The TikTok time bomb: The nascent social media app is feeding us junk meals information nonstop

We’ve all seen them before: the teens and young adults synchronized dancing in a grocery store, park, mall, or coffee shop. Maybe you’ve heard her sailor duet, or maybe you were told about the crowd-sourced musical based on the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille. All these terribly essential activities have one thing in common, or more precisely one app: TikTok, where apparently everyone can cook!

TikTok is basically Twitter on street-grade crack. According to a Forbes interview with Julie Albright, a professor at the University of Southern California, TikTok “adopted the same principles that made gambling addictive.” The TikTok app is a digital drug for anyone with a phone, and especially young people. It uses random gain – much like a slot machine on the Las Vegas Strip – to keep users scrolling. It has transformed the way Americans tell and see stories, interact with others, and even receive news and information. Her influence borders on the obscene. TikTok has become part of the new normal over the past year, but instead of helping us heal, it has acted as a panacea for the new normal – a fairly ineffective cure from an unqualified source during the pandemic.

TikTok provides Americans non-stop with junk food news and infotainment à la reality TV. “Junk food news” is a term originally coined by Carl Jensen, founder of Project Censored, to denote a category of frivolous or irrelevant news stories that are widely covered by corporate news services, thereby separating news audiences from other, more important stories turn. Content appearing on TikTok definitely fits Jensen’s Junk Food News descriptor, as the app has become so popular that many of its short videos appear regularly in corporate news media, distracting Americans from crucial independent investigative reporting.

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Many people’s first exposure to the app may have been through Nathan Apodaca and his Ocean Spray TikTok post, which alluded to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and rode NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to blockchain authenticity (if anyone gets what that means). Apodaca’s clip caught the attention of a TV show host, who was excited to “sit down and get into the mind of Nathan Apodaca, aka ‘Dogg Face’.” It also netted him a hefty wad of money.

Those who weren’t privy to TikTok even at the advent of these cultural landmarks were certainly made aware of its existence by the glorious mishaps of Tessica Brown, also affectionately dubbed “Gorilla Glue Girl.” Her story took the internet, tabloids and news cycles by storm after she repeatedly posted on TikTok in the early months of 2021 that it was a “bad, bad, bad idea” for her to use Gorilla Glue to glue her Fixing her hairstyle when she had run out of her regular hairspray. Her smitten audience wondered collectively, how could anyone possibly make that mistake? The meme became a recognized source of humor, demonstrated by a Saturday Night Live skit titled “Gorilla Glue.” For many, it seemed like another example of enjoying the humiliation of another. The internet is full of videos in the so-called “fail” genre, including a slew of epic fails featured on FailArmy, Newsflare and Funny Vines, websites and YouTube channels each featuring their own Fails of the Week. Even ESPN’s SportsCenter boasts a “Not Top 10” segment that pokes fun at the mishaps of athletes caught on camera. There is no shortage of “entertainment” at the expense of the misfortune of others.

The specific term for this phenomenon is “humiliation,” a word coined in 2005 by media scholars Brad Waite and Sara Booker to refer to entertainment that benefits from the humiliation of another. This term is often used in conjunction with “Schadenfreude”, a compound German word that translates as “Schaden-Freude” and describes finding pleasure in the pain of others. Humilitainment is often referred to as junk food news. It has become a common theme on “reality” television programs over the years, on shows like Survivor, Big Brother, 16 and Pregnant, 90 Day Fiancé, and Jersey Shore, to name a few. Even decades-old television series, stretching back to Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos, have presented “fails” that had viewers literally laughing at the pain or misfortune of a total stranger.

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From one screen to another, it’s not just television that demeans us, it’s our phones and tablets as well. The viral videos of people bucking trends, getting their hair cut badly at home, or making fashion faux pas in public have swept across the web and onto our phones almost as fast as videos could be uploaded and viewed. This trend certainly hasn’t stopped and continues to seep into our media feeds. TikTok is just the latest means for consumers to enjoy junk food news, infotainment, and humiliation. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of TikTok is its algorithm: the more time a user spends on the app, the more data the algorithm collects. For the first few uses of the app, the algorithm will present the user with the most popular videos and trends, but eventually, after tracking the user’s viewing habits, it will introduce the newcomer deeper into the app, towards what the program is for the consumer assumes . Ultimately, the user is only recommended very specific YouTubers or videos that match the established interests of the individual.

In this way, TikTok closely resembles corporate press. TikTok’s algorithm divides viewers into specific groups, much like how corporate media outlets like Fox News and CNN divide and conquer audiences. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, there are persistent ideological differences between groups of Americans based on where they go to get their news about what’s going on in the world. In other words, the Gorilla Glue story wasn’t the only one that people got stuck on: Many Americans also like to hang on to certain news outlets, where they can tune in to their favorite sources to feed their political confirmation bias.

This market-driven division affects the information that spreads among different demographic groups in society, which in turn is reflected on social media – creating an echo chamber of ill-informed people and often leading to mass dissemination of half-truths and misinformation. In many cases, one person’s (or niche group’s) truth is another’s fiction, another way in which Tik-Tok’s algorithm yields results similar to corporate press. As with the topics of talk shows, reality TV or sensational news, most TikTokers who produce content are average people who gain notoriety for dubious reasons, who can then be further exploited by the commercial press for ratings. And much like Fox News, MSNBC or CNN, TikTok tailors its information specifically to a specific audience’s narrative, and the corporate media seems to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the app. Therefore, not only does TikTok video now count as news, but both corporate news and TikTok videos, true or not, have adapted to stay with viewers eager to reinforce their beliefs. In that regard, TikTok and corporate media are a match made in junk food news heaven. What could possibly go wrong?

While Americans were stuck online on Gorilla Glue Girl, corporate news was spreading the same stories, reinforcing information silos and creating filter bubbles as monetized coping mechanisms for chaotic and uncertain times. These junk food news stories kept Americans distracted while millions of people around the world were literally starving. Democracy Now!, quoting David Beasley of the World Food Programme, reported that Yemen, Ethiopia and other impoverished and war-torn nations are “heading for ‘the greatest famine in modern history,’ and many parts of it [these countries] feels like hell on earth after years of food shortages and destruction caused by the US-backed, Saudi-led war.”

Why didn’t this story appear at the top of the corporate press or in TikTok’s videos? That’s probably because Americans would rather bask in the glory of someone’s humiliation than acknowledge global humanitarian issues. While millions of TikTok users post elements of their daily lives on an app for entertainment, the everyday reality of food shortages and hunger goes unreported. But then again, why would people want their reporting to be civic when it could be viral and funny, especially when it’s at the expense of others?

Adapted from Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022 edited by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff.

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