While one TikTok user accidentally polluted a body of research, it is also proof of the platform’s questionable data collection methods.
The domain of social media platform TikTok is seemingly that of a younger generation. Those viral, widely shared video snippets invariably involve those youngsters successfully lip-synching, doing sleight-of-hand tricks in their bedrooms, or having spotted someone famous walking their dogs. Harmless fun.
But now, these – I guess we call them TikTokers – have begun disrupting thousands of scientific studies.
It all began when one teenage TikTok user recommended her followers use a survey website to make extra money.
Recent Florida high school graduate and self-described “teen author” Sarah Frank posted a video encouraging her followers in a video to explore certain ‘side hustles’. The video, viewed 4.1 million times, shows Ms Frank directing users to the website Prolific.co., telling them, “Basically, it’s a bunch of surveys for different amounts of money and different amounts of time.”
Thus far, no harm done. It seems harmless enough: surveys need participants; some surveyors are willing to pay, and you gots to get paid, right?
Prolific is a tool for scientists conducting behavioural research. But the TikToker’s call to action for her followers to get online had the opposite effect on the research, skewing the results.
Survey participants doubled from a standard 40,000 to 80,000, and 85% of participants are women with an average age of 21. Researchers behind the surveys rely on the data being a representative sample of the population; thousands of girls in their late teens to early twenties isn’t – strictly speaking – representative of the population at large.
About 4,600 studies of Prolific’s studies were disrupted, roughly one-third of the total that were active on the platform during the surge. Of those that were disrupted, the vast majority look at this stage to be salvageable.
There was a subsequent backlash against the post and its follow-on effects, with Prolific’s co-founder and CTO Phelim Bradley telling The Verge that many of the new users do seem to be dropping off.
“Prior to TikTok, about 50% of the responses on our platform came from women,” he said.
“The surge knocked this up as high as 75% for a few days, but since then, this number has been trending down, and we’re currently back to ~60% of responses being from women.”
This isn’t even the most significant issue associated with the platform.
Big Brother is watching, and he’s apparently watching you give a makeup tutorial, for some reason.