2022 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Inside TikTok’s Dangerously Addictive Algorithm

About the Project

TikTok, the fast-growing social-media network popular with kids, sends its users deep into harmful rabbit holes of content that are hard to escape and feature sex, extreme dieting and drugs.

The Wall Street Journal used the data gathered by over a hundred bots, or automated accounts to visually reveal the most information to date about how TikTok’s algorithm works, and how the app can quickly drive young users into endless spools of adult content, including videos touting drug use and promoting pornography sites

Readers explored a rich, interactive graphics feature, a series of data visualizations, and a thirteen-minute video investigation, all underpinned by an ambitious undertaking of data journalism using sophisticated ML techniques. A three-part podcast series showed how easily young women get pulled into rabbit holes of content – and how hard it was for them to escape.

In a Senate Commerce Committee panel, Sen. Amy Klobuchar cited the Journal’s reporting saying it showed “TikTok’s algorithm can push young users into content glorifying eating disorders, drugs, violence.” Despite challenging the Journal’s methodology, the company said it had made a number of adjustments to how people can have control over the algorithm.

Sen. John Thune said the Journal’s reporting helped make the case for a bipartisan bill that would require social media platforms to give users an alternative to the opaque algorithms that curate the content they see. “Congress needs to be heard from in this space, particularly with respect to the use of algorithms and the way that users are manipulated,” he said.

A House Oversight and Reform subcommittee, citing the Journal’s coverage, asked in a letter to TikTok’s CEO for more information about its algorithm and the content it serves to kids, saying it was “deeply concerned that TikTok risks harming millions of children.”

A coalition of eight state attorneys general launched an investigation into TikTok, seeking information about the harm to young people detailed in the Journal’s reporting.