There are very few domains of life in which thoughtful, sound advice can be delivered in 60 exhilarating seconds. If you’re scrolling through TikTok and think you’ve found actionable advice about cooking, personal finance, fitness or anything else… take heed, because you probably haven’t.
Our own Claire Lower has already catalogued one classic form of the genre, the fake cooking shitpost. The TikToker makes a video in the form of a recipe tutorial, with deliberately absurdist methods, as a joke. If you’re not in on the joke, you might see this and think it actually works to cook a steak in your toaster. (It does not.)
But it’s not just food videos that follow this format. Bloomberg features several examples here of videos incorporating slick-sounding math that are not actually meant as financial advice, but are delivered in that format. For example: charge everything to a credit card, pay it off with another card, and continue for the rest of your life, never having to pay real money for anything.
I wouldn’t fall for those, you might say. But does that mean you’d believe the advice in a TikTok if it were slightly less absurd, slightly less jokey? You might.
We don’t always turn on the critical-thinking part of our brain when we encounter things that are fun and entertaining. If I showed you a TikTok as part of a quiz to spot misinformation, you’d question what you heard. But if it’s just something you see while scrolling through dance videos, you might give it the same credence you would to, say, something said by a friend at a party.
Even where there is a grain of truth, the take-home message can be all wrong
Remember the TikTok where the lady soaked her strawberries in salt water and found little worms crawling out of them? She said that all strawberries have these worms, since they’re the larvae of a fly that breeds in strawberry fields before the berries get to the store, and that you should remove them with her technique. Combined with the wiggling visual, that’s all quite easy to believe.
There’s some truth to the video—she certainly seemed to have fruit fly larvae in her berries—but far more falsehoods. Entomologists we spoke to said that the take-home messages were all wrong or misleading. These worms are not in all strawberries; you shouldn’t soak your berries in salt water; and keeping them in the fridge, which the TikTok-er didn’t mention, is the way to keep them bug-free.
Fitness TikTok is rife with these types of mixed messages, too. If a young woman has a round butt (or poses to make it look so), she can give butt-building advice that feels like it should be true. But having watched a few of these videos, they are trash. Sure, they demonstrate some exercises that you’ll feel in your glutes, but you’re not going to drastically change the shape of your butt by doing 20 reps of clamshells instead of 10 or by doing treadmill sprints instead of lifting weights, to name a few of the more mundane-sounding claims out there. Bad information isn’t always surprising or spectacular or too good to be true. It is often just a boring waste of time.
But no matter the subject—whether it’s workout ideas or coronavirus conspiracies—the strength and the weakness of the TikTok format is that it removes all context. Where did this information come from? Is the person giving advice an expert source, or a shitposter? Scrolling through goofy videos might be fun, but you still have to think this stuff through in exactly the same way your parents should be questioning the OAN stories that show up in their Facebook feeds.