September 30, 2023


Unlimited Technology

The Myth of the ‘First TikTok War’

Have you been watching the war in Ukraine via TikTok? Supposedly, everyone has been. “This is the first war that will be covered on TikTok by super-empowered individuals armed only with smartphones,” the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in February. That same week, all kinds of publications started referring to the invasion as “the first TikTok war”; New York Magazine coined the portmanteau “WarTok.” TikTok is a new global platform, and smartphone saturation is new in Ukraine, so perhaps it’s a reasonable claim. But is it a useful one?

The history of war is also a history of media, and popular memory associates specific wars with different media formats. Vietnam was the first television war. The first war in Iraq, in 1991, was the first cable-news war, or the first CNN war. (The network famously pulled off a “coup” by successfully broadcasting live from Baghdad.) Twelve years later, the American invasion of Iraq was “supposed to be CNN’s war” again, but instead became the Fox News war. It was also called “the YouTube war,” in which, as one journalism professor put it, soldiers made “personal and at times shockingly brutal” homemade videos of gunfights, suicide bombings, and other violence, many set to rap or metal music. MTV turned some of this footage into a 2006 documentary titled Iraq Uploaded; then, the following spring, the U.S. military blocked troops from accessing YouTube on military computers. So the YouTube war ended. The Iraq War continued.

The internet incentivizes quickly assembled narratives—ideas you can prove with a fistful of links—and each new war of the internet age has thus been dutifully described as the first of its kind, the first to be associated with the latest trend in digital media. In 2012, Israel and Hamas were said to have engaged in the first war of tweets. In 2013, The Daily Dot referred to the Syrian civil war as the “the first full-blown conflict presented to the world by YouTube and LiveLeak.” In 2016, Time announced the “first Facebook war,” referring to a livestream of Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting to oust the Islamic State from Mosul, in northern Iraq, while The Atlantic quoted a former State Department staffer’s claim that, in making use of Instagram and Twitter, ISIS had become “the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory.”

In this way, global events with stark differences in meaning and costs of life are understood as a collection of online incidents. Wars are named after platforms, whether or not the platforms in question really determined how people thought about that war, or experienced it, or documented it, or fought it. This is sort of tasteless, but also, because we live in a time during which media formats are iterating faster and faster, a little arbitrary. If history plans to call this “the TikTok War,” it should have a compelling case for why.

Let’s start in practical terms: Are people watching and documenting this war through TikTok more so than they are watching and documenting it otherwise? TikTok has 130 million users in the United States, and supposedly 1 billion globally; according to The New York Times, the volume of war content on TikTok “far outweighs” what can be found on Instagram, where videos about the war are also netting significantly fewer views. So, maybe, yes.

For months, researchers at the U.K.-based Centre for Information Resilience have been sourcing and verifying video from various social platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, and then aggregating clips into an easily navigable map of the ongoing conflict. (Videos are laid out geographically, dated, sorted into content categories, and annotated with available details, as well as a “violence level.”) But most of their footage comes from TikTok. When I spoke with Benjamin Strick, the director of investigations for CIR, about his team’s monitoring of Russian troop movements in January and February, he said that “80 to 90 percent” of the videos they were able to document and verify were originally posted to TikTok by civilians. They’re “living their normal lives,” he said, “taking videos of their dogs, taking videos of their food or their parties, and at times they’ll see these massive vehicles driving around, these military units, and they’ll take videos of them.”

Even so, and even in this narrow sense, the war in Ukraine is not literally the first TikTok war. Strick cited widespread use of the app during civil wars in Libya and Syria, and pointed to CIR’s ongoing project Myanmar Witness, which sources documentation of human-rights abuses partly from social media. “There’s a lot of soldiers and police who will even talk about the activities that they do against civilians on TikTok,” he said. Meanwhile, others point out that TikTok was often used by Azerbaijani soldiers during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and that it hosted plenty of on-the-ground footage of the Taliban’s violent 2021 takeover in Afghanistan. Last spring, while Israel was bombing Gaza, Vox dubbed a parallel struggle over the social-media portrait of the conflict “the TikTok intifada,” and pointed to a viral video showing civilians running away from the site of an air strike, as well as videos made in support of Palestine by beauty bloggers.

This does seem to be the first war that Americans are watching, in a concerted way, on TikTok—and that could make some kind of difference. The first TikTok war can refer to the first war to be seen on TikTok, or the first to be interpreted via the culture and the rhythms of the TikTok app. “Ukrainians appear to viewers less as distant victims than as fellow Web denizens who know the same references, listen to the same music, and use the same social networks as they do,” Kyle Chayka wrote in The New Yorker, in the most compelling argument so far about how TikTok might be shaping people’s understanding of the conflict. This fosters “a sense of intimacy,” he said.

But every new media format is said to be more immediate, more immersive, and more moving than the one that came before—a fact, or supposition, that commonly intersects with the labeling of wars according to their preeminent broadcast channels. In the 1930s, Virginia Woolf wondered whether photographs of war could ever unite viewers in disgust and aversion to it. President Lyndon B. Johnson wondered in 1968 whether the “vivid scenes” from Vietnam, as shown on TV, might have swayed Americans against the fighting there.

In the case of Vietnam, the story was particularly easy to debunk. Popular support of the war declined steadily, with no e
vidence of imagery-incited turning points. Historians have noted that newsreels shown in American movie theaters during World War II had larger audiences than most TV news broadcasts had later on, and that they featured more graphic and disturbing combat imagery. An essay published in The New Yorker in 1966—titled “Living-Room War”—is often invoked to bolster the popular narrative of “new media brings new immediacy,” but it argued that broadcasts of the first television war actually “diminished” its reality, with images of “men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall.”

Scott Althaus, a political-science and communication professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied decades of public-opinion data about American wars, told me he’s skeptical of claims that the mere existence of a novel media format has large or measurable effects. “In the Vietnam War, on television news, the typical story was Walter Cronkite sitting in front of a map saying, ‘Here’s what happened today,’” Althaus said. Individuals tend to misremember where they encountered the most startling images from a war, and how the images affected them when they saw them; as a culture, we do this at scale. “It’s just a very complicated question of how much particular images or kinds of information are going to shape the average person’s reaction to what’s going on,” he said.

He has doubts about the developing story around TikTok too. According to a Pew Research Center survey from last year, 48 percent of American adults say they get news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” and only 6 percent regularly get news from TikTok. Still, these numbers refer strictly to adults, and TikTok content can be aggregated on other platforms, including by traditional news outlets. “Today, with social media, you’ve got an upward flow of information that’s originating in people’s pockets,” Althaus said. “Who is providing the information is different today. The complexity of the pathways that this information follows and spreads is far more complicated.” People continue to get plenty of their news from TV, radio, and newspapers, whether in print or online. “It’s unlikely that TikTok is fundamentally shaping the information flows that the average person in the world or in the United States is receiving about this conflict,” he told me.

To the extent that TikTok does affect perceptions of the war, it may be more confusing than, say, YouTube or Twitter. TikTok is a remix app, in which users cut together audio and video pulled from anywhere—and during this conflict, they have already done so to create misleading content that is difficult for the average viewer to pick apart. TikTok’s potent recommendation algorithm also generates individual experiences of the war that vary widely from one user’s feed to another. While some TikTok users are seeing graphic footage of war, others are not.

Most of the videos I’ve come across from Ukraine, for example, have been shared by women who appear to be my age or slightly younger, many of whom speak English and have an internet-informed sense of humor. A recent video in my TikTok feed, of young people sitting on top of sleeping bags in a basement while several of them record on smartphones, looks familiar—like a slumber party that I know is grim only from off-platform context. Even conflict researchers have had to train the TikTok algorithm to show them the right content—videos with tangible information about fighting and casualties. Although the average Twitter or Facebook user may not be able to avoid scrolling into news about the war, a TikTok user with little interest in global news could easily skip it altogether.

Whether this really is “the first TikTok War,” wishful thinking colors the very claim. People have good reason to look for some new, crucial difference between the images of one war and those of all other wars that came before. If something is new, then maybe we’ve escaped the same old story in which lots of people die for no reason. If something is new, then maybe it can be different. But to look for that difference in the offerings of a technology company is obviously sad and misguided. In years to come, we will surely see, I don’t know, the first Twitch war, or the first Discord war, or the first war on some new platform that hasn’t even been developed yet.

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