Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok play a vital role in the manifestation of an on-ground conflict online. History shows us the way social media platforms were used by people in times of war and conflict to represent their lived realities.
If we take a look at war-history, in the 19th century the Crimean war was accessed via images and cartoons. In the 20th century, it took weeks to develop photographs of the World War. But in the 21st century, the Arab Spring was demonstrated on Twitter in real-time. People from Bahrain to Tunisia documented their demands and consequent state violence on their smartphones, uncensored and unedited. Apart from the instant spreading of war-time realities of people, social media also played an important role in travelling of global social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.
Social media’s ability to network and coordinate acts of resistance against oppressive and authoritarian regimes, disseminating information rapidly and sharing morale-boosting ideas makes it a powerful tool. In the current war between Russia and Ukraine, TikTok has emerged as an important player as it is utilised by Ukrainian people not only to resist Russia but also to make the war accessible via the internet.
According to the leaked documents dating back to June 2020, TikTok has more than a billion followers and at least 5 million videos are posted per hour. TikTok’s algorithm works to get content in front of eyeballs on its ‘For You’ page. The TikTok algorithm serves people the content it thinks they want. Between February 20th and March 11th the videos with #ukraine increased from 6.4 billion to 27.6 billion.
TikTok content posted by Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian civilians is used by military analysts to track Russian military movements and gain insights into Kremlin’s plans. On February 1, a truck driver in Krasandor posted a video on TikTok of a Russian military convoy cruising down the two-lane road in a rural area. This video, which gathered a little more than 350 views, was picked up by analysts who keep a track of the Russian military using open-source software and post their findings on Twitter. Videos of Russian armoured fighting vehicles driving on the roads were also posted on the app which helped analysts to confirm that they are getting near final staging areas. This has in turn helped Ukraine to coordinate and disseminate defence strategies, plot escape routes and share videos about code signs of Russian military vehicles.
The video app is also used to gather and document evidence of the war as it unfolds on the ground. A Ukrainian travel blogger, Alina Volik who has more than 36,000 followers on TikTok, started uploading videos about life during the invasion. She posted videos of emergency backpacks filled with first aid supplies and also of sealed windows ro protect against a blast. TikTok pages of top Ukrainian influencers were filled with montages of buildings destroyed by missiles, empty grocery stores shelves and long lines of cars outside gas stations. Ukrainian photographer Valeria Sashenok used TikTok to document her daily life in Ukraine. In a video that went viral, she shares “a typical day in a bomb shelter” with the sarcastic caption “Living my best life 🥰🥰🥰 Thanks Russia!”
Another significant use of the app was done to boost the morale of people in Ukraine by sharing and amplifying the stories of bravery and resistance. There were videos showing Ukrainian people stopping tanks with their bodies. Also, videos of Ukrainians singing the national anthem in front of the Russian military were circulated on the app. The act of boosting the morale of the Ukranian people was also done from outside of the country. For instance, British singer-songwriter Tom Odell sang his hit “Another Love”, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resilience on social media, for the refugees crossing Bucharest’s main railway station. The song had been used extensively on TikTok videos with Ukrainian solidarity. Even Russian influencers posted on the video app, showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
As much as the social media platform has been instrumental in digital resistance to Russia, it has its flipside that of disinformation. As we noted previously, TikTok has billions of users worldwide and over a million videos are uploaded daily. The sheer scale and speed of the app makes it difficult to control the spread of disinformation. Research suggests that fake news travels six times faster than true information on social media platforms. This could be seen happening in the on-going Ukraine-Russia war. A video that garnered over 26 million views shows a Russian soldier parachuting down on Ukrainian fields with a huge smile on his face. Except, it is not a Russian soldier and the fields are not Ukrainian. The video is from the year 2015.
During times of war or conflict, information becomes an important resource. Social media has proven to provide civilians with agency to resist war and represent the lived realities of people affected by the conflict by documenting it on social media. But, that same social media could become a storehouse of disinformation, stealing agency away from genuine narratives of people who are facing the crisis.