"Unprecedented" is a word that's been used frequently in connection with the ongoing attack on Ukraine, regarding everything from Russia's seizing of a nuclear plant to the number of traumatized people fleeing the country in such a short time.
Also seemingly unprecedented? The role of TikTok in a conflict of this magnitude — and, as a result, the number of kids and teens getting intimate, first-person war reports from the nonstop spigot that the social media platform is known for.
"Vietnam was 'the living-room war' and this, I guess, you could call 'the social media war,'" Robert Thompson, Syracuse University professor of television, radio and film and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, tells Yahoo Life. Still, the Ukraine situation "is by no means the first time we've seen this," he notes, pointing out moments such as the 2009 viral video of protestor Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death on the streets of Iran — ahead of the "Arab Spring" of the 2010s, a series of uprisings that would be fueled by social media to such an extent that some referred to them as "Twitter revolutions." But now the amount of reporting coming from "anybody with a fairly modest phone in their pocket" is only increasing.
And that has Thompson and other experts both concerned and intrigued — especially when it comes to the role of TikTok, with the seemingly endless flow of war reporting finding its way into Gen Z's For You pages.
"TikTok seems like the perfect medium to not cover a war," Thompson says. "War has a set of complexities that TikTok is not known for being able to communicate," and the way stories are presented come without any "editorial standards," he points out.
TikTok seems like the perfect medium to not cover a war.Robert Thompson
On the other hand, "it gets complicated," says Thompson, "because the ability to collect video is, in fact, allowing a lot of people to bear witness to stuff that’s going on [in Ukraine] that otherwise wouldn't have been seen, and that's a good thing" — just as it was, for example, in the case of the murder of George Floyd. "So, I'm certainly not dissing the technology. … It's just that TikTok probably, in its very foundational properties, is not one that's good for explaining the complexities of a war any more than, say, sculpture is."
TikTok, which did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment, has suspended livestreaming and new content from being uploaded from Russia as it reviews the country's new "fake news" law. It also released a statement, on March 4, noting that "as a platform, this war has challenged us to confront a complex and rapidly changing environment as we look to be a canvas, a window and a bridge for people across the globe," and that it would be dedicating "significant resources" to develop "protective measures" regarding Ukraine content by adding more context, fact-checking and highlighting safety tools for its users.
1/ We're working diligently and aggressively to support and protect the safety of our TikTok community as the war in Ukraine evolves. More 👇 https://t.co/hKwcvN2vkc
— TikTokComms (@TikTokComms) March 4, 2022
A brief history of war in the media
Recordings of war for the masses, says Thompson, go back to the Trojan War, when "the medium was epic poetry, written centuries later." Eventually artists would be sent into battlefields to draw what they witnessed, and "we'd get these artist renditions, like in a courtroom."
A "radical change in the way people perceived war" would come with photography, which would differentiate the impact of the Civil War from that of the War of 1812.
"Then we make those pictures move, with the silent moving pictures of World War I, and then, with World War II, lots and lots of motion pictures that we'd see usually at a remove of several days, in movie theaters, where you were able to see what war looked like with pictures and sound," says Thompson.
Still, World War II was mostly experienced by people through radio, he points out. "It was in your home and relatively immediate," Thompson says. "On December 7, 1941, you started getting those messages and you listened to it unfold, delivered directly to our homes, sometimes through live [recorded] broadcast from Normandy."
While the Korean War was the first to be shown on television through Edward R. Murrow's documentary reporting, it was still with Vietnam that "you turned on the evening news every evening and you had fresh footage … these reporters like Morley Safer were right there watching it go down while soldiers were burning down the grass huts of civilians.” And, Thompson adds, "Public opinion about the war, perception of the war and coverage of the war and its protests really made [President Lyndon B. Johnson] not run for [a second term]. And TV had an awful lot to do with that."
"It's been identified as the first war Americans watched from their televisions, and this was very strongly linked to the turning of public sentiment against the war effort," New York University social psychologist Azadeh Aalai tells Yahoo Life. "It's a little bit simplistic to say the public opinion turned based on TV content, but one of the findings that's been consistent is the more coverage there was of American casualties and coffins coming home … the more significantly that was associated with a turning against the war effort."
The last big media shift came with coverage of the Gulf War, in 1990, when "we had the first real 24-hour war and CNN became the war channel — they basically covered that very short war [six months] from beginning to end," Thompson says. (And Aalai points out that, unlike with Vietnam, coverage of antiwar protesters "actually had an opposite effect," with much of it showing protesters as part of the undesirable "radical fringe.")
"The big difference now is that all these things up until recently have been material collected by the authorized media people themselves," Thompson adds. Now it's anyone's game.
War on TikTok: Pros and cons
Thompson, when told by this reporter that her 13-year-old was more upset by overhearing National Public Radio reports on Ukraine horrors than she was by seeing TikTok videos from the frontlines, says that the comment is quite revealing.
"NPR is telling you what happened, and that's really upsetting," he says. "Whereas … TikTok is a medium that’s allowed a complete stripping of context. So we've now got this medium that's able to take the upsetting out of it. It's like, 'OK, there's an explosion, I've seen all kinds of explosions on Marvel movies, and this is just another one of those things.'"
Aalai has similar concerns, especially since people getting Ukraine news on TikTok feeds are seeing it interspersed with other, less serious videos. "It's also combined with other people we might be following, and that includes silly stuff and pop culture, so my fear is that the coverage of the war is being consumed as a form of entertainment — the same way we consume other stories online — and that, over time, there could be this disconnect … a desensitizing or normalizing of something that should never be normalized: warfare.”
She also fears that "it's kind of diluting any kind of nuance and is almost like an information overload or saturation without a lot of depth."
Then there are what Aalai calls "concerning reports" about how a lot of what's gone viral might not necessarily be accurate. "So, there's also the question of authenticity or accuracy and the kind of social media videos or stories that are creating the narrative," she says
It's something that TikTok influencer Abbie Richards, a self-dubbed "disinformation researcher," has posted and written about recently, pointing out how older footage, from completely different conflicts in other countries, is being shared and then pushed by TikTok's algorithm because people are now engaging with it.
Richards, who did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment, explains on TikTok that some videos are using "scary audios" from unrelated videos. "Stay calm and stay skeptical of what you're seeing on social media right now," Richards tells her followers.
Further, Richards has called out academics for mischaracterizing TikTok as a platform that's never before been used to spread gravely important information, noting in a Twitter thread to "Stop saying TikTok is 'usually just an app for memes and dancing, not serious issues.' Remember when TikTokers supposedly trolled a Trump rally? That was 21 months ago," she writes. "TikTok's been a political tool for as long as it's been used by people who care about political issues."
Alongside stories about TikTok being flooded with Ukraine war footage, I’m seeing academics say “TikTok has never been used this way before.”
This is false and it says much more about how academics & journalists have regarded TikTok than it says about the app.
— Abbie Richards (@abbieasr) March 7, 2022
So does TikTok increase the intimacy when it comes to coverage of war — or does the fact that it's a social media platform actually create more distance between creators and users?
"I think it's kind of both," says Aalai. "There's definitely a sense of intimacy in that there's such a kind of on-the-ground glimpse in terms of how everyday individuals are being impacted by the invasion. So there's that opportunity for intimacy and resonance, and the nature of it is that there's an endless feed, so a ubiquity."
Ukraine-based TikTokers such as Valerisssh (above), whose startling glimpses into everyday bomb-shelter life have amassed over 650K followers and attracted CNN, are captivating young people around the globe. And that's important, says Aalai.
Aalai teaches about the Holocaust and explains that one of the biggest challenges is "how to wrap your head around the scale and scope but also individualize the humanity?" One approach, employed by the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., she says, has kids follow one individual's story through the exhibit, finding out at the end if they survived or not. "You have this huge 6 million number — but how do you, at the same time, get to that type of intimacy? It's the appeal of the The Diary of Anne Frank," Aalai says. "And I think that that is something that can potentially be rich here, especially for younger consumers."
But, she notes, that also comes with its own risks for the kids following along and getting attached. "What's going to happen if one day something happens to that girl [on TikTok]?" she wonders. "It's positive from the point of developing empathy, but you also don’t know: How will it play out?"
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