Tracking Russian military movements. Coordinating Ukrainian defense. Boosting morale. These phrases sound like they belong in a war room, but they’re actually just some of the ways TikTok is being used in the most Internet-accessible war in history.
Logging on these days is guaranteed to give you emotional whiplash from a tide whose waves you can’t see the height or breadth of: a vast ocean of tweets, “How to Help” posts, and kitten reels moving at breakneck speed.
But for most of our generation, it’s also where we get our news. In the 19th century, images and cartoons brought home the reality of the Crimean war. Then in the 20th century, photographs of the World Wars took weeks to develop. But in the 21st century, the Arab Spring was practically live-streamed on Twitter. From Tunisia to Bahrain, people filmed their chants and demands on their smartphones and sent them to the world, unedited and uncensored. To many, the use of social media in those demonstrations is one of the most important reasons for its rapid spread.
Social media is the way global social justice movements travel today, from #BlackOutTuesday (originally an attempt by two music insiders to pause business as usual across the industry in support of Black Lives Matter, which morphed overnight into a less focused action, resulting in a sea of black boxes across Instagram) to #MeToo, the movement against sexual abuse and harassment.
Its ability to be used to coordinate underground acts of resistance against oppressive regimes, disseminate ideas at breakneck speed, and conjure up morale-boosting narratives makes it a powerful tool, and one that should not be underestimated.
President Zelensky is not one to have made this underestimation. From his very first video, posted from the streets of Kyiv, of him and his cabinet on the second night of the invasion, it was clear that the Ukrainian President was a social media force to be reckoned with. Since then he has been sharing daily updates which has allowed him to “dominate the information war”. Then there’s Ukraine’s official Twitter account. The content shared is so wildly different from the serious tone of what you might expect from a social media platform belonging to a country experiencing war that its profile bio reads “Yes, this is the official Twitter account of Ukraine.”
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not the first social media war — but it is the first to play out on TikTok. Welcome to WarTok: a dystopian social media reality in which war is explained to you by a 15-year-old, where you’re closer to conflict than ever before but you can never be completely sure what is real.
What Is WarTok?
WarTok = War TikTok. While TikTok has desperately tried to maintain that it is apolitical, let’s face it, it just isn’t.
TikTok has over a billion users and according to leaked documents dating back to June 2020, at least 5 million videos are posted per hour. Over the past couple of weeks, the site has been flooded with an endless stream of military activity, civilian protest, 101 explainers, and more.
Getting content in front of eyeballs on TikTok’s “For You” page is the algorithm’s job. It’s the nifty piece of software that can thrust everyday people into the superstardom limelight overnight, and can also mean that shaky footage of the dust settling after a Russian missile attack can potentially be seen by millions of people within minutes of being uploaded.
The speed with which video is filmed and shared on TikTok and the ubiquity of smartphones has created an online phenomenon that’s as powerful as it is dangerous.
TikTok’s algorithm serves up content it thinks people want. And there’s plenty of appetite for videos about war right now: in the 15 days between Feb. 20 and March 11, views on videos tagged with #ukraine jumped from 6.4 billion to 27.6 billion. That’s about 1.4 billion views per day.
How TikTok Is Being Used in the Fight Against Putin’s Invasion
To Track Russian Military Movements
While Putin and top Russian officials denied that Moscow was preparing to mount an invasion of neighboring Ukraine for months, TikTok told another story. Military analysts were able to examine videos uploaded to the platform showing sophisticated Russian weaponry and military vehicles speeding by on railways, highways, and local roads toward positions near Ukraine.
To Gather Evidence
Ukranians have been using the platform to document the brutality of the violence. Some digital sleuths are already collating the phone footage that they think could play a critical role in investigating war crimes after the combat ends.
TikTok creators such as Xena Solo, Noah Glenn Carter, Philip DeFranco, and A.B. Burns-Tucker are giving 101 explainers on the situation, often using the upbeat dialect and choppy aesthetic norms of irreverent comedy TikTok clips. Burns-Tucker, for example, whose handle is @iamlegallyhype, refers to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “Big Bank P”, Ukraine as “Yuki”, and posted a clip from the film Friday to illustrate how she anticipated the conflict would go down.
While these types of videos attempt to explain the complexity of the geo-political forces at play, there is another type of “how to” video aimed at Ukranians on the ground. Think “How to make a molotov cocktail” and “How to drive abandoned or captured Russian military vehicles.”
TikTok has been used to strengthen national resolve and amplify stories of bravery. Videos include instances of Ukranians stopping tanks with their bodies, singing the national anthem in front of Russian tanks, and defending villages.
Coordinating Defense Strategies
Ukrainians have raced to disseminate defensive strategies, plot escape routes, and share videos and intelligence about the code signs of Russian saboteurs and the locations of Russian military vehicles.
Rallying the West
TikTok has proved to be an exceptional tool in helping rally the West to Ukraine’s side as it fights to defend its democracy from a military behemoth. Ordinary Ukrainians have used the platform to show how similar their lives are to people watching and a flood of moving videos including one of a grandmother saying goodbye to her friends, and a father saying goodbye to his daughter to stay behind and fight, have pulled on heartstrings globally.
Sharing What Life is Like in Ukraine Right Now
Ukrainian photographer Valeria Shashenok is using TikTok to document her daily life in Ukraine. In a video that went viral, Shashenok shares a “typical day in a bomb shelter” with the sarcastic caption “Living my best life 🥰🥰🥰 Thanks Russia!" In the video, she uses a heat gun as a hairdryer, she shows the destruction of the city, her dog questions why they’re living underground now, and her mother cooks over a pot on the floor.
@valerisssh Living my best life 🥰🥰🥰 Thanks Russia! #ukraine#stopwar#russiastop♬ Che La Luna - Louis Prima
What’s the Flip Side?
You guessed it: disinformation.
TikTok has around a billion users worldwide and millions of videos are uploaded every day. The sheer scale of this app means videos are spread at an incredibly fast rate which makes it nearly impossible to halt the spread of misinformation.
One video, which has racked up over 26 million views, shows a Russian soldier parachuting down into Ukrainian fields below with a huge smile on his face. Cue the outrage. Except it isn’t a Russian soldier. Those fields aren’t Ukrainian, and the year is 2015.
Another, which at the time of writing has 421K likes, shows on-the-ground footage of Ukrainian forces firing ray guns with the hashtag #WW3. Except it’s actually footage from a video game.
The same goes for thousands of videos being shared on TikTok that spread like wildfire. Largely because of its ability to trigger strong emotional responses, such footage travels faster than the real stuff. In fact research has shown that fake news travels six times faster than legitimate information on social media.
These are not just fake videos for the sake of it. They’re often being used to scam people into donating money to fake funds and charities. TikTok makes giving easy, which can be exploited: You can send a “gift” to livestreamers that amounts to actual cash with the click of a button.
How Can I Help?
The world needs us to be more diligent and eagle-eyed consumers of content. You can start by carefully considering what you choose to share, checking sources, and seeking out verified content like this photo collection. If you want to fact-check news and information you're seeing about Ukraine, Ukraine Facts is a great resource; you can also use the fact-checking website of news agency AFP here.
What Else Can I Do? 3 Actions You Can Take Right Now to Help Ukraine
1. Support the UN's Ukraine Crisis Appeal: The United Nations has launched an urgent humanitarian appeal for Ukraine but we need governments and businesses everywhere to step up and help them meet the US$1.7 billion needed for life-saving assistance. You can use your voice to put pressure on them. Take action here.
2. Platform Ukrainian Voices by Sharing the Kyiv Declaration: Ukrainian civil society organizations have come together to create the Kyiv Declaration with urgent appeals for the world. They are requesting safe spaces to be provided for civilians, sanctions on Russian banks, support for local humanitarian responses, the freezing of assets and visa revocation of Putin and his cronies, defensive military assistance, and provision of equipment to track war crimes. You and you can take action to help them be heard by amplifying their appeal. Take action here.
3. Help Get Life-saving Medical Support to Ukraine: The medical supplies needed to support the citizens of Ukraine are dwindling. Oxygen supplies are already dangerously low, and insulin, bandages, and other essential equipment are fast running out. Global Citizen is partnering with Direct Relief and International Medical Corps to get medical support directly to people in need. You can help amplify our call by sending an email to companies to donate life-saving medical supplies. Take action here.
You can find more ways you can take action to support the people of Ukraine and those impacted globally by the crisis here.