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TikTok and the war in Ukraine: war in portrait format

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TikTok brings the Ukraine war to millions of smartphones. Immediate, full screen, and ranked somewhere between dance videos. How do I handle this?

TikTok has long been marketed as an entertainment app. © Loïc Venance/​AFP/​Getty Images

A tank circulating through a high-rise housing development. wipe A young woman walks through a bomb shelter. wipe Vitaly Klitschko in camouflage. wipe The soldiers raise a Russian flag somewhere.

you can do all that right now tik tok watch. The video app brings Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine to millions of smartphones. Full screen portrait. The short video platform with a billion users worldwide was once known for its shallow entertainment content. Now the war is there. “Almost everyone in the war zone has a smartphone and uses it to document the situation. And many of these videos end up on TikTok,” says Marcus Bösch, TikTok and disinformation researcher at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences.

This is not the first time that a globally recognized conflict has been documented on social media. During the green revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, Twitter and Facebook were the tools of the day. But with TikTok everything is different again. Even more immediate, because you don’t have to click: the videos start playing as soon as you open the application. Clip follows clip follows clip. And even if you don’t after the Russian war of aggression against them. Ukraine searched can make it appear on the screen.

With TikTok, the algorithm decides what the user sees. Target accounts, enter search terms? Hardly anyone does that. You open the app and voila: a bit like watching TV, just for everyone with an individual program. The videos a user watches depend on which ones she has finished watching in the past and many other secret parameters. This is why TikTok is not the same as TikTok. This makes it even more difficult than on other platforms to assess what there is to see. Y: If a video has ended, it starts over from the beginning. If you want to see the next one, swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

Always curious about what comes next, many find it hard to log out of the app. Especially in these times. Because the war is coming. Because suddenly it becomes understandable what it means. There are many people, especially young people, who spend hours on the app every day. On the platform, others find hitherto unknown access to the war: with first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground and often highly emotional, the war there has countless faces, voices and perspectives.

wipe Tanks roll through the streets at night and are thrown with Molotov cocktails. wipe A low-flying plane fires a missile and a child screams in fear in the background. wipe Following a TikTok trend, a family introduces the interior of their bomb shelter to a cheerful Italian tune. wipe A woman recounts how she and her family had to flee their new home, how difficult it is for her three children to separate from their father.

From TankTok to Zelenskyj meme

Before the invasion it was full of TankToks, that is, videos of Russian troop movements, but today you can also find many declarations of solidarity with Ukraine from abroad or memes celebrating Ukrainian President Zelenskyj. The ones that show people running away. Smoldering debris. Or just material that shows the battles, or should be shown.

The fact that so many people upload warzone clips also has to do with how attractive TikTok is for joining the platform. Unlike other platforms, you don’t have to laboriously calculate your reach: the first video could already be distributed by the algorithm and thus viewed by millions. And thus give a better audience to those affected by the war.

But not only is the number of images that TikTok shows of the war in Ukraine new. The TikTok researcher Bösch also highlights that the platform has introduced new cultural techniques: the storage of sounds in the videos shapes the content, the meme factor is enormous -in addition, TikTok is due to the possibility of doing duets or the so-called stitches of other clips, “incredibly interactive”. Users can directly react to previous clips. In this way, the platform also changes the way people react to war, from other users.

A speech by Putin. wipe A speech by Gysi. wipe A reporter asks Ukrainian President Zelenskyy if he trusts Putin. wipe Soldiers venture out from behind a house, shots are fired. wipe A woman recounts how serious the attacks on her village were the night before while scratching a cat. wipe Another woman films along the empty shelves of a supermarket. wipe A tearful farewell at a train station. wipe Paratroopers sail to the ground. But are the images really up to date?

Many people feel overwhelmed with everything they are currently seeing on TikTok, confused and overwhelmed. Because they see the horrors unfiltered. Because, captivated by the endless cycle of TikTok, they watch more than the many individual impressions and perspectives can process. Because they don’t know what to believe and what not to believe.

Immediately after the outbreak of the war, author Berit Glanz asked teenagers not to be left alone with the app, but to look at the pictures with them and rate them. Friederike Siller, professor of media education at the Technical University of Cologne, described what children currently see on TikTok to the publishing network Germany as “overwhelmed”, especially since children, who are still in the pandemic situation, they are particularly vulnerable. TikTok videos often left many questions unanswered, and unfiltered impressions could lead to fear and uncertainty. Siller advises pointing out other media offerings for kids under 13, and if they’re still on TikTok, keeping a close eye on what kids see there.

However, older teens or adults can also be emotionally overwhelmed by what they have seen. What can help here is what is usually advised in relation to other social networks and news sites: take breaks in which you do not inform yourself.

Also, if you just consume clip after clip without stopping and taking a closer look at what’s actually being shown, it’s often hard to tell real reports from misleading or manipulated clips. Precisely because, at first glance, TikTok offers even less contextual information than other platforms. Even clips with little in the way of truth can quickly find an audience of millions, distributed through the TikTok algorithm.

How to verify content on TikTok

To verify the authenticity of clips, Bösch recommends viewing the sound and timestamp of TikTok videos. The background: TikTok is particularly easy to add soundtracks. However, this can also distort the content: by enriching a video with explosion sounds, for example, completely harmless footage can look like a battle scene. Also, TikTok doesn’t show when videos are played when uploaded; this only reveals a click on the profile that posted the video.

It also helps to look at reviews, says Bösch, because other users often point out fakes there; for example, if a movie clip was taken from a video game, the years-old material was published as current or taken out of context. Media educators, teachers, and parents should point out these methods for unmasking simple fakes.

However, such a review is far from exhaustive. Cause: If a clip was posted elsewhere, for example on Telegram, and only reposted on TikTok, any background of the video is missing. And of course there are plenty of other ways to fake clips in a way that will fool you. Therefore, Bösch recommends encouraging young people in particular to ask themselves: Who posts what on TikTok and with what interest? If you want to check the content, you will find many researchers and journalists on the Internet uncovering fakes and misinformation.

wipe The consequences of a nuclear attack are explained with somber music. wipe An old woman cries in a train station. wipe the soldiers dance. wipe A not-so-young man with a three-day blond beard bakes sourdough bread.

The excruciating simultaneity that TikTok presents to its users on the individually compiled ForYou page can also have a stressful effect: three clips from the war zone, one of refugees on the Polish border, and then a comedy sketch or a woman hanging out with friends. . for the Aperol Spritz? TikTok nonchalantly unites these opposites. This mix can be entertaining under normal conditions. But as soon as the content gets more serious, this mix can be disturbing. Because every sketch, every photo of food published, seems particularly hollow if you cut it directly with the images of a war in Europe.

TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has long and persistently stated that TikTok wants to be an entertainment platform, as well as a place to learn. For a long time, people tried to avoid political content. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this was almost impossible because users were also sharing political videos, such as those from Black Lives Matter. However, at least since the war in Ukraine, it can no longer be overlooked that TikTok has long been a political platform, sharing on-the-spot observations of current events.

Researcher Bösch believes that this is an effect that will continue: “In the future, we will also find content from other conflict areas on the platform.” Precisely because TikTok now also allows ten-minute videos, the platform “will continue to age and will also be inundated with serious and more political content that TikTok originally didn’t want on there,” says Bösch.

wipe A crying boy, without a recognizable companion, walks down the street with a plastic bag in his hand. wipe “Of course I’ll stop playing computer games so you can watch your series,” a man tells his wife. wipe A woman who says you shouldn’t date everyone Russia Putin’s war blame. wipe A man tears up his Russian passport. wipe A military vehicle on fire. wipe


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