Ukranians found themselves living in a warzone when Russia attacked their country in early February. While millions of Americans turned to traditional news outlets for updates on the war, many viewers, especially younger folks, have flipped to TikTok to learn about the conflict from civilians. Ukrainian TikTokers transformed into reporters, revealing the power of civilian storytelling. Hearing directly from the people impacted by the war seems to be more appealing and trustworthy than state-controlled or foreign media sources that tend to dominate wartime news coverage.
As a young person and an aspiring journalist, I’ve combed through TikToks from the biggest Ukrainian TikTokers and Ukraine-related videos on the app. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned:
- Ukraine could be the first “TikTok War”
TikTok has played a big part in bringing regular people around the world together to pay attention to what’s happening in the country. But it has not evaded notice of major politicians and world leaders. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself participated in a televised briefing where he namedropped TikTok as a method by which normal Russians could stand up to their government’s propaganda. TikTok, which boasts more than 1 billion monthly active users, clearly has a major role to play in this war.
Like Zelenskyy, the White House invited major TikTok influencers to a press briefing to help them understand how to cover the Ukraine crisis and avoid spreading misinformation. It’s clear that most major powers have understood the power that TikTok holds in mobilizing public opinion.
- Misinformation can also spread on the app
Misinformation is rampant on TikTok from both sides of the war. According to research compiled by The Guardian, because TikTok doesn’t display content chronologically and often shows content from strangers, it is more prone to misinformation. The app’s meteoric growth in such a short time span compounds these issues because it has fewer resources and less experience dealing with them. A powerful lie, the kind that can incite misinformed action, is also the type to continue to motivate users to stay on the app, so TikTok has a profit motive to ignore demands for change.
Misinformation featured in the Guardian article ranged from purported Russian-backed influencers repeating the same script to an old clip of a military parade framed as footage of alleged destruction in Ukrainian cities.
Side By Side Screenshots of Pro-Russia and Pro-Ukraine TikTok Misinformation
- Most people involved in the conflict have relatives on both sides
One of the most famous TikTokers I started following after delving into Ukraine-related TikTok is Denga, a half-Russian, half-Ukrainian fashion influencer. She is just one of many multiethnic multinationals in the region. These people have both Russian and Ukrainian family members. Denga herself has a grandmother who was stuck in Kyiv while she was living comfortably outside the center of the conflict.
As one 17-year-old Russian activist, Tamara, aptly put it in an interview with OpenDemocracy: “The Russians never wanted war. Almost every single one of us has family or friends in Ukraine, so the news we woke up to on 24 February was a complete shock.”
- Civilians are being targeted in the attacks
Videos such as these litter the app when a user looks up Ukraine. They showcase the immediate violence, attacks, and destruction that demarcate a typical day in wartime Kyiv. These videos make it clear that civilians are being directly attacked. TikTokers like 16-year old Veronica Khomenko, known for singing on the app, have started live-streaming the chaos around them.
Civilians have had to put their dreams on hold, and regular TikTokers like Vasyl Kucherak, 18, have paused their normal content creation about things like photography to report live from the scenes of war.
- Many Ukrainians (including those making videos) have ended up outside their cities because of the war. These people need housing, food, and other resources
Many TikTokers have families trapped in the midst of conflict in Ukraine and have subsequently used their platforms to help raise money for their families. Denga, the fashion TikToker, has transitioned from making outfit and accessory-related TikTok videos to become the spokesperson for her grandmother, who wants to move to the United States.
- Personal stories seem to move people the most
TikTokers’ personal testimonies are the most likely to go viral. In an interview with Forbes, Vasyl said, “99% of my audience is from other countries. I’m trying to give them real news, what is happening right now.”
The Verge found that a majority of donors have been Americans. Kristina Korban, formerly a crypto influencer, has moved viewers with her firsthand stories about her family members in Ukraine. “I feel so much for her and this country and the people, and it’s just so heartbreaking, and I hate what’s going on,” Katie Callaway, a stay-at-home mother from Massacussetts, told The Verge.
- Ukrainians have had to adjust to everyday living in wartime
TikTokers in Ukraine have been showing how drastically their life has changed in the new setting of constant warfare. TikTokers go live from their visits to bunkers during air raids. They take their viewers alongside them when they go on their grocery runs in the midst of fighting. They tell viewers about how many of their friends and family members have left Kyiv or are planning to. These firsthand accounts of war are a true testament to the new ways of life Ukrainians have had to forge in the midst of crisis.
TikTok has become a place where Ukrainians can tell their stories free from the bounds of professional news networks and state-based propaganda operations. With such a tool at their disposal, people around the globe can better understand all the day-to-day issues Ukrainians face. Hopefully, we can publicize their firsthand accounts and share their voices, and welcome refugees this crisis will produce.