As gray area between ads and paid influence grows, Mozilla calls on TikTok to tighten controls on political videos

Illustration of two people talking into megaphones.

When conservative influencer and anti-vaxxer Alyssa Locke posted a TikTok video on June 1 featuring a montage of clips where she posed in outfits she plans to wear at an upcoming Young Women’s Leadership Summit in Dallas, she labeled the post with the hashtag #turningpoint, referencing conservative political nonprofit Turning Point USA.

She also added a tag for fashion brand Kate Spade and featured an image announcing her appearance at the event, where better-known Republicans like Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin were scheduled to speak. However, whether the TikTok post by Locke, aka @alynicolee1126, constitutes paid political speech is up for debate — as is TikTok’s ability to regulate such content.

TikTok does not allow ads referencing political candidates, parties or organizations or that advocate for or against candidates or issues. Locke’s post was not technically an ad, though. Instead of appearing on TikTok as a result of purchasing ad inventory through the platform’s ad sales team or self-serve ad-buying tool, Locke’s post was uploaded to the platform as an organic video. That distinction leaves it up to Locke to disclose whether she was paid to post it — as would be required by the Federal Trade Commission’s endorsement guidelines — but that’s only if she was, in fact, paid to post it. The question of whether Locke’s post is or is not sponsored content evinces a blind spot that has plagued platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and now TikTok.

Mozilla Foundation yesterday called out TikTok for failing to adequately police paid political content on its platform. The nonprofit organization behind the Firefox web browser called for TikTok to offer self-disclosure tools for creators to label paid partnerships or sponsored content — as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have done — and also called on TikTok to update its policies and enforcement on political advertising.

The presence of posts on TikTok that are tinged with political messages, but not marked with any sort of disclosure despite a possible material relationship are “exactly why there needs to be more tools available to researchers and the public [from TikTok] to see how influence is spreading,” said Brandi Geurkink, Mozilla’s senior manager of advocacy. The organization said it has been talking to TikTok about political messaging and ad transparency since January.

“Political advertising is not allowed on TikTok, and we continue to invest in people and technology to consistently enforce this policy and build tools for creators on our platform,” said a TikTok spokesperson. “As we evolve our approach we appreciate feedback from experts, including researchers at the Mozilla Foundation, and we look forward to a continuing dialogue as we work to develop equitable policies and tools that promote transparency, accountability, and creativity.” 

TikTok says it expects people in the U.S. posting videos on its app to abide by FTC guidelines requiring that they disclose clearly and prominently any type of relationship they have with a brand, whether it be through payment, employment or a personal or family relationship. The platform provides a tool for influencers to label sponsored posts, but it’s unclear how widely available the tool is.

It is likely that Locke’s posts mentioning Turning Point USA were organic rather than directly compensated by the organization, the group’s spokesperson Andrew Kolvet told Digiday. Turning Point USA , a 501c3 nonprofit, aims to “saturate social and traditional media markets with the message of freedom and limited government” through its influencer program. However, while Kolvet said the group does have paid contractual relationships with some social media influencers, he said, “We don’t compensate the ambassador program,” which Locke and some others posting political messages on TikTok and other platforms appear to be part of.  

A demand for transparency

In February, Mozilla conducted an analysis of U.S. political influencers — conservative and liberal — on TikTok. The research, published yesterday, highlights TikTok posts from several conservative content creators including Locke and states that they “appear to have been flown out to TPUSA-sponsored conferences and festivals, including a Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida on December 20, 2020.” Kolvet told Digiday that Turning Point USA does not mandate that people who attend its events or receive stipends to help with travel expenses post to social media.

In its report, Mozilla argues the posts are examples of how “dark money” funds messaging that influences voters, and states that because TikTok “doesn’t actively monitor and enforce its rule that influencers disclose paid partnerships, nor does the platform label sponsored posts as advertising,” it is “very difficult to monitor political influencer ads on TikTok.”

As more and more issues become politicized and groups like Turning Point USA walk the tightrope between paid political speech and loosely affiliated idea dissemination, it may not be clear even to content posters what needs disclosure. Plus, what is and is not deemed political, and what falls under the umbrella of misinformation is murky, too, even for human moderators to navigate. 

TikTok has “thousands” of people around the world moderating its content and the company regularly updates criteria based on the dynamics of current events and local language, Dave Byrne, global head of brand safety and industry relations at TikTok, told Digiday in May. “When the AI system can’t make a determination, that’s when a human moderator can step in and make that moderation,” he said.

When Locke posted a video on TikTok in April claiming, “no one cares if you got the Covid-19 vaccine,” it may have had political influence or helped fuel misinformed theories about the vaccine, though it was not labeled in any way.

By contrast, when she wrote on Facebook in a Covid-19-related post that “Hydroxychloroquine : works,” Facebook accompanied it with a disclaimer stating, “some unapproved Covid-19 treatments may cause serious harm.”

Additionally, Locke claimed yesterday that Instagram blocked a post she had tried to upload referencing news coverage of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s leaked COVID-19 related emails because the post violated the platforms’ community guidelines.

More in Media

NewFronts Briefing: Samsung, Condé Nast, Roku focus presentations on new ad formats and category-specific inventory

Day two of IAB’s NewFronts featured presentations from Samsung, Condé Nast and Roku, highlighting new partnerships, ad formats and inventory, as well as new AI capabilities.

The Athletic to raise ad prices as it paces to hit 3 million newsletter subscribers

The New York Times’ sports site The Athletic is about to hit 3 million total newsletter subscribers. It plans to raise ad prices as as a result of this nearly 20% year over year increase.

NewFronts Briefing: Google, Vizio and news publishers pitch marketers with new ad offerings and range of content categories

Day one of the 2024 IAB NewFronts featured presentations from Google and Vizio, as well as a spotlight on news publishers.