and help us spread it widely. I also hope you’ll engage with us in the conversation about these platforms as we wrestle with their effects on history and on broader society.
Enjoy the report, and have a safe week.
P.S. - Special thanks to the SocialMediaHistory project in Germany, as well as scholars LK Bertram in Canada, Owen Rees in the United Kingdom, and Gabriel Weimann, Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann and Tom Divon in Israel for their contributions to the report. Their scholarship made this report possible; please visit their websites to learn more about their important work!
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