War in Ukraine

'Through TikTok we have first-hand sources.'

Marcus Bösch researches disinformation campaigns on social media. The expert on the social media network TikTok publishes the weekly newsletter 'Understanding TikTok'. We spoke with him about the role of TikTok in Russia's war on the Ukraine. We wanted to hear how TikTok is influencing our perceptions of the war, whether the platform can be used as a research tool, and what pitfalls it involves.

How important has TikTok become for obtaining information on Russia's war against Ukraine?
Maybe I'll answer that question with an anecdote. I just read an interview with a so-called open-source intelligence specialist who said he finds 95 per cent of his information about Ukraine on Twitter, but it's also increasingly possible to see videos from TikTok there. Especially in the lead-up to the war, the movements of Russian troops and tanks were filmed on TikTok and then compared with satellite photos. Together, this information provided a good picture of the situation. That is to say, through TikTok we appear to have first-hand sources.

And what is the situation now that we're in the midst of war?
We're getting glimpses into everyday life in wartime that we otherwise wouldn't have access to. The users, who are mostly young, post videos about life in the various Ukrainian cities under siege, about life in a bunker. For example, how do you make a coffee completely without power? And because this app is completely based on videos, all this information makes much more of an impression than it would if I were to just read about it. Additionally, there are still videos of military operations and now also increasingly from refugee accommodations in Romania and Germany. This is of course very interesting because we continue to directly see what everyday life is like.

When TikTok users 'perform' from their ruined cities, this is basically also a kind of coping strategy to make clear what this war means in a very dark, sarcastic way.

TikTok has a particular aesthetic. Originally, it was mostly kids and teenagers who performed to pop songs in very short videos and then shared these as loops. What does it mean that reporting on the war is now taking this form?
TikTok users are also using the app's particular cultural techniques for their videos of the war. For instance, when scenes from a bunker or ruined cities are shown and 'performed' with, this is basically also a kind of coping strategy to make clear what this war means in a very dark, sarcastic way. So I show my mother in the cellar squeezing tomato paste out of a tube into food and write that she's mixing in a bit of Putin's blood... These are mechanisms for dealing with this drastic and exceptional situation.

For people who don't use TikTok that can sometimes be a bit alienating...
Absolutely! This is a similar phenomenon to when the Beatles were first played on the radio, or when MTV was first aired on TV. TikTok is annoying in a way because it uses cultural techniques inherent to the platform that not everyone is familiar with. People who are more active on TikTok are naturally better at decoding this new aesthetic.

But TikTok has now arrived in the traditional media as well. Taggesschau has an account, as do the Washington Post and many other outlets...
Yes! Because it's no longer just teenagers who are using the platform; it's aging. That's why a lot of politicians now also have a TikTok account. A really good example is Emmanuel Macron, who also posts selfie videos in a T-shirt on the platform because he knows that future voters are there.

Just now I found an account with the unbelievable name Putin_cool_president, which has an icon of Putin holding a mobile phone with the TikTok app. It isn't an official Russian account, but based on current information, there is evidence that these kinds of accounts are often paid for by the Russian state.

How can I even tell if I'm looking at an official account?
On TikTok, like other social media channels, there's also a blue check mark that is displayed in the profile. If you see this you can be pretty certain that it really is the official account confirmed by TikTok. This doesn't mean, however, that there aren't original accounts without a blue check mark. Alongside these pages there are also fan pages of course – for example, for Selenski (or Selenskyj) or Putin. Neither of them has their own presidential account. Just now I found an account with the unbelievable name Putin_cool_president, which has an icon of Putin holding a mobile phone with the TikTok app. It isn't an official Russian account, but based on current information, there is evidence that these kinds of accounts are often paid for by the Russian state.

Hasn't TikTok been banned in Russia – like the other social media channels?
TikTok pre-empted such a ban. On 7 March, it stopped allowing Russian users to upload new videos or produce livestreams. Additionally, Russian users apparently cannot view videos from foreign accounts. Tracking Exposed published a 24-page investigative report about this on 15 March. The NGO used a virtual private network (VPN) to access Russian networks and discovered that accounts from abroad were empty of content.

And how are the Russian Putin fanpages being filled?
That also takes place via a VPN. A VPN makes it relatively easy to access a network outside Russia. The Russian state can do this just as easily as the Russian population. And it really does seem to be happening. The VPN download numbers have increased significantly in recent weeks. I can also see that Russian influencers are continuing to post content.

But the restrictions are still noticeable for Russian TikTok users. I don't know how long it will be like that, but I suspect that TikTok won't want to do without the large Russian market for the long term.

At the end of the day, TikTik is a purely capitalist endeavour which is about earning profits. And to sell advertising you need to have a lot of people on your platform. This won't work if you arbitrarily censor content across the board.

Does the fact that TikTok belongs to a Chinese company also play a role?
The company ByteDance is indeed headquartered in Beijing. But I think the Chinese influence on the platform is being overestimated a bit in the current situation. The Chinese market has a separate app called Douyin. And for its part, ByteDance's leadership places great value on emphasising that the international TikTok is not being controlled from Beijing. It is very difficult to verify whether this is true. But at least the data are located outside of China, and there are decision makers outside the country. At the end of the day, TikTik is a purely capitalist endeavour which is about earning profits. And to sell advertising you need to have a lot of people on your platform. This won't work if you arbitrarily censor content across the board.

So there is no targeted shadowbanning?
The phenomenon of shadowbanning is definitely there. If I've done something 'wrong' as a user, meaning I've violated the community guidelines, my subsequent videos can be shadowbanned. This means that the algorithm prevents my videos from being shown to others. It's difficult to make a statement regarding ByteDance's influence on this because the company is far too non-transparent.

The platform also appears to be well suited for propaganda. Why? What makes TikTok different from other social media platforms like Instagram or Twitter?
In contrast to other social media channels, TikTik is very heavily based on content algorithms. This means that, unlike on Twitter or Instagram, I don't need to first build up a big social circle and as many followers or fans as possible in order to have influence. Content will be played on my TikTok start page, the For You page, from the beginning. The content is then gradually adjusted based on my usage. Even if I have just created an account, even the first video I post can go viral and reach hundreds of thousands if the content is interesting to a lot of people.

There's another central difference: The platform is much more sound-driven than other channels. This means that a lot is conveyed with sounds and music that are remixed. It's also easy to download videos created on TikTok and distribute them across other media. Among other things, this means that we now also see a lot of TikTok videos on Twitter.

TikTok is susceptible to misinformation and disinformation because, for example, it is easy to add new sounds to a particular video. Also, on the For You page it isn't possible to see when a video is from. This means that videos first appear there completely without context. For instance, at the beginning of the war a video appeared there that showed Russian military pilots laughing as they dropped explosive devices. But if you look more closely at the video, you see that it is an old video of a troop exercise. Or you see a video with shaky images of a woman running away, and in the background you hear shots. Upon closer examination you realise that the sound was added later. But of course, there is also a tonne of false information on other social media.

TikTok is susceptible to misinformation and disinformation because, for example, it is easy to add new sounds to a particular video. Also, on the For You page it isn't possible to see when a video is from. This means that videos first appear there completely without context.

How can I tell if something is misinformation?
Even with a limited amount of digital literacy, it's always important to first ask yourself these questions: Who is posting here and what are their interests? Has this account existed for a while – i.e. since before the war started? Is what I'm seeing here logical? For example, if I see an influencer who already reported from a particular city before the war and is continuing to do so now, this is naturally more credible than if the account was just created five minutes ago.

You should also always check when exactly the video was uploaded. I can't see that directly on the For You page; I have to go to the individual account. The sound for each video is also listed, and there you can check if it's the original sound or possibly older audio. It's also useful to have a look at the comments, because the users now also debunk a lot of false information.
 
TikTok has gradually extended the length of videos that can be posted. Now it's possible to post videos up to 10 minutes long. Has this changed the platform's direction?
TikTok started with very short videos, simply because these are very easy to produce and to consume. That was development step number one. Now that the whole thing is working well, the video length has been extended step by step. This is because TikTok doesn't just want to be number one on vertical mobile screens; it also wants to compete with YouTube and Neflix in vertical screen format. Cooperation agreements are now in place with providers of TV screens in the waiting areas at government offices and airports. TikTok is clearly pursuing expansion here.

But right now there's still a wild assortment of short and mid-length videos on the platform. I haven't seen any 10-minute videos yet, but it usually takes a while for users to adjust.
 
To close, I have one more question about your work at HAW Hamburg. You're a researcher in the HybriD project on disinformation campaigns in online media, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. What exactly is the project looking at?
HybriD is a joint project with the Department of Communication at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster and the Berlin-based company complexium. The full name is 'Real-time detection and evidence of hybrid disinformation campaigns in online media'. And what is it looking at exactly? The aim is to develop a software-based analytical tool that will help experts better assess disinformation campaigns. This will take place via a combination of machine analysis and human expertise. And the human expertise is where HAW Hamburg comes in. Together with the Universität Münster we're carrying out guided interviews with a range of experts and those affected so that their findings can flow back into the tool. The analytical tool is intended to make it possible to evaluate large amounts of data from online media, ideally in real time, and thus capture temporal patterns so that it is possible to identify the archetypes of disinformation campaigns.

That sounds like a very interesting project! I'd like to talk to you about it in detail another time. For now, thank you very much for this interview.
You're very welcome.

Interview: Maren Borgerding


Additional information

Understanding TikTok – newsletter

Contact

Marcus Bösch
Department of Information
Research staff member

marcus.boesch (@) haw-hamburg.de

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