As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine plays out online, the platform’s design and algorithm prove ideal for the messiness of war—but a nightmare for the truth.
The current conflict is a very different kind of social media war, fueled by TikTok’s transformative effect on the old norms of tech. Its more established competitors fundamentally changed the nature of conflict, but TikTok has created a stream of war footage the likes of which we have never seen, from grandmothers saying goodbye to friends to instructions on how to drive captured Russian tanks.
TikTok’s rise is—and always has been—a result of how easy it is to use. Its in-app editing and filters make it easier than any other platform to capture and share the world around us. If Facebook is bloated, Instagram is curated, and YouTube requires a shedload of equipment and editing time, TikTok is quick and dirty—the kind of video platform that can shape perceptions of how a conflict is unfolding. And as anyone who’s browsed social media in the last week knows, what happens on TikTok rarely stays on TikTok.
“As an analyst of what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment, I’m getting 95 percent of my information from Twitter,” says Ed Arnold, research fellow in European security at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). “Before that, 90 percent of your information would come from official sources, like intelligence sources.” But among the flurry of tweets, Arnold has noticed a strange trend: A significant chunk of the videos being shared are emblazoned with the TikTok watermark. “It’s odd,” he says.
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