Credit: cottonbro studio

No matter how you feel about its T&Cs and Chinese ownership, TikTok is one of the world’s fastest-growing social networks. While it started off as a space to post memes and dance videos, events such as Black Lives Matter or the war in Ukraine allowed news content to inch its way onto the platform.

But that does not mean that publishers have found new audiences - the latest report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) found that most news content is created by influencers, activists or ordinary people. With this comes a justified worry about misinformation.

RISJ tracked publisher activity across more than 40 countries and it found that around half of top news outlets are now regularly publishing content on TikTok. Most news brands in Indonesia, Australia, Spain, France and UK (81 per cent) are active on the platform, but countries like Italy (29 per cent) or Denmark have been slower to get going.

Read more: Forget Facebook: four publishers share tips on growing audiences on other social platforms

For publishers anxious to attract younger audiences, TikTok seems a godsend, as the majority of its users are under 25s. But many journalists are also keen to provide reliable news in the sea of misinformation TikTok has become known for.

Those who are not jumping on the TikTok bandwagon often worry about the Chinese ownership of the platform and its implication for free speech. Some are also sceptical of its limited monetisation options, wary of investing heavily in creating content for a social platform and hoping for traffic referral (pivot to video, anyone?)

"It is a platform in which there are a lot of young readers, young viewers," says Fabrizio Barbato, CFO of Ciaopeople, which owns Fanpage, as quoted in the report. "We thought that we should be present on it, even if there is no direct business model right now."

Although TikTok launched in 2018, its growth was boosted by lockdowns during the covid-19 pandemic, when young people, trapped at home, started to experiment with short video and share their experiences. The simple setup and interface make it easy to use, which helped its rapid spread.

Very little is known about the TikTok algorithm, other than that it is very addictive and gets people scrolling for hours as feeds are heavily personalised. Here is how it works: as soon as a video is published, it is shown to a handful of people and, based on their engagement, it either becomes more popular or not. Then it is shown to more people and so on. This makes it highly efficient and allows for highly personalised user feeds.

Unlike Twitter and Facebook, TikTok does not give publishers any preferential treatment. The process of getting 'verified' status is opaque and even established news outlet struggle to get the blue tick.

On the flip side, this acts as a democratising force for content creators. There is little wonder that well-known social media brands like NowThis are leading the way with some 5.5m followers. But TikTok also allowed non-English language newcomers to thrive. Spanish startup Ac2ality, for instance, has amassed 3.9m followers.

However, because of the algorithm, the number of followers matters less for the popularity of the clips than engagement. Those brands who invest in TikTok-specific content, rather than republishing videos from elsewhere, see much higher engagement.

Whatever the popularity though, the lack of monetisation opportunities is a major obstacle for publishers to launch on TikTok. Subscription-based brands, such as the New York Times, stayed largely away, probably for this reason, and so did some public broadcasters like BBC News which was concerned about the fun-dance platform not being conducive to serious journalism. Freedom of speech and unclear rules around content moderation do nothing to entice them.

But the argument with TikTok is the same one that has always been there with social platforms - publishers need to be there because younger audiences are there, even if they do not pay (for now).

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