Originally written for the Irish Times:
TikTok is estimated to have 1.2 billion active monthly users worldwide, with about 85 million in the US. Two-thirds of its users are under 30.
The platform is associated more with viral teenage dancing videos than with hard news of global conflicts. But that is changing, catalyzed by the war in Ukraine.
What might this mean for how we see and understand war? More particularly, what might it mean for how Americans – traditionally largely indifferent to foreign affairs – see and understand war?
TikTok’s War Spectacle
In the US, the war in Ukraine is being intensively covered or tracked via multiple media – TV, podcasts, Twitter feeds, and Instagram and TikTok videos. The effect is an immersive spectacle of war in which the conflict feels proximate and urgent.
That Americans have been consumed by the war in Ukraine is unusual. Foreign affairs do not usually engage the American public unless the US is directly involved and American lives are at risk.
But this has changed with TikTok’s rise:while Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the favoured social media platforms for news, TikTok has shown the largest relative growth in news viewership in relation to the war.
Some American commentators are calling the war in Ukraine “the first TikTok war”. To some extent this is simply lazy labelling, just as the war in Vietnam wqas labelled “the first TV war”, the 1991 Gulf War was called “CNN’s war”, and a host of Arab uprisings in 2011 were termed “Facebook revolutions”.
Such appellations are reductive and can be misleading. In Vietnam, for example, news photography was as important as television. The image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner in a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and the image of a naked Vietnamese girl running down a road while burning from napalm in 1972 – these iconic moments were filmed as well as photographed, but it is the photographs we recall.
So how and why do particular forms and platforms of media representation shape a public’s imagination of a war? It is a question that goes to the complex heart of how and why we look at and remember wars in certain ways. It is why people are often surprised when they see color footage of World War II: surely that was in black-and-white?
The advent of TikTok as a go-to platform for representation of the war in Ukraine is due in large part to the app’s characteristics: its algorithm, which is designed to drive high-engagement viral content; its simple video-making tools; and its style, especially the effects of immediacy and intimacy produced by snappy, personalized videos.
TikTok heightens users’ sense of immersion in the war in Ukraine, especially through footage provided by civilians there. Writing in the New Yorker, Kyle Chayka summarizes, “Ukrainians appear to viewers less as distant victims than as fellow web denizens who know the same references, listen to the same music and use the same social networks as they do.”
Ukrainian influencers on TikTok have used this sense of familiarity to reach large audiences in the region and globally, denouncing the Russian invasion and portraying the daily lives of a traumatized but defiant citizenry. One example is @xenasolo, a young female native of Crimea, who currently has 629,000 followers. She provides frequent monologues and question-and-answer sessions about the war, often using humour to frame the horrors and to connect with her peers across the world. A popular video has her conduct an imaginary conversation in a bunker with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some American commentators argue that TikTok is an unregulated and dangerous source of misinformation and disinformation about a complex geopolitical and humanitarian crisis. Bloomberg host Emily Chang argues that younger users “will have the wrong idea of what is going on in this war”.
There are legitimate concerns about the paucity of checks and balances. The platform is struggling to monitor the flows of imagery, as a BBC News investigation points out: “From the early days of the war, fake livestreams have drawn some of the highest numbers of views on TikTok.” Many viral videos are taken from old Ukrainian military training videos or from military video games as well as from old news videos of conflict in Chechnya or Syria.
Can TikTok Challenge Russia?
It is difficult to discern if the flood of audio-visuals is complementing or countering Russia’s disinformation campaign. On the one hand, the videos seem to further the aim of Russian propaganda, which is to sow confusion. On the other, many promote empathy and a sense of solidarity with Ukrainians, particularly among younger viewers who see the war from the vantage point of their peers.
It is impossible to know if the war coverage on TikTok is directly impacting policy in the US or elsewhere, but it has certainly added to the public interest that has kept this issue at the forefront of attention — thus increasing pressure on policymakers and politicians to act. In a sign of the influence, the White House invited 30 TikTok influencers in mid-March onto a Zoom call to discuss the war.
New aesthetic norms emerge from the correlation of war with new technologies of representation. We are only beginning to understand the impacts and effects of encountering and processing war via social media, including TikTok. How does it frame perceptions of geopolitical tensions and conflicts? How does it represent the suffering of distant others? With what effects and impacts?
But already this is breaking the common assumption that social media platforms exacerbate disinterest in distant affairs. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa”. At the very least, it was assumed social media usage would reinforce an American self-absorption in relation to worlds of suffering others.
The war in Ukraine – and TikTok – may be testing that assumption.