How can we give a distant war its due?
When I was young my parents subscribed to The New York Times. I think they hoped a daily dose of its gold-standard journalism would lead me to become an erudite woman of letters one day. Unfortunately, whenever I paged through the A section my adolescent gaze was more keen on studying the extravagant full-page fashion ads from Saks Fifth Avenue or Lord & Taylor’s. Every week I looked forward to the Metro feature that offered a photo montage of the latest in what everyday New Yorkers were wearing. The trench coat. The army boot. The running shorts-over-leggings look.
With the exception of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre, the only times I read any articles with care were when the 1986 Mets won the World Series and when the Giants won the Super Bowl the following year. Clearly, I was not on the fast track to becoming a well-informed citizen.
Looking back, despite my lack of interest in what was printed in the “important” parts of The Times, the print medium of the news was categorized into separate sections that had the effect of creating an inherent sense of order for my emerging understanding of the world. Even if my teenaged appreciation of the Times was only focused on its fashion ads and features, the paper taught me a certain way of understanding how the adult world was organized and what various communities and spheres of society considered relevant and worthy of public discussion.
As Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism points out, “The medium is the message.” How we experience the news matters; in fact, the long-term cultural consequences of the medium might even matter as much as (or even more than) the content of the news itself. So yes, we ought to pay attention to the recent news on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But we should also keep an eye on how it is that Americans’ access to news of the invasion has burst through the usual guardrails of traditional media news outlets, as well as Facebook and Twitter, and has landed in the inflatable bouncy castle world of TikTok.
Dubbed the “first TikTok war” in The New Yorker and other publications, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the latest piece of hard news to be co-opted by the indefatigable machinery of contemporary social media. As a platform, TikTok’s bread-and-butter format of videos lasting one to three minutes with quick camera cuts, pop music soundtracks, and a high degree of fun and silliness does not make it an obvious purveyor of something as serious as videos documenting the destruction of war and the onset of a massive refugee crisis.
And yet, because of how nimbly TikTok is dialed into its one billion users, each with personalized algorithms fined-tuned for addiction, it is considered a “uniquely potent platform for viral propaganda” and a perfect medium for spreading news of war. During the first week of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, thousands of user-generated videos were uploaded to TikTok alone, sometimes amassing hundreds of millions of views per video. And, as a new generation of young Americans bears witness to a major offshore war for the very first time, it is often the medium of TikTok that is mediating and shaping that encounter.
Others have already pointed out troubling aspects of what it means for war to enter into the world of TikTok. First, for a platform that has mastered the art of spreading viral dance videos and memes, TikTok has a high propensity for distributing misinformation. While young people may be drawn to the authenticity and intimacy expressed in livestream accounts from actual Ukrainians documenting their experience of dislocation and violence, many videos claiming to be from the invasion are fake: mash-ups of video and audio from previous conflicts, some even employing visual sequences from hyper-realistic video games. In this way TikTok has become implicated in the massive distribution of misinformation concerning a major global conflict—joining the ranks of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, who have been in this morass for years. Arguably, for those inclined to hold tech companies responsible for the problematic content they traffic in, TikTok might be considered one of the most egregious offenders because of how young its audience skews and how much more vulnerable to being misled they might be.
Second, because the raison d’être of TikTok is viral media, its content is inherently performative, intending to shock and awe, or to go for the giggles. As a result, war on TikTok ends up looking like a video of soldiers moonwalking in body armor to the music of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” or a “war-page” account which aggregates battle images and videos for the sole reason of garnering followers and likes. While efforts to monetize the drama of war have existed since the Penny Press of the mid- nineteenth century, the almost-instantaneous reification of the Russian invasion as attention-grabbing fodder to be massaged with filters and remixed with the latest dance music has taken the sensationalism traditionally found in news media to a whole new level.
While it might be tempting for older generations to simply ascribe such developments on TikTok to the flaws of Gen Z, the fact that news of war can even make sense on a platform like TikTok is symptomatic of how deeply we all inhabit a consumer culture, where almost anything is open to being rendered “content” and employed for the purpose of consumption. We are already far more accustomed to being consumers and spectators of the news than trained in the arduous work of living as genuine citizens.
Young TikTok users often remark on how unnervingly efficient the TikTok algorithm is at “figuring them out” and delivering a compelling feed of videos that is hard to stop watching. Because the recent war videos on TikTok are not only juxtaposed helter-skelter with no priority or sense but are often so short that there is no time to even wonder about their meaning (never mind their veracity), it has the effect of cultivating what Kyle Chayka describes as a “bemused awareness, a feeling of sympathy that lasts only long enough to keep us scrolling.” This effect is quite different from experiencing war through authentic photojournalism, an endeavor meant to help faraway audiences bear witness to the gravity of war, both in its humanity and inhumanity.
I remain convinced that we all—young TikTok users included—intuitively understand the moral gravity of war. It is why one gets confused or upset by war, or feels sick with helplessness when all one can “do” is give money for humanitarian aid. While the blurring of entertainment and news in digital spaces like TikTok makes it difficult to acknowledge the weightiness of war, we have also let ourselves slide dangerously into a mode of collective existence in which we each experience the tremors and traumas of our world on our individualized screens, in isolation from each other. For the sake of our young people encountering a major war for the first time, we can model what it looks like to be more than consumers if we invest ourselves in creating genuine spaces of inquiry and sharing—be it in our schools, religious communities, local neighborhoods or households—where attempts at sense-making and lament can be offered and news of war can be given its proper due.
Felicia Wu Song is Professor of Sociology at Westmont College. Her book, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age was recently released by InterVarsity Press Academic. She is associate editor of Current.