Ukraine becomes the world’s “first TikTok war”
One of the most striking images from the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a photo, taken by photojournalist Tyler Hicks, of a dead soldier lying on the ground in front of a distraught tank, his body covered in a layer of fresh snow. The photograph ran on the front page of the Times February 26. Its caption said the soldier and armored vehicle were Russian and that the photo was taken in Kharkiv, the city in northeastern Ukraine where some of the most intense fighting took place. Another equally gripping document from the early days of the war is a TikTok video, posted on February 24, showing footage from phone cameras and video clips of missiles falling on the city of Kiev like fireworks. One line of text reads: ‘The capital of Ukraine right now’. The video is set, with jaw-dropping incongruity, to “Little Dark Age,” a song by indie-pop band MGMT, whose lyrics have become something of an audio meme on TikTok: “Just know that if you’re hiding , it won’t go away.”
Hicks’ photo, of course, is an example of traditional photojournalism – a war photographer capturing the action on the front lines of battle in a carefully composed image printed in a newspaper. The video, which at my last count had over nine million likes, is user-generated content streamed online, following TikTok’s aesthetic standards: choppy, decontextualized, with upbeat pop music playing in the background. . What stands out from the coverage of the war in Ukraine thus far is how deeply this latest category of content has permeated the collective consciousness, offering some of the oldest and most direct insights into the Russian invasion. Internet-focused podcast “The Content Mines” called the invasion of Ukraine “The most online war ever until the next one.” Other publications dubbed it the “first TikTok war”.
The invasion of Ukraine is not the first conflict to take place on social media. The Arab Spring uprisings and the Syrian Civil War have used Facebook and Twitter to stage protests and broadcast DIY footage. But in the years since, social platforms have become more multimedia-oriented, and smartphones have become better at capturing and streaming events in real time. Large numbers of Ukrainian civilians take up arms to defend their country against the reckless imperialism of Vladimir Putin; they also deploy their mobile cameras to document the invasion in granular detail. War has become content, circulating on all platforms at once. A video circulating in recent days appears to show a Ukrainian man carefully moving a landmine, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, off a road and into the woods. A single tweet earned the clip over ten million views, but it could also be found on YouTube, TikTok and the sites of various news publications. Perhaps due to Western sympathy for the plight of Ukrainians, their videos swamped American feeds like few foreign news stories ever do.
It is surreal to see well-established social media formulas being applied to ground warfare. A TikTok from February 12 shows an equipped Ukrainian soldier walking on the moon to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” in an empty field. It has earned over twelve million likes and hundreds of thousands of comments, including “be careful guys”. On February 24, a user named @whereislizzyy posted two influencer-style selfie videos in a luxurious home interior, lip-syncing to “Who’s That Chick?”, a song by David Guetta featuring Rihanna. One of them had a caption that read: “When the Russians attacked us, then we leave at 8 am”. Shortly after, a Ukrainian user named @valerisssh posted a video that follows a popular TikTok pattern in which users point out various interesting parts of their house while a pleasant Italian song plays and they perform a hand gesture corresponding. Here, however, she pointed out things in her “bomb shelter” that “just make sense,” as the meme puts it, including a home gym, two toilets, and a “military breakfast.” Ukrainian” made with bananas and yogurt. In a later TikTok, the same user documents a “typical day during the war in Ukraine” and ends with a clip of a cinema that was bombed. The videos are both internet jokes and deadly serious material.
These war videos speak to TikTok users in their own language, and the most popular of them can serve as a powerful form of publicity for the Ukrainian cause. In a speech on February 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and experienced social media user, acknowledged this, imploring Russian TikTok users as well as “scientists, doctors, bloggers, comedians” to intervene and help stop the war. On TikTok, Ukrainians appear to viewers less as distant victims than as Internet users who know the same references, listen to the same music and use the same social networks as them. The content of clips and the digital spaces in which they are consumed create a sense of intimacy that photojournalism sometimes lacks, with its tinge of voyeurism.
In her 2003 book “Regarding the Pain of Others”, Susan Sontag traced the evolution of war journalism from photography to television. The Spanish Civil War marked the emergence of the professional photojournalist, equipped with a 35 mm Leica. film camera to capture the conflict on the ground. The Vietnam War was the first war to be televised, and it made carnage in conflict zones “a routine ingredient in the never-ending stream of domestic entertainment on the small screen,” Sontag wrote. Now small screens are our phones instead of TVs, and images of war take their place amidst our 24/7 feeds, alongside debates over a TV series finale, cute photos animals and updates on other contemporary disasters. The different forms of content overlap in disorienting ways – the professional with the amateur, the intentional with the incidental. The Instagram account of a famous internet cat named Stepan, whose owner lives in Ukraine and has amassed a million followers, recently went from sharing zany animal portraits to posting photos of a missile attack on Kharkov. Such hard evidence of the invasion suddenly punctures the internet’s locationlessness, reminding viewers that they are watching a real person in real danger.
For Sontag, photographs had a “deeper bite” than video when it came to documenting the war. A single image taken in the field could last for generations, like Robert Capa’s Spanish Civil War photograph “The Falling Soldier”. Social media documentation is less likely to last – it is ephemeral by design – but for the consumer it can create a more immediate and immersive experience of a situation unfolding in the moment. A woman gives birth while sheltering in a Kiev metro station. Elsewhere on the subway, families huddle with their cats and dogs. A Ukrainian father tearfully bids farewell to his family. An agricultural tractor appears to be towing an abandoned Russian tank. A Briton records himself packing a bag, including tea, to travel to Ukraine ‘to save my wife and son’. Together, these excerpts present a montage of life suddenly in times of war. They evoke how you yourself might react in such mundane and terrible circumstances, equipped only with a phone camera. What else to do in a bomb shelter but take selfies and broadcast them to the outside world?
Zelensky himself has made wise use of this sense of relatability, captivating the world with his shaky street-recorded selfie videos. He used this format to combat rumors that he had fled the country, portraying himself as an ordinary man braving a vast struggle, David versus Goliath. In a video posted on February 25, he stood in front of a handful of his government officials. “We are all here,” he said.
There are obvious downsides to receiving updates of a chaotic war through scattered pieces of digital media. On the internet, all content follows similar laws of motion, whether it’s showing a ground invasion in Europe or a cat doing something funny. Everything that engages becomes more popular, regardless of its provenance or quality. TikTok’s algorithmic feed, in particular, makes it possible to passively consume a video and move on to the next without questioning the origin of the content. (As one TikTok poster put it, “I’m literally watching thirst traps followed by [email protected] crime footage, then a moisturizer ad within 30 seconds of each other. “) Last week, a music video titled “Ghost of Kiev,” purporting to show a fighter pilot shooting down Russian planes, garnered millions of views in various iterations on TikTok. The clip is actually from a video game called DCS World, whose grainy, flickering graphics are easy to mistake for genuine imagery. Just because the video is fake hasn’t stopped people from sharing it or other similarly mislabeled clips. A video showing of Russian paratroopers is from 2016 Another shows a lightning strike at a power plant, not a military attack Incredible aircraft versus artillery clip rendered on computer in 2021 Needs work to determine if a message is from a resident ukrainian real au lie u of a “war page” aggregation account trying to rack up followers and likes.
The purpose of war photojournalism is to bear witness; it is up to the viewer to interpret what they see in the resulting images. As Sontag wrote, “Photographs of an atrocity can elicit opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry of revenge. Or simply the puzzled awareness, continually replenished with photographic information, that terrible things are happening. Hicks’ photo of the dead Russian soldier is a macabre document of the front lines, a visual symbol of the human cost, on both sides, of an unnecessary war. It can be powerful enough to lodge in our minds. The flood of TikTok videos is perhaps more likely to evoke our bewildered conscience, a feeling of sympathy that only lasts as long as we scroll. Yet, as Russian convoys outside Kiev continue to attempt to enter the city center, mainstream news outlets are pulling their reporters to safety. Social media is an imperfect chronicler of wartime. In some cases, it may also be the most reliable source we have.