TikTok war: How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected younger social media audiences

  • Young TikTok users post videos of Ukraine conflict
  • Ukrainian influencers provide insight into life during the invasion
  • Disinformation about Ukraine is widespread, researchers warn

March 1 (Reuters) – When Russia invaded Ukraine last week, some of the youngest social media users experienced the conflict firsthand on TikTok.

Videos of people huddled and crying in windowless bomb shelters, explosions that slammed into urban settings and missiles that swept through Ukrainian cities took precedence over the app from its usual offerings of fashion, fitness and dance videos.

Ukrainian social media influencers uploaded gloomy scenes of themselves wrapped in blankets in underground bunkers and army tanks rolling through residential streets, juxtaposed with photos of blooming flowers and friends laughing at restaurants that honored more peaceful memories of their hometowns.

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They urged their followers to pray for Ukraine, donate to support the Ukrainian military, and asked Russian users in particular to join anti-war efforts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which she called a “special operation,” is the latest example of the pivotal role TikTok has played in bringing news and current events to the broad Gen Z audience of the app. Its famous algorithm is known for delivering trending content even if users don’t follow certain people, allowing topics to quickly go viral among its 1 billion monthly users.

The app has become so influential in this conflict that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to “TikTokers” as a group that could help end the war, in a speech addressed to Russian citizens. Some TikTokers picked up where the politician left off.

A Ukrainian travel blogger named Alina Volik, who has more than 36,000 followers on TikTok, took a break from posting highlights from her trips to Egypt, Spain and Turkey, to upload videos of life during invasion, emergency backpacks full of first aid supplies and sealed windows to protect against flying glass in an explosion. In TikTok videos posted on Monday, Volik also urged his international followers to watch his Instagram Stories to “see the truth” about Ukraine.

In an email to Reuters, Volik said she wanted to counter misinformation in Russian news that the country’s actions were a “military operation” rather than a war that hurts Ukrainians.

Montages of residential buildings destroyed by missiles, empty grocery shelves and long lines of cars piled up outside gas stations could be seen on the TikTok pages of top Ukrainian influencers.

“@zaluznik”, which has 2 million followers, posted one such montage on Sunday with the caption “Russians, open your eyes!”

Russian influencers also took to the app to share their reaction. Niki Proshin, who has more than 763,000 TikTok subscribers, said in a video on Thursday that “normal people” in Russia don’t support the war.

“None of my friends and none of the people I speak to personally supported today’s events,” he said, referring to the invasion of Ukraine.

On Monday, Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor demanded that the app stop including military-related content in posts recommended for minors, saying much of the content was anti-Russian in nature. TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Read more

Online disinformation researchers have warned that fake news about the conflict has now been mixed with genuine information and has spread widely on TikTok and other tech platforms, including Meta Platforms’ Facebook (FB.O), Twitter ( TWTR.N) and Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) Youtube.

Footage from the military simulation video game Arma 3, footage of explosions from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip, old footage of heavy gunfire and animations of planes in flight have been shared on media sites social media as if depicting the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely, with increased resources to respond to emerging trends and remove violent content, including harmful misinformation and promotion of violence,” a TikTok spokesperson said, adding that this was working with fact-checking organizations.

Some Ukrainian TikTok users have made it their mission to share information and raise awareness among Western audiences.

“I want people to understand that this is not a joke, this is a serious situation that Ukrainians are facing,” Marta Vasyuta, 20, said in an interview on Monday.

One of Vasyuta’s TikTok videos showed what appeared to be a missile in the sky with the caption “Kiev 4:23”. There were more than 131,000 comments on Monday as users flooded the video to offer their prayers and express their disbelief.

“Never thought I would get WAR updates on TIKTOK,” one user commented.

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Reporting by Sheila Dang in Dallas and Elizabeth Culliford in New York; edited by Kenneth Li & Shri Navaratnam

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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