Family farewell films, cities being bombed or dancing as Ukrainians flee their country: all with a popular tune underneath, lyrics on screen and the famous TikTok watermark in the corner. For young people it is perhaps the picture of the war in Ukraine.
Until now, Twitter has been a particularly popular medium for citizen reporting. For example, with the Arab Spring in 2011 or more recently: the images of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan after the Taliban took power there. But now, even many of the images circulating on Twitter are from TikTok. Within two weeks, TikTok seems to have become the main medium for war reporting.
According to experts, this is due to the convenience of TikTok: users can edit videos in the app, and choose music and filters. That makes it a quick and easy tool in times of war. The algorithm also plays an important role. Even users with few followers can reach tens of millions of people around the world in a short time, through the For You page. There, users see videos of people they don’t know.
This differs from other social media platforms, where people mainly see content from people they already follow. And where it is more difficult to go viral as a user with few followers.
The Ukrainian Valeria also reaches millions of people with her videos. She makes TikToks from her air raid shelter in Ukraine, often with humor. NOS Stories spoke to her. “The first video I made was about things I have in my bomb cellar. First in Russian, but the second was in English. It got so many views on it so quickly that I thought: oh my god, this is disturbed. I can show the whole world what is happening in my country. Maybe this way I can help my country.”
Her compatriot Marta also notices that the videos she makes are watched a lot. When the war broke out, she had just been on holiday in England. She decided to post videos that she received from family and friends, or that she saw in Telegram groups. “I was one of the first to post videos of the bombing of cities. Within an hour I had 20,000 views, while I only had 400 followers.” Marta now has hundreds of thousands of followers and that first video has been viewed 50 million times. “That’s more than the people of my country. I can’t understand how much that is.”
Both Valeria and Marta now receive hundreds of messages from people around the world every day. “The United States, Europe, but also my own country: I get a lot of support. Some also want to donate and I tell them to transfer money to the Ukrainian army. It’s so crazy that people from all over the world, who have never seen me before, want to help,” says Valeria.
Valeria and Marta also received regular messages from Russians. “They then ask if what is happening with us is real and if I can explain more about it,” says Valeria. “But sometimes they are also annoying messages. Then they say it’s fake what I’m spreading or I get hundreds of comments with Russian flags under my video from bots.”
In Russia, access to information about the war from abroad is drastically limited. One of the few ways for Russians to get information about the war from the rest of the world was TikTok, but that changed this week.
Russians can no longer post on the platform or go live. Also, they can no longer see messages from non-Russian accounts. “We only see old messages from Russians and thus remain in an information bubble, with no more possibility to get information from other countries. That worries me,” said Russian tiktoker Niki.
He went live on TikTok during demonstrations in his city of St. Petersburg from the start of the war to show Russians what is not on TV. He also made TikToks about the consequences of the sanctions for him and his environment, but that is no longer possible since the blockade.
Russian Natasha also makes these kinds of videos, but she can post them on her account. She created her account in the United States and thus circumvents the blockade. “Maybe I’ll be arrested and convicted. Maybe I’ll get 15 to 20 years in prison for what I do. But I see it as a mission. I want to inform people and change something in the world.”
The Ukrainian tiktokers also continue. “Maybe I’ll make a video of me fleeing Ukraine. Something like that, in a positive way. I don’t want to cry every day. That’s why I always try to find something positive,” says Valeria. And in the war she also found something positive for herself. “I always dreamed of having a lot of followers, I wanted to be famous. So: thank you Putin. It is the best thing you have done for me.”