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War in Ukraine: Tiktok Has Become a Particular Geopolitical & Disinformation Beast

Explosion videos, cooking tutorials in a bomb shelter, quick history lessons or misinformation, the war in Ukraine has transformed the hip-hop social network TikTok into bombs.TikTok, the information channel of the young generation, both Chinese and very Western, a youth that resists de-globalization is today facing the ‘First TikTok War’. With its parade of propaganda and false information. The stars of social networks are now pampered by politicians and governments. So much so that the White House organized, on Thursday, March 10, a briefing specially reserved for the influencers of the networks to review the situation in Ukraine.

“It’s very difficult for (young people) to navigate the social network and grasp the event, because they’re bombarded with propaganda from all sides, especially from Russia. That’s why teachers, educators, historians need to be there to help the younger generation” Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, told the Washington Post

This social networking war is not the first, however, for the first time the social media platforms are taking sides: Facebook and Twitter have chosen their side by blocking official Russian news sites and allowing anti-Russian messages. Moscow has retaliated by introducing a regime of very heavy prison sentences for anyone who spreads “false information” about the war. For TikTok, which is owned by the China-based tech giant ByteDance, and does not reveal what actions it takes against misinformation, the situation is delicate. Its Russian members can now no longer post information on its network. Nevertheless, TikTok maintains the maintenance of its system and has turned into a special geopolitical beast.

The volume of misleading videos we see on TikTok is significant. Some people are doing it because they want attention, some people want to monetize it, others are doing it potentially as misinformation and disinformation.

Some users are exploiting features that help videos on TikTok go viral, including reusing an audio clip with new footage.

Audio of gunfire uploaded from before the war started was used in more than 1,700 videos before it was removed, often featuring shaky camera footage to give the impression that it was capturing a conflict. A video featuring audio from a 2020 explosion in Beirut was watched more than 6 million times. Some people were pretending to be doing live TikToks videos from Ukraine and asking for donations. Some were scams.

TikTok algorithm design functions with the same method as its social media competitors: If you watch a video repeatedly to try to figure out whether it’s authentic or return to one after conducting research, you’re telling the algorithm you want more of this. The reality is, TikTok can do more to give users tools to quickly figure out if a video is fake: the ability to do instant reverse image searches to see whether the video has circulated in the past and databases where users can go to see if popular videos have already been debunked.

TikTok is making the humanitarian crises and the war more vivid and tangible to a massive audience who may not have otherwise engaged at all. The time spent watching fake videos of war doesn’t help a person’s understanding of a conflict.

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