How TikTok weaponised the nuclear scare in the Russia-Ukraine war

The social media platform is being used by both sides with a modern riff on Cold War nuclear countdowns

The @zaluznik TikTok account has been chronicling the terrors of war in real time. Photo: TikTok
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Anxiety over fighting and a fire at Europe's largest nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia has given a real-world spin to the viral feeding frenzy over the nuclear threat posed by the Ukraine-Russia war.

A TikTok post purporting to show Russia moving nuclear weapons to the front line garnered more than 18 million views during the first few days of fighting. It was completely false but its purpose — whether to get audience or spread terror — was no doubt served.

The platform is not only being used as a tool of aggression and to spread misinformation. It has become a tool of resistance for Ukrainian authorities, as well as a de facto news outlet and tool of expression for those on the ground.

Worldwide there are suggestions the Russia-Ukraine war is the inaugural “TikTok war” for those not primarily involved in the conflict. The platform shows that a simple trip to the supermarket can easily become a survival exercise; a cosy bed can transform into a potential tomb.

A flood of TikTok posts also offer an ill-informed survival guide to a nuclear apocalypse.

As bizarre as this last transformation sounds, since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, the social media platform has transitioned from a repository for dodgy dance videos to a repository for even dodgier videos on nuclear warfare.

Posts explaining nuclear war, offering survival guides and even simulating the casualties from potential atomic explosions have accrued more than 40 million views.

At the Stanford Internet Observatory, at Stanford University, research manager Renee DiResta says she saw this coming.

“I think Tik Tok really lags other big social media players in not having [mitigative] policies in place,” she told Bloomberg Technology.

“I opened up my [TikTok app] the other night, and my very first video that began to play was a video game and it had a nameless account.

“It was a shooting video game, and they were claiming that this was a scene of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Twitter has been pretty good about labelling or throttling these, Facebook as well. But on TikTok, there it is with a million likes, and it is right there.”

Ms DiResta said identifying the provenance of content on TikTok was particularly problematic, given that it lacks “that very basic state media labelling”. This means that when content is “produced by propagandists, the audience doesn't know".

She said users simply did not have the time or were not digitally savvy enough to run a reverse image search of a clip from a video.

Even those paid to pay attention to manipulated footage can find it hard to know what to believe.

TikTok's alternate reality

“I think [TikTok is] probably just the more advanced and refined version of other social media platforms,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chairman of business psychology at the University College London, told The National.

Deep fakes basically make it almost impossible to tell whether something is real or not.

“For example, when somebody sent me the clip of [US President] Joe Biden saying 'the Iranian people' instead of 'Ukrainian people', you have to really watch it multiple times to see if that's real.

Quote
We have known for a long time that a surplus of information creates a poverty of attention
Prof Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, University College London

“The reaction of [Vice President] Kamala Harris and [Speaker of the US House of Representatives] Nancy Pelosi … might have been faked as well.”

TikTok is part of a digital ecosystem in which a surplus of information creates a poverty of attention, according to the academic.

“If you a devote maximum five or 10 seconds of focus to stuff, that obviously makes it very hard to check whether what you're seeing is real or not,” he said. “It is very hard to isolate yourself from news stories and information.

“Before you could choose not to turn on the telly and that was fine. Today, you can't because you have to isolate yourself from everyone digitally in your network.”

TikTok and war: 'sensational' bedfellows

Social media does not only create more information, it also sensationalises it.

This sensationalism “lends itself very well to the context of war, according to Mr Chamorro-Premuzic, who pointed out there has been a macabre relish to the way social media channels have seemed to draw strength from the Russia-Ukraine war at a time when the sensationalism around the coronavirus pandemic is petering out.

“This is something that is novel and is way more extreme than a [weakening] pandemic certainly, if you factor nuclear warfare,” he said.

“The whole world is kind of focused on this story only, so it makes it very easy for people to decide where to focus — content creation.”

The nexus between TikTok's nuclear content and its young audience is open to exploitation by misinformed or malevolent parties, he said

Screengrab from the TikTok account @sebastiank22.

“They are not part of a generation that lived through the Cold War,” said Mr Chamorro-Premuzic.

That period saw pamphlets produced by official channels that offered far more reliable information than that now being disseminated.

A booklet from the Cold War describing how to build a family shelter in case of nuclear attack. Alamy

“[Their] existence is the perfect target for manipulation. Put it this way, think about the degree of expertise and information and time that you need to have to even scrutinise possibilities, like would Russia use a nuclear bomb or not? It is not a simple question.”

There is a counterpoint. The platform — along with other social media — provides the war-oppressed with the chance to shine a spotlight on the terrors of conflict in real time, as well as the chance to rebuff misinformation.

Ukrainian travel blogger Alina Volik has switched from her day job to chronicling how life has changed in her beloved country and she has a large following for her posts.

@alina__volik

And it's not the worst what I have right now. People in other cities can’t even go to the grocery and they sleep on the floor in the metro.

♬ оригінальний звук - ukr.kozak

Another user with more than two million followers, @zaluznik, has urged “Russians to open their eyes” to the Putin administration.

A screengrab of a video from the @zaluznik TikTok account. Photo: TikTok

And social media is not only being used to expose the reality on the ground. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been active in mounting resistance across several channels, seeking to rebuff Russian propaganda and exhorting the world to take greater action.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says 'we are all here' in Kyiv, in a video posted on his Facebook account. AFP

Mr Chamorro-Premuzic said it is hard to quantify the proportion of good and bad use, but said that social media platforms such as TikTok do give marginalised people a voice.

“I think for anyone who is covering the events independently and has followers and has freedom of speech or an opinion that would actually not be broadcast otherwise, it is very powerful seeing images [and] being informed immediately on what is happening right now,” he said.

“All of those are potential positives. And let's not forget that if your goal as a consumer or user of these platforms is to be informed and learn with a little bit of intelligence and time, you can curate your feed” so as to not be so dependent on “noise” or bias news that is being propagated.

Whatever the motivation behind the use of TikTok in this conflict, social media is now an indelible part of modern warfare — its polarisation and lack of nuance consonant with the deep-rooted human proclivity to tribalism.

“Whether you are talking about potential innocence, diseases or threats, there is a universal human condition or quality, which is to try to make sense of things,” said Mr Chamorro-Premuzic. “We don't cope with ambiguity or ambivalence very well. That is why you have conspiracy theories.”

He believes this condition makes war “a very good opportunity” for social media platforms because they “create the illusion of certainty".

So, not only could the world be witnessing a seismic change in its geopolitical landscape, it could also eclipse traditional wartime journalism.

“I think why there is a lot of sense to the argument that any journalism or media kind of channel or outlet that does not become very polarised and gravitate towards one extreme or the other is losing interest,” said Mr Chamorro-Premuzic.

Updated: March 04, 2022, 2:53 PM
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