You might find it jarring to open up your favorite news app and find a story from a professional news agency next to a user-made video slamming a politician. That’s exactly what I saw on the news app TopBuzz, where a Reuters article introducing Israeli politician Benny Gantz sat alongside a user-made video mocking US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez titled “The things coming out of your mouth are absolutely idiotic.”

This mixture of reputable news organizations and user-generated content is a key part of Toutiao, the app that’s changed how Chinese people consume news. And it’s also a part of TopBuzz, creator ByteDance’s attempt to replicate Toutiao’s success in the West.

TopBuzz isn’t just another Apple News or Google News. Smaller publishers or individual creators play a huge part. Essentially anyone can set up a publisher account and start pushing out content. Toutiao says on its website that by October 2017, 900,000 of its 1.1 million publishing accounts were “self-media.” 

That means a lot of Toutiao’s content is being generated by individuals or small-teams of content creators. Among the rest are more than 5,500 professional news outlets and more than 70,000 accounts created by government institutions and other organizations.

TopBuzz also pulls content from media partners that include established brands like AP, Reuters, CNN and the Guardian. But it’s recruiting creators, too. With that huge pool of content, ByteDance’s AI learns your interests and tracks what you click. Then it uses that data to feed you similar “personalized” content, much like ByteDance does with TikTok.

For a new user, it looks like the recommended stories on TopBuzz’s news feed are mostly from established media organizations. But even without much history on the app, it offers some odd recommendations.

Without following any accounts, I scrolled through the Politics news feed on TopBuzz. Along with stories from Reuters, CNN, Newsweek and HuffPost, I saw quite a few dubious celebrity gossip stories and a story about bunnies holding funny signs.

But the oddness doesn’t stop there. Further down in the feed, right above a USA Today article about British oil tanker Stena Impero being able to leave Iran, there was a video titled “What the f***, Joe Biden?” posted by user Casanova990. Then there was another article titled “Ukraine was a trap, Dems are caught, screeching will intensify” published by a website named CD Media.

This highlights a key difference between TopBuzz and Toutiao: The Chinese app only allows “legitimate” media and government institutions to publish political content.

TopBuzz’s pick for political news contains bunny pictures and Julianne Hough going to a party. (Picture: TopBuzz)

In China, Toutiao changed the way many people in the country consume news online. Featuring an endless feed of personalized content, its 120 million daily active users spend an average of more than an hour on it every day. ByteDance now wants to recreate that success outside of China.

TopBuzz was launched in 2015, but it’s only recently that the app has managed to gain some traction in the world of digital news. It claims to have more than 36 million monthly active users -- significantly more than the 1.8 million it had in November 2017. In December 2018, TopBuzz referred 34 million pageviews to publishers around the world, according to content intelligence platform Chartbeat. That was 36 times more referrals than in January 2017.

Fang Kecheng, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that aggregating content from professional and amateur sources is not inherently a bad thing, but there are problems that platforms need to address.

As a media researcher, Fang is familiar with how tech companies have shaped the online content landscape. He was widely applauded on Chinese social media in January for an article titled “Search engine Baidu is dead'' that he posted to his public WeChat account. In it, he argued that Baidu was prioritizing articles from its content platform Baijiahao in the results of its own search engine.

Fang told us he thinks it's important for news and content aggregators like Toutiao to inform users about the source of the information they’re reading.

“It’s not like when you used to go to a news stand and know exactly which newspaper you’re buying,” Fang said. He added that it’s a platform’s responsibility to add clear annotations and more background information for news sources. 

“Especially now, when the world is overflowing with fake news and low-quality information,” Fang said.

It seems like TopBuzz may also need to deal with these problems if it wants to keep growing in the US, which is currently its biggest market. App Annie told us that the US accounted for more than half of the traffic on TopBuzz in the second quarter this year (followed by Brazil and Japan). For 80 days in the same quarter, TopBuzz ranked among the top 10 apps in the news and magazine category on the Google Play store in the US, App Annie said.

ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing, where it helped change news consumption in China with Toutiao. Now it's trying to take its approach to news global with TopBuzz. (Picture: Reuters)

In another post in my Politics news feed, one account named Cute Sally showed a video in which the narrator claims that Iran is planning to attack the US and repeatedly refers to CNN as “the fake news.” The original story is about Iran’s Foreign Minister warning of “all-out war” if the US or Saudi Arabia strike in response to the bombing of a Saudi oil field.

The illustrator in the video, Christopher Greene, is the founder of a website called Alternative Media Television (AMTV). In another video from AMTV, Greene said he had a vision of a California city burning and asked people to evacuate from the state immediately.

The more your scroll through the app, the more you’ll see content from places you may never have heard of. This includes sources like LifeZette and The Liberty Eagle.

The Intercept has said LifeZette frequently publishes articles “of dubious veracity.” And The Liberty Eagle has been branded a questionable source by fact-check site Media Bias/Fact Check because it exhibits extreme right-wing bias and poor sourcing. LifeZette has 6,300 followers on TopBuzz and The Liberty Eagle has 12,000.

Even if you’re scouring the app for official news sources, though, the content might not be coming from where you think.

I saw a video news clip posted by the TopBuzz account MSNBC, but I couldn’t tap through to the profile page. So I searched MSNBC on the app and found five accounts with that name, three of which use the official MSNBC logo. But the US broadcaster is not among TopBuzz’s media partners listed on the company’s site. MSNBC has not responded to our email enquiry about whether it has a deal with TopBuzz.

In its community guidelines, TopBuzz says that it does not allow untruthful information and restricts low-quality content. It says that when users “exploit its recommendation system” by publishing content that violates its guidelines, the content will be removed immediately. ByteDance has not responded to our request for comment.

China, with its strict content controls, isn’t known for having a problem with polarizing political opinions showing up in news media, but Toutiao has still managed to irk Chinese authorities with its algorithm-driven content model. State media have slammed it for spreading pornographic content, pushing click bait and causing “information addiction.”

Chinese media have also repeatedly written about problems with plagiarism on content platforms like Toutiao. In October last year, Toutiao said it punished 3,148 accounts over plagiarism, either by deducting points, banning them from publishing or completely shutting down the accounts. Fang thinks that TopBuzz may face similar pressure overseas, where copyright protection is stricter than in China.