The Politics of Hashtags - What the Latest Research Reveals About TikTok and Instagram

The Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University recently dropped a report that sheds light on some intriguing disparities in how politically charged hashtags play out on TikTok versus Instagram. This deep dive into cyber threats on social media takes a closer look at hashtags like "Tiananmen," "HongKongProtest," and "FreeTibet," stacked against mainstream tags like "TaylorSwift" and "Trump."

To level the playing field, considering the differences in user base and platform longevity, researchers meticulously crunched the numbers on hashtag ratios across diverse political and pop-culture topics on both platforms. What's surprising is that TikTok seems to be sporting fewer politically charged hashtags, suggesting a potential alignment with the preferences of the Chinese government.

Pop-culture hashtags like "ArianaGrande" show up twice as often on Instagram compared to TikTok, and US political hashtags like "Trump" or "Biden" appear 2.6 times more on Instagram. But the real eye-opener is with hashtags like "FreeTibet," which is a whopping 50 times more common on Instagram. "FreeUyghurs" clocks in at 59 times more prevalent on Instagram, and "HongKongProtest" is a staggering 174 times more frequent on Instagram than TikTok.

The report's takeaway? TikTok's content promotion or suppression seems to be playing along with the tunes of the Chinese government's interests.

The study exposes disparities in hashtag prevalence on TikTok and Instagram, hinting at potential content manipulation.

US lawmakers scrutinize TikTok's political content handling amid concerns about information manipulation and geopolitical tensions.

Social media platforms' handling of conflicts raises concerns about biased agendas, prioritizing profit over unbiased information and free speech.
Images: NetworkContagion

TikTok is under the microscope of US politicians, who are closely scrutinizing how it handles political content. With its parent company, ByteDance, planted in China—a country flagged as a foreign adversary by US—concerns are mounting about potential information manipulation to serve political agendas. Attempts to ban the app have hit legal roadblocks, leaving TikTok squarely in the crossfire of geopolitical tensions.

Granted, the report has its limitations, with challenges in isolating hashtag analysis to post-TikTok launch periods. TikTok fires back at the findings, calling out flawed methodology and stressing that hashtags are user-generated, not dictated by the platform. They argue that the content in question is readily available, dismissing claims of suppression as baseless, and highlighting that one-third of TikTok videos don't even bother with hashtags.

Joel Finkelstein, co-founder at NCRI, acknowledges the data constraints but stands firm on the report's conclusions based on publicly available information. Despite the hurdles, the study provides valuable insights into the nuanced dynamics of hashtag usage across these two influential social media platforms.

When we look at how social media handles conflicts, it seems like platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and even TikTok might be leaning towards supporting their own bottom lines. This raises concerns about whether these platforms prioritize free speech and unbiased information or if they have their own biases. It's not just about one platform; it's a broader issue highlighting that social media lacks consistent moral and ethical standards. Instead, these platforms often follow their own agendas, sometimes putting profit before sharing accurate information and promoting fair free speech. This raises important questions about the need for better regulations to ensure that social media platforms operate ethically and responsibly while navigating complex global issues.

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