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Ukraine fights back on TikTok, where war is fought with memes and misinformation

The short-form video app has provided a way for Ukrainians to capture their daily lives, but they are starting to get drowned out.
Image: Polish Border Towns Receive Mass Influx Of Ukrainians Fleeing Russian Armed Invasion
From left, Tamari Putgaradze, 29, who fled her native Kharkiv with her mother, uses her mobile phone as she crouches next to an electric outlet on the floor at a temporary shelter set up in a former shopping center, in Przemysl, Poland, on March 3, 2022.Sean Gallup / Getty Images

In between making TikToks, Ian Umney is making bombs. 

Umney’s wife is Ukrainian, and the couple has lived in the southeastern city of Nikopol with their son for six years. He was in his native Britain for work when Russia invaded. 

Umney, 28, documented his trip back to Ukraine on TikTok, where he has since accrued more than 200,000 TikTok followers. He has continued to post updates from Ukraine to his audience as the war has escalated.

“The Russians are now just across the river from where we are. They are expected to attack any time within the next day or two,” Umney said in a voice memo shared over Telegram. “At the moment I’m making my Molotovs and I’m ready in case the Russians do come.”

Umney, like many Ukrainians, has embraced TikTok as a way to provide a window into the on-the-ground reality he now faces. In recent weeks TikTok has become essential viewing for people seeking information on the war, offering a look at the front lines of major cities as well as daily life in Ukraine — Molotov cocktails and all.

But Umney’s content is now competing with a wave of other videos purporting to be about the conflict. While there are several prominent examples of Ukrainian content creators using TikTok to communicate their lived experiences, viral videos about Ukraine on TikTok are also largely a mixed bag of misinformation. Realistic video game footage and videos predating the conflict masquerade as TikToks set in present-day Ukraine, while TikTok users outside the combat zone are cashing in on misleading livestreams and viral trends like a mythical Ukrainian combat pilot, the “ghost of Kyiv.” 

A TikTok spokesperson said, “We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and remove harmful misinformation and other violations of our Community Guidelines. We also partner with independent fact-checking organizations to support our efforts to help TikTok remain a safe and authentic place.”

It’s common for one trend or topic to take over TikTok for days or even weeks. TikTok’s algorithm is designed to flood users with content that has high engagement, so many people’s feeds are now deluged with videos of the conflict in Ukraine. The videos rarely provide context or a greater narrative for the conflict, leaving viewers to do their best to interpret what they’re seeing.  

“Emotive videos, emotional videos, can really make people skip the verification stage and not give enough thought to the accuracy of the video and not really exercise their media literacy,” said Ioana Literat, an associate professor of communication at Teachers College, Columbia University.

TikTok’s humble beginnings as an app for dance trends and lip-syncing have given way in recent years to a platform that is now generally recognized as a rival to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the battle for our attention. The app now counts more than 1 billion monthly active users, with roughly 78 million of those users residing within the United States.

And while politics and current events have previously occupied a small corner of the app, Literat said it is logical for TikTok to take on a new role during the war in Ukraine. The platform’s accessibility and algorithm combined with its easy-to-use video creation tools, where anyone or anything can go viral with ease, make it a perfect place to capture and share bite-sized moments of major world events. 

It’s a shift that has been compared to the sudden centrality of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring of 2011.

“I’m not surprised that we’re seeing the war play out on TikTok because TikTok is such a central platform for youth political expression and also a vital news source in young people’s lives,” Literat said.

Ukrainian TikTok users who spoke with NBC News said they feel the same way.

“TikTok is literally just an outlet to reality,” said Amy Anna, 23, a British fourth-year medical student who fled her home in Dnipro, Ukraine, on Feb. 13 and returned to England. 

Anna started on TikTok just before the pandemic began, and she initially used it to document her life in Ukraine, often making videos about the cultural differences with the U.K. Recently, she used TikTok to share her decision to flee Ukraine and has since dedicated her feed to sharing information about the conflict. 

More so than Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, Anna said, TikTok is where young people like herself around the world have turned to get a first-hand look at the conflict in Ukraine. 

In one TikTok video that has more than 27 million views, a Ukrainian police officer, Andriukha Kurilenko, 22, plays a Ukrainian hip-hop song over a video of him and other armed men standing on a roof. In Instagram direct messages, Kurilenko wrote that he hasn’t been home for a week and has been on patrol with Ukrainian military forces. 

“The management doesn’t strongly approve or forbid it,” Kurilenko wrote about posting his TikToks while in military uniform.

One trend that has emerged among some Ukrainian TikTok users is to juxtapose scenes from their everyday life before the Russian invasion with footage of the front line. One video with nearly 200,000 views starts with the caption “Ukraine I knew yesterday” and has clips of the user with her friends and her dogs outside. Then, it cuts to “Ukraine I see now,” with shots of protests, Russian tanks and bombs exploding in residential apartments.  

“Political expression on TikTok is so quintessentially personal,” Literat wrote in an email. “There’s a performative aspect to posting on TikTok too [...] ‘truth’ is relative: a video might reflect that Ukrainian young person’s experience/reality, but it’s undoubtedly intentionally curated/crafted/framed in a certain way, with the affordances and audiences of TikTok in mind.”

The clearest commonality of the most popular TikTok content about the war is that it is pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia — and a growing percentage of it appears to be somewhere between propaganda and outright misinformation.

Numerous TikToks about the “ghost of Kyiv” have racked up millions of views. One video says “he has 9 confirmed kills now” over realistic-looking war footage. The footage was taken from the videogame “Arma 3,” a military-based tactical shooting game. The TikTok featuring it has nearly 3 million views. The New York Times reported that the ghost of Kyiv is likely a product of myth-making and propaganda that is endorsed by and sometimes originates from the official Ukrainian social media channels. 

The figure has spawned copycat pro-Ukraine propaganda, like the “Ukrainian reaper,” a supposed sharpshooter, and “Snake Island,” the location of a group of Ukranians who were announced dead after using an expletive to respond to Russian soldiers. They were later confirmed to have been taken alive

“Confirmed or not confirmed, a lot of people need to understand what hero propaganda can do for a country and its troops,” one comment on a “ghost of Kyiv” video says.

While there is some pro-Russian content on TikTok, including from Russian state media accounts, the vast majority of viral videos about the war are supportive of Ukraine.

Entire accounts have rebranded to be about the war in Ukraine. Some accounts are brand new or were wiped clean of previous content, but others show that users pivoted from lighthearted memes to realistic war footage set to jarringly upbeat electronica music. Some of the footage is old or fictitious, with scenes from combat simulators and video games captioned as if they are live Ukrainian combat updates.

TikTok users can profit off the war with engagement, which can lead to monetization — sometimes directly. Using TikTok’s livestream function, some users outside of Ukraine are pretending to be sheltering from combat to solicit donations.

Literat said that even with those shortcomings, TikTok has provided an important platform at a crucial time.

“Even though there’s misinformation, even though there are more low-quality videos or videos that are problematic in so many ways, I still see what’s happening as largely positive or with a positive potential,” Literat said, “because the conversations happening around these videos can shape young people’s attitudes and make them care.”