If the war in Vietnam was labeled the “first television war” and if the Arab Spring represented the first revolutionary social movement organized on social media, Russia’s aggression into Ukraine is quickly earning its own epithet: the “first TikTok war.”
With some 1 billion active users, the platform has rapidly been flooded with documentary eyewitness accounts cataloging the initial impacts of the Russian invasion, broadcasting on-the-ground realities of warfare from urban bomb sirens in Kyiv to long lines outside gas stations as Ukrainians attempt to flee. TikTok, which gained popularity for offering windows into domains of everyday life like cooking, DIY, fitness, and fashion, is providing a bottom-up view of what happens when everyday life is upended by violence and war for a whole nation of people in real time. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even made a special appeal to TikTokers in a televised address to the Russian people on Wednesday, citing the shared humanity of Russians and Ukrainians despite the divisions that are being stoked.
Some of the videos feature journalists reporting live using the front-facing camera on their phones, such as one posted by Vice World News recorded by Matthew Cassel. Cassel explains that Russia had bombed several areas in Ukraine starting at 5 am on the morning of February 24, splicing footage of a public square in Kyiv with his account. A bomb siren can be heard blaring in the background. Besides the fact that Cassel is filming himself and using the same unsophisticated post-production editing toolkit that everyone else has available at their fingertips, his video is not dissimilar from reports that wartime foreign correspondents have been making for decades.
More novel, however, are the many videos shot by people with no professional affiliation to news agencies or training in documentary journalism. A TikTok by @martavasyuta shows missiles showering over Kyiv’s skyline at 4:23 am in the morning, accompanied by MGMT’s synth-pop song “Little Dark Age.” “It looks like a firework, until you realize it’s hell on earth,” a commenter wrote, liked by over 10,000 users.
One TikToker, @moneykristina, whose previous content included videos on investing and crypto predictions, posted a video of herself driving past a single-file line of over 40 cars waiting for gas in the outskirts of Kyiv. In another video, she explained why she was choosing to stay in Ukraine: “It’s because it’s honestly near impossible to leave the city or country at this point. The roads are blocked and so backed up that even if we attempted to leave, it could take us days to get out of the city.”
Another video is a profile in courage, documenting a woman confronting a Russian soldier in Henychesk in southern Ukraine. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she demands. “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here,” she says, handing them the seeds. The sunflower is the Ukrainian national flower.
A video posted by a Ukrainian soldier jarringly mashes together TikTok’s most distinctive visual trend — the quirky dances that it’s spawned — with the oncoming war. A group of five soldiers, dressed head-to-toe in military gear and outfitted with spears and assault rifles, jam out to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the teen angst anthem whose opening lyric is “Load up on guns, bring your friends / It’s fun to lose and to pretend.”
These more recent videos follow weeks of documentation of increased troop presence in Ukraine. Through the early weeks of February, eyewitnesses recorded abnormal sightings of armored vehicles, ballistic missile launchers, warplanes, and other weaponry in Ukraine. In one video, a man walking his dog in a Russian town a few hours away from the Ukrainian border captured the transport of missile launchers through his wooded, snowy environment.
Still, viewers should be discerning before sharing videos of sensational developments — a few viral videos have already been flagged for originally being footage from video games, old recordings of attacks on Palestine, and clips of earlier military exercises.
These videos give viewers thousands of miles away from the physical site of the conflict a whole new feel of the lived reality of war. But they also serve as potentially highly valuable sources of intelligence. The size and location of Russia’s troops and their equipment can now be assessed from videos posted online.
But the ease and speed of sharing content on TikTok also means that Russia, notorious for its deployment of armies of bots and false flag operations, can launch sophisticated campaigns to spread harmful disinformation. For years, Russia has relied on sowing disinformation to create false pretexts for its incursions into Ukraine. During the Munich Security Conference this past weekend, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff said, “It is deeply concerning that pro-Russia disinformation is reported to have more than doubled in the region in recent weeks.”