TikTok is estimated to have 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide, with around 85 million of them in the United States. Two-thirds of its users are under 30. It is more associated with viral teenage dance videos than hard news about world conflicts. But that is changing, catalyzed by the war in Ukraine.
What might this mean for the way we see and understand war? More specifically, what might this mean for how Americans – traditionally largely indifferent to foreign affairs – view and understand war?
In the United States, the war in Ukraine is covered or followed intensively through several media – television, podcasts, Twitter feeds and Instagram and TikTok videos. The effect is an immersive spectacle of war in which conflict seems close and urgent.
That Americans were consumed by the war in Ukraine is unusual. Foreign affairs generally do not engage the American public unless the United States is directly involved and American lives are at risk.
While Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the preferred social media platforms for news, TikTok has shown the strongest relative news viewership growth compared to war.
Some American commentators call the war in Ukraine the “first TikTok war”. To some extent, this is just lazy labeling. There is a long history of such correlations. In recent history, the Vietnam War has been dubbed the “first televised war”, the 1991 Gulf War dubbed the “CNN War”, and a series of Arab uprisings in 2011 have been dubbed the “Facebook revolutions”.
Such designations are reductive and can mislead. In Vietnam, for example, news photography was as important as television. The image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong prisoner on a street in Saigon during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and the image of a naked Vietnamese girl running down a road while burning napalm in 1972 – these Iconic moments were filmed as well as photographed, but it’s the photographs we recall.
How and why do certain forms and platforms of media representation turn out to measure up to the imagination of an audience in the face of war? It’s a complex core question of how and why we watch and remember wars in certain ways. This is why people are often surprised when they see color images of World War II. Surely it was a black and white war?
The rise of TikTok as a go-to platform for portraying the war in Ukraine is largely due to the features of the app. First, its algorithm, which is designed to generate high-engagement viral content. Second, its simple video creation tools. And third, its style, in particular the effects of immediacy and intimacy produced by eye-catching personalized videos.
There is no doubt that TikTok reinforces the feeling of immersion of users in relation to the war in Ukraine, in particular through images provided by civilians there. Writing in the New Yorker, Kyle Chayka observes that “Ukrainians appear to viewers less as distant victims than as Internet users who know the same references, listen to the same music and use the same social networks as them”.
Ukrainian influencers on TikTok have used this sense of familiarity to reach large audiences in the region and around the world, with posts denouncing the Russian invasion and portraits of the daily life of a traumatized but defiant population. . An example is @xenasolo, a young woman from Crimea, who currently has 629,000 followers. She offers frequent monologues and question-and-answer sessions about the war, often using humor to frame the horrors and connect with her peers around the world. A popular video shows her carrying on an imaginary conversation in a bunker with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some US commentators say TikTok is an unregulated and dangerous source of misinformation and misinformation about a complex geopolitical and humanitarian crisis. Bloomberg host Emily Chang says younger users “will have the wrong idea of what’s going on in this war.”
There are certainly legitimate concerns about the lack of checks and balances. The platform struggles to monitor image feeds, as a BBC News investigation points out: “Since the early days of war, fake live feeds have attracted one of the highest numbers of views on TikTok”. Many viral videos are taken from old Ukrainian military training videos or military video games as well as old news videos from the conflicts in Chechnya or Syria.
Overall, however, it is difficult to discern whether the flood of audiovisuals complements or thwarts Russia’s disinformation campaign. On the one hand, it would seem to serve the purpose of Russian propaganda, which is to sow confusion. On the other hand, many videos promote empathy and a sense of togetherness among young viewers who view the war from the perspective of their peers.
It’s impossible to know if the coverage of the war on TikTok has a direct impact on politics in the US or elsewhere, but it has certainly added to the grassroots public interest that has kept this issue front and center. and so increased the pressure on policy makers and politicians to act.
In any case, the White House is hedging its bets. In mid-March, he invited 30 TikTok influencers 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 dealing with war through social media, including TikTok. How does it frame perceptions of geopolitical tensions and conflicts? How does he represent the suffering of distant others? With what effects and impacts?
It also goes against a common assumption that social media platforms exacerbate disinterest in distant affairs. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, once told his colleagues that “a dying squirrel in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Zuckerberg wasn’t pointing to Americans’ lack of interest in foreign affairs, but rather emphasizing the importance of “relevance” and “personalism” as defining characteristics of social media use (and the not-so-secret sauce of its business model). At the very least, it was assumed that the use of social media would reinforce an American solipsism in relation to the worlds of other people’s suffering.
The war in Ukraine – and TikTok – could test this hypothesis.
Liam Kennedy is Professor of American Studies and Director of the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin