TikTok And The War In Ukraine: War In Portrait

TikTok brings the war in Ukraine to millions of smartphones. Immediate, full screen - and sorted somewhere between dance videos. How do you handle this?

You can see all of this on TikTok right now. The video app brings Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine to millions of smartphones. Portrait, full screen. The short video platform with one billion users worldwide once became known for shallow entertainment content. Now the war is there.

Almost every person in the war zone has a smartphone and uses it to document the situation. And a lot of these videos end up on TikTok

It's not the first time that a globally recognized conflict has been documented on social media. During the green revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, Twitter and Facebook were the tools of the moment. But with TikTok everything is different again. Even more immediate, because you don't have to click: videos start blaring as soon as you open the app. Clip follows clip follows clip. And even those who didn't even look for the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine can get it washed up on their screens. 

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With TikTok, the algorithm decides what the user sees. Target accounts, enter search terms? Hardly anyone does that. You open the app and off you go: a bit like watching TV, only for everyone with an individual program. Which videos a user sees depends on which ones has finished watching in the past and many other secret parameters. That's why TikTok is not the same as TikTok. This makes it even more difficult than on other platforms to assess what is there to see. And: If a video is over, it starts again from the beginning. If you want to see the next one, swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

Always curious about what's coming next, many find it difficult to tear themselves away from the app. Especially in these times. Because it brings war closer. Because suddenly it becomes comprehensible what it means. There are many people, especially young people, who spend hours in the app every day. On the platform, others find a hitherto unknown access to the war: With direct insights into the situation on site and often highly emotionalized, the war there has countless faces, voices and perspectives.

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A low-flying plane fires a missile, and a child screams in fear in the background. Following a TikTok trend, a family presents the interior of their air-raid shelter to a cheerful Italian melody. A woman reports how she and her family had to flee their new home, how difficult it is for her three children to separate from their father.

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Before the invasion it was full of TankToks, i.e. videos of Russian troop movements, but today you can also find a lot of statements of solidarity with Ukraine from abroad or memes celebrating the Ukrainian President Zelenskyj. Those that show people fleeing. Smoking debris. Or just material that shows the battles - or should show.

The fact that so many people are uploading clips from the war zones also has to do with how attractive TikTok makes it to join the platform. Unlike on other platforms, you don't have to laboriously work out your reach: the first video could already be distributed by the algorithm and thus viewed by millions. And thus give those affected by the war a better hearing.

But not only the amount of pictures that TikTok shows of the war in Ukraine is new. The TikTok researcher Bosch also emphasizes that the platform has introduced new cultural techniques: the storage of sounds in videos shapes the content, the meme factor is huge - in addition, TikTok is due to the possibility of making duets or so-called stitches from other clips, "incredibly interactive". Users can react directly to previous clips. In this way, the platform also changes how people react to the war – from other users.

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A Putin speech. A reporter asks Ukrainian President Zelenskyy if he trusts Putin. Soldiers venture out from behind a house, shots are fired. A woman recounts how bad the attacks on her town were the night before while scratching a cat. Another woman films along empty supermarket shelves. A tearful farewell at a train station. Paratroopers sail toward the ground. But are the pictures really up to date?

Many people are feeling overwhelmed with everything they are currently watching on TikTok, confused and burdened. Because they see the horrors unfiltered. Because, captivated by TikTok's endless loop, they look longer than they can process the many individual impressions and perspectives. Because they don't know what to believe and what not to believe.

Immediately after the outbreak of war, for teenagers not to be left alone with the app, but to look at the pictures with them and classify them. What children are currently seeing on TikTok "overwhelmed" - especially since the children, who are still stuck in the pandemic situation, are particularly vulnerable. The TikTok videos often left many questions unanswered, and the unfiltered impressions could trigger fear and uncertainty. Siller advises pointing out other media offers to children under the age of 13 – and if they are still on TikTok, to take a close look at what the children see there.

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However, older adolescents or adults can also feel emotionally overwhelmed by what they have seen. What can help here is what is often advised in relation to other social networks and news sites: take breaks where you don't get information. What's more, if you simply consume one clip after the other without stopping and taking a closer look at what was actually being shown, it is often difficult to distinguish factual reports from misleading or manipulated clips . Precisely because, at first glance, TikTok provides even less contextual information than other platforms. Even clips with little truth content can quickly find an audience of millions - distributed via TikTok's algorithm.

How to check content on TikTok

To verify the authenticity of clips, Bosch recommends viewing the sound and timestamp of TikTok videos. The background: On TikTok it is particularly easy to add soundtracks. However, this can also distort the content: by enriching a video with explosion sounds, for example, completely harmless footage can appear like a battle scene. In addition, TikTok does not show when videos are played when they were uploaded - this only reveals a click on the profile that posted the video. It also helps to look at the comments, says Bosch, because other users often point out fakes there – for example, if a film snippet was taken from a video game, years-old material was issued as current or otherwise taken out of context. Media educators, teachers and parents should point out such methods of unmasking simple fakes.

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However, such a review is far from exhaustive. Because: If a clip was posted elsewhere, for example on Telegram, and only republished on TikTok, any background to the video is missing. And of course there are numerous other ways to fake clips in a way that misleads you. Bosch therefore recommends encouraging young people in particular to question: Who posts what on TikTok and in what interest? If you want to check content, you will find many researchers and journalists on the Internet who uncover forgeries and disinformation. The consequences of a nuclear attack are explained to sombre music. An old woman cries at a train station. Soldiers dance. A no longer quite young man with a blond three-day beard bakes sourdough bread.

The unbearable simultaneity that TikTok presents to its users on the individually compiled ForYou page can also have a stressful effect: three clips from the war zone, one of refugees on the Polish border - and then a comedy sketch or a woman hanging out with friends meets for the Aperol Spritz? TikTok indifferently strings these opposites together. This mix can be entertaining under normal conditions. But as soon as the content gets more serious, this mixture can be disturbing. Because every sketch, every food photo posted, looks particularly hollow if you crop it directly with the images of a war in Europe.

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TikTok's parent company ByteDance has long and persistently stated that TikTok wants to be an entertainment platform-and one that can also be used to learn something. For a long time, people tried to avoid political content. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that was hardly possible because users also shared political videos, such as those on Black Lives Matter. At least since the war in Ukraine, however, it can no longer be overlooked that TikTok has long been a political platform - and one on which on-site observations of current events are shared.

Researcher Bosch believes that this is an effect that will remain: "In the future, we will also find content from other conflict areas on the platform." Precisely because TikTok now also allows ten-minute videos, the platform will “continue to age and also be flooded with serious, more political content that TikTok originally didn’t want there at all,” says Bosch.

A child crying loudly, with no recognizable companion, walking down a street with a plastic bag in hand. "Of course I'll stop playing computer games so you can watch your series," a man croaks at his wife. A woman who says you shouldn't blame everyone in Russia for Putin's war. wipe A man tears up his Russian passport. wipe A burning military vehicle.

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