TikTok Newsletter 74
Russian Lives Matter, Bomb Shelter Vibes, Meme Drone Song
This is Understanding TikTok – your weekly TikTok update. My name is Marcus.
I am a journalist and TikTok researcher. When i opened TikTok this morning i saw these three videos first: a young man reflecting his move to Berlin, a german politician complaining about the seating arrangement in parliament and an ad for a fashion degree at a private university. It seemed as if Europe had gotten back to some sort of normal. No tanks, no ruins, no devastation.
It is day 14 of war in Europe. And TikTok is still in the midst of an ongoing information warfare. Here is what i gathered in the last seven days:
TikTok has been flooded with a confusing mishmash of propaganda, images repurposed from previous conflicts and real footage of actual events in Ukraine over the past week (Washington Post).
It is not the first time that TikTok is used as a political tool, Abbie Richards reminds us in this thread. But the sheer amount of videos seems unprecedented. The volume of war content on the app far outweighs what is found on some other social networks, according to a review by The Times (New York Times).
At the same time TikTok proves to be “the most reliable source we have” (New Yorker) AND the epicenter of mis- and disinformation. We should be wary of declaring winners and losers of the information war so soon (The Atlantic) while things get messier with fake fact-checks that are being used to spread disinformation (Pro Publica).
Shayan Sardarizadeh, a journalist reporting on disinformation for the BBC, shows how old footage from other conflicts and video game footage is used to influence public opionion. Quote: TikTok has so far drawn the highest viewership of false and misleading videos in this war.
Seana Davis, misinformation specialist and journalist with @Reuters fact-check shows how easy it is to implement audio manipulation via TikTok with users overlaying audio from authentic news report and adding a fake lower third to a clip.
🇷🇺 Russia’s domestic info war
Inside of Russia, the Kremlin’s domestic info war is beginning to take shape, writes Ryan Broderick on March 7, pointing to “an excellent supercut of Russian influencers delivering a script of Kremlin talking points on TikTok before the app blocked Russian users from uploading new content.”
The video (found on Reddit) may appear to be scammy at first glance, but research by the Atlantic Council – an American think tank – confirms a coordinated effort. Quote: “Multiple Russian TikTok users published now-deleted videos with the hashtag #давайзамир (#letsgoforpeace)...Notably, the text in many of these videos was also extremely similar, and on some occasions identical, strongly suggesting either coordination or the distribution of talking points for Russian video creators. Indeed, some Russian TikTok users pushed back publishing messages claiming they were offered payment to post peace symbols and express the message that Russia is stopping the war rather than starting it”
Research by ISD explores a pro-Kremlin information operation, featuring fake identities, real voices, automated amplification & precise messaging using the Hashtag #IstandwithRussia (2,3M views). Compare #73. Apart from that Reddit users point to the #RLM (23,0M views) for Russian Lives Matter.
🕳️ Bomb Shelter Vibes
Ever since the beginning of the invasion videos by Ukrainian TikTok users (especially the ones that were active before the war) have been a source of supposed realness. There are not many places where you get the impression that you can actually feel the brutal transition from e.g. travel vlogger to war victim between days or some simple swipes on the app.
Chris Stokel-Walker has talked to Idil Galip about “the use of humour in the face of existential insecurity” for The Face looking at videos of Shashenok or the ones by 18 year old Alina Volik (@alina_volik). Quote: “These remarkably light-hearted videos are a ‘fuck you’ two-fingers to the genocidal Putin and his cronies who are wreaking havoc across Ukraine.”
18 year old Dzvinka Hlibovytska (@dzvnks) is another Ukrainian TikTok user posting from the bomb shelter. The Independent has a portrait. Despite the humour, the applied TikTok storytelling techniques, poses and sounds, these videos are a harsh and constant reminder of the hard to grasp reality people are currently facing.
👯♂️ What is TikTok doing
TikTok’s executives spent the early days of the invasion noticeably quiet, omitting the words Ukraine and Russia in public statements and referring to the invasion as a “situation” (Washington Post).
In the meantime TikTok has reacted to the evolving “situation”. Nonetheless their activities could be summed up by being: hesitant, inconsistent, and opaque. A timeline:
March 4: TikTok publishes a new blog post about Ukraine. Not much detail beyond saying they will "begin piloting our policy by applying labels to content from some state-controlled media accounts over the coming days" tweets Chris Stokel-Walker.
Problem: Two Russian State Media Accounts Keep Posting On TikTok Despite Content Ban (Forbes).
TikTok: “Our Community Guidelines prohibit content that contains harmful misinformation, hateful behavior, or promotion of violence, and our actions to uphold these policies include removing violative content, banning accounts, and suspending access to product features like livestream.”
Problem: The platform is full of videos promoting violence.
March 6: We have no choice but to suspend livestreaming and new content to our video service in Russia, writes TikTok. TikTok Has Blocked Russians From Covering Protests. Creators Feel Abandoned. (Vice).
Problem: TikTok announced … that it was suspending "livestreaming and new content to our video service in Russia" in response to RU's new 'fake news' law. Presumably then, all users in RU are unable to post new videos. So why is RT's Editor in Chief able to post videos then? asks Ciaran O’Connor on March 7.
March 9: The last video of Margarita Simonya, the editor in chief of RT was posted 15 hours ago. RIA Novosti, a Russian government-run news agency, who has been among the most active in disseminating disinformation about the Ukraine invasion (Forbes) posted a video 51 minutes ago. 🤷
1️⃣ I have written about “The Sound of War” and how sounds turn into ear worms, and then into memes in #73. Let’s add this meme song about lethal Turkish drones that is sung at a Ukrainian protest against occupying Russian forces to the list. Very disturbing to me that i kept humming the sound hours after having seen the video.
2️⃣ After being – well – hesitant, BBC News is now on TikTok.
3️⃣ I will probably write about foreign fighters flocking to Ukraine documenting their endeavours as unguided adventure tours in one of the coming newsletters. Disturbing to see that former soldiers using the hashtag #PTSD before are now voluntarily traveling to Ukraine to fight. This video has been deleted by TikTok – the account is still active.
You have reached the end.