Mozilla report found more than a dozen TikTok influencers who had undisclosed paid relationships to post political messages; TikTok banned political ads in 2019 (Cat Zakrzewski/Washington Post)

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TikTok has one of the strictest bans on political advertising in the tech industry. But partisan influencers are flying under the radar on the social network, exposing a critical blindspot in the company’s rules, researchers say.

A new Mozilla report uncovered more than a dozen examples of influencers on the platform with apparent financial ties to political organizations posting without basic disclosures that their messages were sponsored.The researchers say both conservative and liberal influencers were exploiting a “loophole” in TikTok’s rules and enforcement.
Influencers are playing a bigger role in politics, prompting new concerns about political ad transparency online.

Lawmakers have been calling for greater regulation of political ads on social media for years, after Russian actors exploited targeted ads on social media to influence the 2016 election. Since then, companies across Silicon Valley have tightened their ad policies, but researchers are concerned that paid content from influencers could create a new host of challenges.

Sponsored content, often called “sponcon,” has long been controversial because it can be difficult to differentiate from a regular post in the social media ether. Some experts have called on the companies to treat sponcon the way they would treat traditional political ads.

The Mozilla researchers say their findings show that TikTok is not keeping up with industry best practices on political advertising or disclosing sponsored content.

“Platforms have come before them who have had to sort this out, and have actually undergone a lot of scrutiny for not sorting it out sooner,” said Brandi Geurkink, Mozilla’s senior manager of advocacy in an interview. “We’re looking into TikTok and not understanding why they haven’t implemented the most basic things around ad transparency. … TikTok is really falling behind in that regard.”

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