Ukraine & Tiktok: How Social Media Grants Freedom to Joke about the World’s Most Burgeoning Conflict
Adults have a common misconception about TikTok. The app that many view merely as a hub for trendy dances and flashy filters is proving to also encompass acute and pressing problems, and it is shaping political and social reasoning along the way.
Four weeks ago, the world watched Eastern Europe with anticipatory eyes. Speculation soared, conspiracies swirled, people waited for the news of invasion while desperately wishing to have nothing to wait for.
Then, when the day did arrive and Russia confirmed these anticipations by launching a full scale invasion, the world received the news in what was unquestionably the most diverse dispersion of information about a war in the history of humankind. News channels scrambled to cover stories, newspapers churned out article after article, journalists endangered themselves in attempts to make sense of unraveling chaos—but a swift, propagated, and fractured culture of social media simultaneously enlightened millions, albeit in a much less educated and serious manner.
When I opened TikTok in the days following the Ukrainian invasion, I knew immediately that the world was being exposed to the Ukrainian War vastly differently from any conflict in our history books. I began to notice three subgroups of content pertaining to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
First and most numerous were videos joking about everything from Vladamir Putin to Russian vodka to the importance of democracy in the 21st century. They portrayed the U.S. draft as the biggest cause for upset, downplayed the severity of the situation, and in some cases overtly disregarded the war as an opportunity to sympathize with suffering people and see the importance of freedom.
Second were videos that showed intense visuals of bombings, shellings, destroyed buildings, and civilization in shambles. These stood in stark contrast to the videos that made fun of the war, yet they too often misrepresented the current state of Ukraine. In some instances, videos circulated that were from the 2014 invasion of Crimea, and others even surfaced from conflicts far outside of Ukraine's borders such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Finally, the third subset of videos came from legitimate news organizations and highlighted accurate coverage of the constantly-evolving crisis.
Here’s the catch.
Take America, for example. Millions of people, a large percentage of whom are teenagers and those under 30, rely—or should I say choose to rely—on TikTok and other social media platforms as their primary means of acquiring news. You can imagine that even with a scattering of accurate posts to inform them, at the very least they obtain a grossly convoluted picture of the conflict. Despite the flagrancy of this widespread misrepresentation, it might not seem like an issue or even a moral hazard for those—ourselves included—who are so far removed from the war.
Now take a moment and consider Putin’s own crackdown on the media in Russia. While I can get notifications of my Apple Watch from the New York Times, a citizen in Russia can now be criminally prosecuted and imprisoned for 15 years for reading those same articles. The shutdown of free speech in Russia is one of the most terrifying and threatening precedents to freedom in the 21st century.
I just recently finished reading Orwell’s 1984, and the stories I read today about what Russia is doing to undermine free speech carry more than just inklings of premature allusions to a Big Brother, totalitarian state. The danger of a misinformed population is therefore significantly magnified in Putin’s Russia. Unlike us, Russians do not have the liberty to fact check videos they see online, and couple this with decades of propaganda lionizing Putin and a very scary reality begins to materialize. Thankfully, Russia has been largely ineffective at enforcing these crackdowns so far, but if a country such as China were to take the same iron-fisted approach, they could do so in an instant and a thousand times more effectively than Russia.
This is not to discount the role that social media plays in connecting people and countries in times of need, but there are cautions and caveats that are amplified by social media in times of war.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a threat to democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere. As much as the Ukrainian conflict is in the limelight of global coverage, it is far from the first threat to democracy in recent years. A Freedom House report found that in 2021, only 20% of the global population lives in free countries, a number down from 50% in 2005.
As international relations, conflicts, and developments continue to be reshaped by technology, it is imperative that Ukraine be a wake up call to democratic backsliding. There have been too many autocratic leaders—Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, and Rodrigo Duterte to name a few—rising to power in recent years to discount the threat that backsliding poses to freedom any longer. Not to mention the United States’ own continued grappling with authoritarian tendencies that were magnified under the Trump presidency.
Ukraine has not lost its identity, it has not surrendered to Putin, and it has not abandoned democracy, but this is a conflict that will have implications long after the last shots are fired. Being indifferent is no longer an option. Let us witness this struggle not as passive consumers of jokes, but rather as conscious, informed, and most importantly active believers in democracy.