Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the first TikTok war?

The platform associated with teen dance videos is changing, catalysed by the war

TikTok is estimated to have 1.2 billion active monthly users worldwide, with about 85 million in the United States. Two-thirds of its users are under 30. It is associated more with viral teenage dancing videos than with hard news of global conflicts. But that is changing, catalysed 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?

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.

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, There is a long history of such correlations. In recent history the war in Vietnam has been labelled “the first TV war”, the 1991 Gulf war 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.

Viral content

How and why do particular forms and platforms of media representation prove commensurate to 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 colour footage of the second World War. Surely that was a black-and-white war?

The advent of TikTok as a go-to platform for representation of the war in Ukraine is due in large part to characteristics of the app. Firstly, its algorithm, which is designed to drive high engagement viral content. Secondly, its simple video-making tools. And thirdly, its style, especially the effects of immediacy and intimacy produced by snappy personalised videos.

There is no doubt that TikTok heightens users’ sense of immersion in relation to the war in Ukraine, especially via footage provided by civilians there. Writing in the New Yorker, Kyle Chayka observes that “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, with messaging denouncing the Russian invasion and portraits of the daily lives of a traumatised 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 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 certainly 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.

Russian aims

Overall, though, it is difficult to discern if the flood of audio-visuals is complementing or countering Russia’s disinformation campaign. On the one hand, it would seem to further the aim of Russian propaganda, which is to sow confusion. On the other, many of the videos promote empathy and a sense of solidarity 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 popular public interest that has kept this issue at the forefront of attention and so increased pressure on policymakers and politicians to act.

At any rate, the White House is hedging its bets. In mid-March, it invited 30 TikTok influencers on to a Zoom call to discuss the war in Ukraine.

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?

This is also running counter to a 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”. Zuckerberg was not indicating Americans’ lack of interest in foreign matters but rather emphasising the importance of “relevance” and “personalism” as the defining features of social media usage (and the not-so-secret sauce of his business model). At the very least, it was assumed social media usage would reinforce an American solipsism in relation to worlds of suffering others.

The war in Ukraine – and TikTok – may be testing that assumption.

Liam Kennedy is professor of American studies and director of the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin