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Ukrainians are rallying global support via social media. But don’t call it a TikTok war.

Here’s what my research finds

- March 23, 2022

Russia’s war against Ukraine has predictably been labeled the “TikTok War” — much as pundits dubbed the Arab Spring the Twitter Revolution, or Occupy Wall Street became the Facebook Revolution.

Traditional media, as well as old-school social media such as Facebook, have diffused information about the invasion to billions around the world. But it’s the short-form videos on TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media platform, that have captured the hearts and minds of Gen Z, as well as many others. More than 43.9 million people have watched a Ukrainian teen give a tour of a bomb shelter, for example.

Citizen-influencers-turned-journalists have no doubt inspired global views of the conflict. These videos help rally global sympathy and support for Ukraine, from grass-roots citizens to corporate board rooms to diplomatic hallways. But how much does this really matter?

My research on how social media platforms intersect with political movements reveals the dangers of overestimating the role these platforms are playing in the Ukraine war. Today’s social media posts represent more evolution in communication than revolution.

Seeing war images isn’t new

The transmission of information has always been central to political movements and conflicts. Broadcast news brought grim images of the Vietnam War into American homes in the 1960s and 1970s. Two decades later, cable news carried indelible images of Germans smashing the Berlin Wall, as well as footage of the swelling Eastern European revolutions.

In 2022, compelling viral videos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealing for support are distributed quicker and more efficiently than TV news or articles in a print newspaper. But the types of posts we see today on the war in Ukraine connect with a long lineage. Communication tools don’t shape societal upheavals. Instead, societal upheavals shape how (and how much) people use communication tools.

War becomes filtered entertainment

Such new wrinkles often feel exhilarating, creating immediacy and connection to faraway people and breaking news. Yet research highlights that there are hidden dangers. A TikTok-narrated war could feel like a form of entertainment, drawing viewers to binge-watch the conflict in search of the latest emotion-sparking hit. People wake up and go to bed doom-scrolling another bombing — or cheering global antiwar protests.

Yet research has shown that even as digital media has expanded the amount of information available, it has also shortened our attention span. Researchers in Denmark, for instance, discovered that issues that rapidly grab our attention via Twitter or Facebook can fall off the public radar just as quickly. The volume of information and imagery becomes overwhelming, making it harder for any one thing to hold our focus for long, such as concern for Ukrainian refugees right now.

The algorithms that drive these platforms are not just geared toward maximizing emotional reactions but also optimizing the personalization of our feeds. What you are seeing online is not necessarily what others are seeing. Some of us have been watching similar genres of social media videos from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East on these very same platforms — including TikTok — for several years, but clearly others haven’t.

Digital spaces vary tremendously by social class and race, not to mention gender and geography, my research finds. These platforms make it easy to filter or tune out news we don’t want to hear. The fact that Syrians or Ethiopians have smartphones and have been filming their wars and uploading their videos has not guaranteed widespread global sympathy. Citizen journalists elsewhere are at the mercy of opaque platforms and the content preferences of users.

Will there be lasting long-term impacts?

Despite the fast-twitch nature of these platforms, they have helped rally global action. Whether it’s stories of volunteers rushing to the Ukrainian front, spontaneous efforts to support refugees, or the growing pressure for corporations to boycott Russia, social media has played a role. But the risk of relying on social media platforms to sustain solidarity efforts is that global attention will fade.

Long-term impact requires building real organizations, a major finding in my research. Spontaneity online may create ephemeral awareness or even mobilize people, but resourced organizations, not random individuals, sustain engagement that begins online.

In fact, my book, “The Revolution That Wasn’t,” shows that if we left it up to Big Tech’s algorithms or political groups to digitally promote and provoke, far-right wing organizations would dominate online spaces.

Social-media-sparked efforts continue only with the behind-the-scenes work to maintain them. In my book, I highlight how a combination of resources, time and expertise are essential to exploit the constantly changing algorithms that produce the posts appearing regularly on one’s social media feed. At the same time, a spike in view counts, such as we are seeing now with TikTok posts about the Ukrainian war, will not simply lead to offline solidarity efforts. Those also take work to sustain.

War without context

And a final point — a TikTok war inevitably lacks context. People flock to social media platforms in real time during crises to assess quickly what is happening. But decontextualized and provocative posts are more likely to go viral than well-researched or verified stories.

Disinformation remains a major challenge, and TikTok videos filled with fake information about the war have already been shared millions of times. However, this is not unique to TikTok or even social media. Propaganda has always been a key tool of war — only now it’s giant Internet platform companies and not just political leaders or war profiteers who benefit.

If TikTok’s arcade of images and sounds lull us into the comforting illusion that we’re informed, sympathetic and able to participate in meaningful ways, then viewers will likely move on from this conflict in search of the next viral sensation. Building on the antiwar momentum, in contrast, involves the harder, offline work of movements and structures that sustain the impact long after view counts from the war zone fade.

Jen Schradie received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently a digital sociologist at Sciences Po in Paris. She is the author of an award-winning book, The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives (2019/2022 Harvard University Press, EPFL Press).