The first TikTok war

From Ukrainian teenagers showing off their air-raid shelter décor following the format of a popular meme to young soldiers dancing to Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, TikTok has been filled with stories for a week now. the Russian invasion of Ukraine following the light-hearted aesthetic canons of the platform. To the point that several have defined the one in progress in Ukraine “the first war on TikTok”, or “the most online war ever, at least until the next one”.

On the most popular social network among teenagers around the world, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance and with over a billion active users, for a week the stream of short videos that appears to users alternates contents that comment on the latest series released on Netflix or show a ballet in an American bedroom to the sometimes violent images of the situation in Ukraine.

There are videos of the bombs falling on Kiev collected by a twenty-year-old Ukrainian woman who until a few days earlier had mainly published glimpses of her life in London, with a song by MGMT in the background; a Ukrainian grandmother who tearfully calls her friends to greet them before the Russian troops arrive; an influencer used to talking about her finances showing the tons of cars lined up to refuel.


???? #ukraine #foodsupply #update #kyiv

♬ original sound – MONEY HONEY ????????

But there are also the memes in which Ukraine and Russia are compared to the protagonists of the popular TV series Euphoria who quarrel with each other; journalists sent by the international media to tell what is happening; users who fell in love with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and now post videos from his past as a comedian and actor; the Russian nationalists who keep claiming that their country has been provoked. In the weeks leading up to the attack, some videos of tanks and soldiers in motion were useful in reconstructing the movements of the Russian army.

There is a big disinformation problem: even if the app provides a function called “digital literacy center”, which explains a few things about how fake news is recognized, the functioning and pace of TikTok make it Most users don't spend a lot of time verifying whether what they see is true or not. Thus, in addition to the disinformation campaigns coordinated by Russia to justify the invasion, on TikTok there are also common users who, to collect donations (which can be made directly within the app) or followers to be monetized at a later time. , pretend to be Ukrainian citizens in distress or pass off video game scenes as truthful images from the front.

Clip from a Live stream on #TikTok ???? #Ukraine

– dUsTiN (@dustinfalgout) February 25, 2022

It is a chaos in which everything appears decontextualized and in which it is difficult to distinguish reality, fiction and propaganda. This is the way in which TikTok is designed: a potentially infinite stream of short, captivating but not particularly accurate contents, in which not only the videos of the profiles that have been decided to follow appear, but everything that the platform algorithm identifies as interesting for the user.

@ alexhook2303

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♬ Originalton – Hi

Someone jokes that the algorithm is so precise that it seems to read minds: in reality it more simply records how long the user watches individual videos, which ones he appreciates and which ones he shares with his contacts, with the aim of proposing content that catch the maximum attention, to keep them on the platform as long as possible. With the outbreak of the war, the attention of so many people is on Ukraine, to the point that the algorithm is ending up retrieving videos published months ago or portraying other wars to satisfy users' content desires.

Between February 20 and February 28 alone, video views tagged with #Ukraine went from 6.4 billion to 17.1 billion – 928,000 views per minute. As of March 3, it had already grown to 22.5 billion. Considering that, according to data dating back to summer 2020, over 28 million Russians are enrolled in the application, there are those who hope that the application will be useful in making the Ukrainian situation known also in Russia, where the government prevents the media to use the words “attack”, “invasion” or “war” to describe what is happening.

Credit: repnicktv on #tiktok 2.3.21 xx # london #uk #ukraine #russia #standwithukraine #repnicktv

– YGWhitburn (@YGWhitburn) March 3, 2022

“In recent weeks there have been small cases of Russian disinformation turned outward, but Russia seems much more interested in directing the opinions of its citizens,” Ryan Broderick, journalist and independent researcher who deals with the Internet and politics, explains to the Post. . «Ukraine, on the other hand, is using social media to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. And it was an incredibly effective campaign, but, like all Internet campaigns, the message runs the risk of being trivialized and becoming a meme or losing attention as soon as a more flashy theme arrives. “

In his February 24 speech, Zelensky appealed to Russian TikTok users, asking them (along with scientists, doctors, bloggers and comedians) to make their voices heard to end the war. A few days later, the Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor had asked that the app stop including military content in posts recommended for minors, arguing that much of the content on the subject is anti-Russian.

It's not the first time that a social platform plays an important role in the narrative of a conflict – the Arab Springs of 2011 would not have been the same without Twitter and Facebook, and the Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan last year created serious problems of content moderation to tech companies – and it's not the first time that big news has monopolized TikTok for days.

A video gone viral on #tiktok shows #racism to a group of african people been rejected not to enter into a train which was leaving # ukraine.All lives matter whether your #black or #white. ???????? # blm #BlackLivesMatter #racism #Blacks #AfricansinUkraine #Africa

– Kurts Jay Solomon (@kurts_solomon) February 28, 2022

Despite the setting of TikTok is that of an apolitical and carefree space, and despite the random and non-chronological order in which the contents are presented does not favor current issues at all, on the platform the videos of the fires in Australia, Israeli violence in Palestine, the attack on the US Capitol. TikTok is filled with activism videos, analysis and commentary on current events, as well as disinformation and propaganda.

“Much of TikTok's success depends on both how visual it is and how instant it is. From memes and ballets to the assault on the Capitol, it captures the world with an immediacy that other platforms cannot match, ”Chris Stokel-Walker wrote on Wired. “The rise of TikTok is, and always has been, the result of how easy it is to use. The editing tools and filters within the app make it easier than any other platform to capture and share the world around us. If Facebook is heavy, Instagram is curated, and YouTube requires a load of equipment and editing time, TikTok is fast and dirty, the kind of video platform that can shape the perception of how a conflict is unfolding. “

“Documentation on social media is less likely to last – it is voluntarily ephemeral – but for the consumer it can create a more immediate and engaging experience of a situation that is unfolding live,” writes Kyle Chayka in the New Yorker. “A woman gives birth after taking refuge in a subway station in Kiev. Elsewhere on the subway, families huddle their cats and dogs. A Ukrainian father tearfully greets his family. A farm tractor appears to be pulling an abandoned Russian tank. A British man takes a video while he prepares a bag, in which he also puts the tea, to go to Ukraine “to save my wife and my son”. Together, these fragments present a montage of a life suddenly ended in the midst of war. They conjure thoughts about how you might react yourself in such mundane and terrible circumstances, equipped only with the phone's camera. What else is there to do in an air-raid shelter but to take videos and transmit them to the outside world? “.