TikTok Is Being Flooded With Footage From Ukraine, But Not Everything Is Accurate
The Ukrainian war is playing out on TikTok.
Russian President Vladimir Putin officially declared war on Ukraine on Thursday, ordering a “special military operation” in the area that quickly resulted in at least 137 Ukrainian deaths and hundreds of injuries in less than 24 hours. But amid what has quickly become a full-blown war in Eastern Europe, the power and influence of social media platforms like TikTok — particularly when it comes to the spread of information and misinformation — is more apparent than ever.
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t the first major world event to be played out on TikTok, it is the first time we’ve seen the declaration of war play out in the same place that turned the D’Amelios into millionaires for making dancing videos. Instead of learning about military invasions, bombings, and the occupation of foreign territory on the news or in political press conferences, we’re learning about it from civilian journalists on the ground.
But, as we know all too well in 2022, TikTok — while a great platform for the rapid sharing of information — can also be an absolute cess pit of misinformation.
TikTok Is A Tool For Sharing Information Rapidly
Thanks to the fact that most people possess some sort of smart phone with photo and video capability, we have more first-hand accounts of what is happening in Ukraine right now than any war in history.
In recent weeks, prior to Russia’s actual invasion of Ukraine, we saw hours of footage of Russian tanks being transported across the country and the military presence ramping up on the border.
Footage fact-checked by the Washington Post shows a man walking his dog crossing paths with a ballistic missile launcher.
According to Wired, the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) — a not-for-profit that fact-checks disinformation — has been able to verify the authenticity of 79 pieces of footage from January and 166 videos from February so far.
And this has only continued to ramp up since Putin ordered the invasion on Thursday, although it’s hard to verify what exactly is authentic footage from the scene in Ukraine, and what is fake news — given the fact that the situation is continually developing and we know very little about the reality of what is happening right now.
Ukrainians are also taking to the platform to share their own perspectives on the situation.
New video is shadow-banned on TikTok: the information war continues. Could get taken down at any moment, but that’s only because the message is so vital.
SANCTIONS. WEAPONS. STAYING ON THE HIGHEST ALERT.
They will NOT stop at us now that they’ve started.
Support Ukraine!🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/BpItOSGshV
— xena 🌊🇺🇦 (@xenasolo) February 24, 2022
Additionally, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has even been using the platform’s content to track Russia’s military equipment for research purposes.
“TikTok is one of the main games in terms of visual information collecting on the build-up,” research associate Michael Sheldon told the ABC, noting that approximately 80 percent of his open-source analysis came from TikTok.
While it’s easy to dismiss TikTok as a social media platform designed for sharing dancing videos and viral memes, the power it holds for sharing vital information and documenting what may one day be vital pieces of evidence cannot be overstated.
Misinformation And Fake News Is Going Viral
However, finding legitimate, fact-checked footage of the situation unfolding in Ukraine right now is particularly difficult on the platform that values virality over anything else.
While social media can be a powerful information-sharing tool, this information is not always accurate. And when anyone with a basic understanding of computing can alter footage or photographs to look like something it is not, social media platforms like TikTok can quickly become a misinformation machine.
In addition to blatant propaganda being shared on the platform, TikTok has already been flooded with doctored footage and clips that we can’t even be sure are from Ukraine being dubbed with sounds of gunfire or explosions from other footage entirely.
Here's a good example of war misinfo that's plaguing TikTok right now.
This video of a parachuting soldier has 20 million views on TikTok.
The top comment? "Bro is recording an invasion."
But he isn't. This video is from 2016. pic.twitter.com/6WsjpWOLVI
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) February 24, 2022
The footage below has been dubbed with a gunfire soundbite that was first uploaded in early 2021, with no relation to the current conflict in Ukraine.
Within hours of the initial Russian invasion, US-based tech website Gizmodo was able to find nine viral videos that have been proven to be completely fake — some of which were old videos from entirely different conflicts, others are doctored, and some are taken directly from video games.
Users Have Been Quick To Turn A Real War Into Meme Fodder
In addition to spreading both helpful information and counterproductive misinformation, TikTok — like every other social media platform — has been flooded with insensitive content that attempts to turn a very serious and deadly situation into meme fodder.
Despite the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has today banned 18-60 year old men from leaving the country and ordered “conscription of conscripts, reservists for military service, their delivery to military units and institutions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine” and other state security services”, TikTok users have been quick to make conscription jokes on the platform.
TikTok users have also told Putin — also known as “Vladdy Daddy” on the platform — to “chill”. While this trend aims to make a joke out of Putin, rather than the war itself, it has still been criticised for being insensitive amid a conflict that has resulted in hundreds of deaths overnight.
@j_mazda Putin you better chill before I have to step in (IB:@nerd emoji) #fyp ♬ Cancun sega genesis remix Prod. luxuriøus – bryanna
Considering how social media has handled the last few years of the COVID pandemic, it’s hardly surprising that it has taken less than 24 hours for Russia’s invasion of its neighbour to become the latest viral meme content, but that doesn’t make it any less insensitive.
While war in the age of social media — particularly TikTok — may be a powerful tool for seeing first-hand accounts of the realities of what is happening thousands of kilometres away, the new age of war reporting will have to combat misinformation and propaganda in ways we’ve never seen before.