Social media itself has become a battleground
I was born in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, which was the first televised war. The nightly news reported on the war on the major networks — there were three then — and included actual footage of combat and often body counts. The images were narrated by trusted sources of information like Walter Cronkite.
In 1991, President George Bush, Sr., built a coalition of U.S. and international forces to oppose Iraq, which had invaded Kuwait. This was not only televised, it was shown in relative real time on the new 24-hour news cycle on cable television. I watched this war on CNN during college.
Now, Russia has invaded Ukraine, and this war has already been called the TikTok War by The Guardian. A brief trip to TikTok, with or without a search on a tag for the Ukraine invasion, will reveal videos of the war, some of which are true and accurate, some of which are lies, and some of which are simply mistakes. For instance, a person may repost a mistaken video they believe to be real. Accidental, but all too easy, misinformation.
The reason to call this the TikTok War seems to be a combination of things. Soldiers in Ukraine are all walking around with cell phones, as are the population, so it’s super easy for them to upload a quick video. Video, like it or not, is a good medium for warfare, as it depicts those horrific events quite viscerally. Lastly, TikTok, with its ease of posting, reposting, and creation, makes it really easy.
But what might we take away from this latest moment of mediated history?
- Many of these videos lack context. They are simply posted, with or without tags, but simply on their own. What is the viewer to make of them without a contextualization of the specific event?
- These videos and other images have been made into memes, as reported by Vice. As memes, they get filtered into their own new meaning. The example from the article has one of Zelensky dressed in a Ukrainian-colored Captain America outfit. In my opinion, he’s being heroic within a desperate situation and has stood his ground valiantly. It strikes me as minimizing to depict him as a fictional hero when he is being a real hero.
- There are many, many images and videos from the Ukrainian perspective that have led some to begin to quantify the war in ways not previously seen. Earlier, I mentioned the body counts that were discussed on air during the Vietnam War. But it’s fascinating to see armchair speculation about the real-time invasion in a manner attempting to quantify how it’s going. This happens to seem very Ukrainian from our perspective in the west. It makes me wonder how any given battle in another war might have been depicted. There’s a movie called A Bridge Too Far from 1977. It depicts, in Hollywood form, the failed Operation Market Garden by the Allied Forces during World War II. The Russian columns of trucks, seemingly ground to a halt as they try to advance, remind me very much of some of the problems in the Allied effort of Market Garden. Long lines of trucks, stuck in mud, on narrow roads. How might the Allied soldiers or civilians have “reported” from the ground there had they had the same technology we have today?
- Here, the war effort is also depicted on what might be described as multiple “fronts” where the actual, physical battles are reflected on TikTok. But also, there’s a huge disinformation campaign going on in Russia, where Russian media is spreading a very different message about how it’s going, why they invaded, etc., than the rest of the world seems to be seeing. TikTok itself is a kind of battleground. But also, Western media has either been blocked or has removed service from Russia, further isolating it.
- Lastly, the videos of the invasion of Ukraine are interspersed with the other typical fodder on TikTok: half naked people, stupid human tricks, crashes, puppies, etc. I think it might be easy to become desensitized to the images we’re seeing as they’re mixed with the mundane and inconsequential. This vs. turning on a news channel, watching similar footage, and at least hearing something more reasonable about what we’re seeing and why. Very strange.
I think it’s important for all of us to try to understand better what we’re seeing on services like TikTok and Instagram as we attempt to make sense of this war. Just as in wars past, where media and propaganda played crucial roles in countries’ ability or willingness to wage war, today we have a different lens through which to view warfare. We really need to examine how this war is being fought, won, or lost, with the current set of media. Especially as those tools are either currently warped or could be warped in the next conflict.
I wish a quick end to this invasion and peace and democracy for the Ukrainian people.