TikTok Newsletter 73
Propaganda, memetic warfare, and the sound of war
This is Understanding TikTok – your weekly TikTok update. My name is Marcus. I work as TikTok researcher and consultant. Besides publishing this newsletter i am a research fellow at HAW Hamburg, investigating disinformation campaigns.
Today we continue to talk about the war in #Ukraine. A hashtag that has been viewed more than 22 billion times, up from 6.4 bn on February 20th (via @stokel).
Preliminary remark: We live in an age of information disorder. Right now there are way too many fragmented bits and pieces (information pollution) to process coined by collapsing context and an evolving inscrutable information warfare. This demands to be very careful when sharing potential truths or pronouncements. In war, truth is the first casualty. Said Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus (525 BC - 456 BC). In fact this time truth already died way before the invasion began as we will see. Not sure if Aeschylus was familiar with concepts of prebunking. Why TikTok right now? The app has become so influential in this conflict that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to "TikTokers" as a group that could help end the war, in a speech directed at Russian citizens. (Reuters)
Ciarán O’Connor from ISD, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, has published an article on #Propaganda: Russia State-Controlled Media Flood TikTok With Ukraine Disinformation. Quote: This dispatch offers a first look at how state-controlled media outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today), Sputnik News and RIA Novosti, among others, are using TikTok’s features to spread disinformation that describes Ukraine as the aggressor, frames its soldiers and political leaders as Nazis, and promotes false claims about the conflict.
The investigation found that TikTok is more valuable for these outlets in terms of engagement than platforms like YouTube. O’Connor presents an example that claims Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fled the capital Kyiv for Lviv, citing a quote from Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. The claim is entirely false, as Zelensky himself has confirmed with various selfies and videos confirming that he remains in Kyiv, yet this TikTok video is still live, features no information clarifying it is false, and has been viewed over 1.1 million times.
TikTok, has not labelled content related to the invasion of Ukraine from Russian state-controlled outlets like other social media companies. A number of TikTok accounts linked to Russian state-controlled news organisations have been blocked to users in the EU following a 28 February directive by the European Union. Yet it appears these accounts and their content are still available to users in Ukraine, Russia and outside the EU, writes O’Connor.
Besides state-controlled media other groups affiliated with the Russian state have been active too. Analysts at several different research organizations contacted by The Associated Press said they are seeing a sharp increase in online activity by groups affiliated with the Russian state. An example given is the pro-russian account @funrussianprezident. In fact there are endless Putin stan accounts.
It seems to me that Russian propaganda on the platform is nonetheless outnumbered. At least in the English speaking parts of TikTok. Just compare the view counts: #istandwithrussia (812,1K views) versus #istandwithukraine (100,1M views).
Memeifying the Ukrainian situation – and the characters involved – helps to simplify what is an impossibly complicated, unpalatable series of events into something more understandable, reports Chris Stokel-Walker for Vice.
Memes – an idea or style which spreads because one person copies it from another – are a crucial part of Internet culture and TikTok. In the current situation we can watch in realtime as new memes are born, spread and remixed. Persons can become memes as well. In fact the President of Ukraine has been memefied. I have gathered some examples in this twitter thread.
Stokel-Walker provides some insights in his article why Zelenskyy’s past as an actor has helped turn him into a meme. “‘It feels more acceptable to make these kinds of references and jokes and memes when the person in question has been on Dancing with the Stars, has voiced Paddington, has been a comedian,’ says Georgie Carroll, an Australian academic studying the relationship between online creators and their audience.”
While all this sounds nice (Paddington) and understandable we should not forget that Zelenskyy’s meme-ification is part of a memetic warfare – a modern type of information warfare and psychological warfare involving the propagation of memes on social media. Therein lies a danger.
The war in Ukraine has unleashed a wave of misinformation and propaganda, but Western media seem unwilling to question many stories coming from one side, tweets Ishmael N. Daro, digital editor of Democracy Now! Quote: The understandable sympathy people feel with Ukrainians defending their country has meant that a lot of dubious claims are going unchecked, including by media outlets who have for years been warning about the dangers of misinformation.
Compare the undiscerning media coverage (Daily Star example) of “the dancing soldier” an account that has amassed more than 200 M views on TikTok.
Here is an interesting thread by Laura Edelson, a Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science on misinformation, including observations around the usage of cats.
The Sound of War
TikTok as a platform is heavily sound-driven. It is one of the cultural techniques here to use, remix or duet other people’s sounds. I have written about the spread of misinformation through using supposedly war sound in #72. I want to focus on something else today. TikTok is a unique platform to explore how sounds turn into ear worms, and then into memes.
Abidin and Kaye (The Critical Meme Reader. pp. 58) have emphasized the relevance of audio memes on TikTok. They even argue for an “aural turn” of memes here. Quote: Audio memes that include words or lyrics are an opportunity for TikTokers to engage with, or reinterpret, the meaning of songs or audio clips. TikTokers can engage with the stated meaning of clips to form communities of practice among groups of people who relate to the message in the meme. By reinterpreting or subverting meanings, TikTokers can use audio memes to expand the relatability of audio memes in unexpected directions.”
The current situation holds a lot of examples how this internalised cultural technique is being applied right now. Popular ear worms – indivisibly connected to a certain mood or imagery – are used to a) target certain audiences b) transport messages and c) allow for coping mechanisms in a time of utter despair.
An example for an ear worm turned to audio meme on the platform is the song Russian Woman, originally by Manizha. “I already know the song by heart”, comments user lejs_107 underneath one of more than 150,2K videos using the sound originally used by creator @_baba_sami. In fact there are many users who have uploaded the sound using different names and alphabets so it is hard to keep track here.
The song represented Russia in the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 and has been among the top 5 ESC songs on the platform in December 2021. It has been controversially discussed in Russia but remains a popular tune and targets - amongst others - a Russian audience on the platform. Manizha like other Eurovision singers from Ukraine and Russia has positioned herself against the war on social media.
The Ukrainian national anthem is a so called “popular sound” on the platform right now. 13,6K videos use the recording by Gloca Orchestra to spread solidarity messages, perseverance slogans or to underlay their videos performing the “Your twin president” effect. For comparison: A search for the german anthem leads to a recording of the Glocal Orchestra as well but only has 1952 videos. The National Anthem of the Russian Federation by The Red Army Choir has 5724 views.
Here is an example for sound as a coping mechanism.
Abidin reminds us to distinguish ‘public grieving’ and ‘publicity grieving’. Something that can be observed on the platform too.
O’Connor offers a quick thread on using TikTok as a search & research platform to help anyone monitoring the invasion
And here are global fact-checkers that unite to battle disinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Oh, TikTok has bumped up the max. video length to 10 minutes. People are yet undecided if this is a good or a bad thing. I guess we have to find out.
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I am happy to announce that i will discuss Memes, Moods & Manipulation – New opportunities for disinformation research on Tiktok at Misinfocon 2022 together with Abbie Richards and Ciaran O’Conner in a panel discussion hosted by Becca Ricks.
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