Gen Z uses TikTok instead of Google

Google is unbeatable. For the past 20 years, this statement has been taken for granted. The search engine’s ability to produce fast, seemingly unbiased and accurate results could not be matched by competitors such as Yahoo Search, Bing and Ask Jeeves. Google’s objectivity – its neutral presentation of results, ranked according to their relevance to as wide a user base as possible – was seen as its strength (even though evidence suggests the results weren’t as impartial they seemed). Talk of Google’s effective monopoly has centered on how to reduce its supersized power, with few considering that people might one day organically switch to a different platform.

Today, Google faces unlikely new competitors: social media platforms. Younger generations are increasingly looking for a different type of search result, turning to apps such as TikTok and Instagram specifically for their personal and curated touch. Instead of scrolling through the long list of generic results from Google, they turn to social platforms for travel tips, recipes and news. According to an internal Google study, 40% of 18-24 year olds now use social media as their primary search engine. In September, the New York Times exclaimed that “For Gen Z, TikTok is the new search engine” in an article that interviewed teenagers and young adults who had come to rely on the app as an information-gathering tool.

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This is a worrying development. Although Gen Z has embraced TikTok as both a source of entertainment and information, the platform is not a natural search engine; its robust algorithm rewards compelling and highly engaging content over useful information. If the app becomes a go-to search engine, it could lead to a big increase in misinformation.

[See also: The problem with the “quiet quitting” media storm]

Herein lies the crucial difference between social media and search engines. Something that is algorithmically popular on a social platform is not necessarily the top result for a search, and users are incentivized to post content that fits the narrow metrics of what performs well on each platform. Take restaurant recommendations: The kind of restaurants that do well on social media are glitzy, trendy new openings, often aimed specifically at millennials and Gen Z — rather than tried-and-true, unassuming local institutions serving good food. Should social apps replace search engines or traditional media reviews, the impacts on the industry could be severe – accelerating the already brutal pace of gentrification. More generally, a social approach to news and information would inevitably be one in which misinformation and inaccuracy would proliferate.

On this last question, TikTok seems to have a specific problem, with evidence increasingly suggesting that it is particularly volatile and unreliable when it comes to finding accurate information. While the platform had other issues before this year (such as alleged protection issues from children’s groups and the popularity of harmful challenges), it had largely managed to avoid traditional associations with misinformation. Then, in March, the war in Ukraine presented a major problem for the platform when unverified videos and misleading content, such as old footage from other wars claiming to be from kyiv, started going viral.

It showed not only how fast misinformation could travel on TikTok, but also how difficult it was for TikTok to moderate its own hyper-fast algorithm. The company has since experienced similar issues with moderating misleading or harmful content, from posts about the US election to videos featuring misogynist Andrew Tate. A NewsGuard study published last week found that when searching for news articles on TikTok — from school shootings to abortion to Covid-19 — nearly 20% of results contained false claims. and misleading. NewsGuard specifically warned that it would become an even bigger social problem if younger generations continued to use the app as a search engine.

These shifts in TikTok usage point to a larger, well-established trend: the rise of infotainment, which has already played out in broadcast media. But social media platforms aren’t bound by the same vetting processes as most traditional media. They are also often poorly moderated, and the algorithms continue to develop and become more sophisticated at a rate much faster than the legislation and artificial intelligence needed to regulate them.

We should all be worried if TikTok outperforms Google for search, but ultimately our access to news and information remains in the hands of a few big tech companies. We should advocate for our digital tools — the ones we rely on for accurate news, facts, and information — to be heavily regulated, fair, and tied to popular thought. This may mean that we have to unlearn our expectation that we should be able to press “enter” and find exactly what we were looking for.

[See also: We should fear TikTok’s influence on news media]

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