It looks like a phone-camera video of the end of a massive fireworks display, almost as if it was recorded on New Year’s Eve. Within seconds, however, the reality behind this striking imagery and the pop-rock song that is accompanying it becomes obvious.
This is not a remnant from a celebration. It is a post by 20-year-old creator Marta Vasyuta on TikTok that more than 50 million people have now seen.
What seem like fireworks are actually missiles descending over Kyiv on Feb. 24 – the beginnings of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has since killed thousands of people and caused millions to flee their homes – with the trending song Little Dark Age by American pop-rock band MGMT playing in the background of the video.
Hundreds of thousands of such images from Ukraine have since been posted on social-media platforms. People are cataloguing their experiences through live streams from hideouts in bomb shelters, or making videos as they attempt to escape the affected areas. Massive funding drives have kickstarted because of single posts on apps such as Instagram and Facebook, and some users are, in fact, dancing on TikTok to help Ukraine.
It is not the first time that social media has been used to provide on-the-ground images and information about geopolitical conflicts. Facebook and Twitter were, for example, central to the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011.
But experts say the way in which social-media posts about Ukraine are informing – and also misinforming – our understanding of what is actually happening there is entirely new, largely because of the algorithms at play in newer apps such as TikTok and Instagram.
And this is having an impact on young people in particular, many of whom are finding their news on Instagram Reels and TikTok videos, instead of traditional broadcasters and media outlets, experts say. As one TikTok user, @lil_sebbe from Sweden, commented on Ms. Vasyuta’s video receiving more than 98,000 likes: “never thought I would get WAR updates on TIKTOK.”
Rob Danisch, a communications professor at the University of Waterloo, said certain posts do well on platforms because they fit into easily recognizable narrative patterns. This includes clear divides between good and bad, strong appeals to emotions such as anger and identifiable heroes, all of which make content attention-grabbing, he said.
The end goal is to hold users’ attention and serve more ads on these apps, Prof. Danisch said.
Megan Boler, a social justice professor at the University of Toronto who has studied the implications of wars and conflicts for nearly 30 years, calls this current use of social media a “double-edged sword.”
She said the vast scale of communication from average citizens about the war in Ukraine is a radical departure from the usual sanitization and close control of information by governments in prior conflicts. At the same time, however, social-media platforms have become optimal venues for sowing discord through disinformation and propaganda, Prof. Boler said.
Earlier this month, Meta Platforms Inc. – the parent of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram – said it started labelling misinformation, removed the ability to view or search for friend lists, demoted posts that contain links to Russian media websites and allowed users to lock their accounts. Several other platforms, including Twitter and Snapchat, announced similar measures.
Last week, TikTok said it would begin labelling state-controlled media, too, as the platform, which is owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance Ltd., started to catch up with its social-media counterparts after immense pressure from several governments in other countries.
In an e-mailed statement, a TikTok spokesperson said the platform is partnering with independent fact-checking organizations to “support our efforts to help TikTok remain a safe and authentic place.” The company would not provide any further details.
“We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and remove harmful misinformation and other violations of our community guidelines,” the TikTok spokesperson said.
Still, false and misleading posts continue to be uploaded on TikTok. Some creators outside Ukraine pretended to be in the country this week to receive donations through the app’s live-stream functions.
“Any conceivable social-media platform has become its own battlefield,” said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab in Washington, D.C. Mr. Brooking said he has seen misleading posts and deliberate disinformation on TikTok, Twitch and Twitter.
Tod Maffin, who runs digital marketing agency engageQ in British Columbia, said content about Ukraine is a “perfect fit for the kind of scroll-friendly stuff that we’ve seen already works best on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.”
Algorithms and creation tools on these apps had already made it easy for content to go viral, Mr. Maffin said. That potential, coupled with content about current events – which speaks to viewers and listeners in their own language of internet memes and trending or catchy sounds – allows for heightened engagement.
“The algorithms actually reward engagement and sharing, to the point that cross-platform sharing from TikTok to Facebook and Twitter, or even WhatsApp, is made incredibly easier for this reason,” Mr. Maffin said. “It is a cycle that feeds into itself.”
One user’s experience may differ from another based on their individual behaviour in engaging with the algorithms, Mr. Maffin said. However, once users indicate (through likes or reshares) to the computing interface that they are interested in a particular topic, issue or type of content, the platform will begin displaying more of it to them.
This means some TikTok and Instagram creators have grown their followings exponentially after they began sharing content about Ukraine, Mr. Maffin said.
Take it from the creators themselves. Ms. Vasyuta, who posted the video of missiles falling over Kyiv, one of the first such TikTok videos about the conflict and among the most-viewed, said she became an influencer overnight.
Until last month, she had only made personal posts of her day-to-day life, lip-syncing to music and joking with a small number of followers she had garnered. “I still can’t really believe it,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Vasyuta was visiting friends in Britain when channels she had joined on the messaging app Telegram filled up the notifications on her phone. Worried about her family still in the country, Ms. Vasyuta quickly saved the videos of the conflict people were sharing. She said she verified the accuracy of the videos by checking the comments and originating sources before uploading them herself on other platforms.
One of those videos was the one she posted on Feb. 24. Since then, she has amassed over 255,000 followers on TikTok and got more than 19.5 million likes on her posts.
“All I wanted was for people to understand what was happening in my home, in Ukraine. I didn’t expect millions of views on my videos. I didn’t expect that people would think of me as a trusted person to turn to for updates,” Ms. Vasyuta said.
Ukrainian photographer Valeria Shashenok, who has been filming daily-diary-style content about how her life in the war-torn region looks, now has more than 825,000 followers on TikTok. The 20-year-old has garnered millions of views with each post about living in a bomb shelter, cooking food in creative ways in the bunker with her family and, most recently, fleeing to Poland.
Other creators, such as 23-year-old Dylan Page from Australia, have almost entirely pivoted from general content to TikTok and YouTube videos about the conflict in Ukraine. His short, explainer-style videos helped him go from 1.9 million followers to 2.5 million in just the past month.
Most of these posts are alarmingly serious, while also being a surreal mix of funny and entertaining at the same time.
But how exactly this flood of wartime imagery on algorithm-based platforms is affecting people around the world, psychologically or otherwise, is something experts are still trying to understand.
Some expressed concern over the long-term effects of desensitization to videos that depict violence. Others said it is becoming a new form of dark entertainment.
“It’s not all bad,” Mr. Maffin said. “I mean, even I’ve shared TikTok content about Ukraine with my elderly mother, for instance. ... It’s just much easier to understand and certainly more compelling.”
There is a limit to the good that can be done by such doom-scrolling, which causes social-media users to spend long amounts of screen time absorbing negativity, said Fuyuki Kurasawa, director of the Global Digital Citizenship Lab at York University in Toronto.
He said not only do shocking images of war reduce the capability to critically analyze what is being shown, it also raises the bar for the kind of events viewers are willing to tolerate in the future.
“Overexposure to this type of content leads audiences to be less reactive, and it puts the burden on the witnesses on the ground who are living through the tragedy to produce content that is ever more shocking and graphic in nature. This is a difficult threshold to meet and, morally, rather appalling,” Prof. Kurasawa said.
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