KIANA KARIMI WRITES – Picture this: All of a sudden, Britney Spears spins around, dodging Russian bomb after Russian bomb. TikTok, a social media app, has entered your learning process. Videos depicting Ukraine’s state of siege cast an ominous shadow over all involved actors. Portentous cyberpunk music blasts as tanks strut their way down Ukrainian streets, encumbering citizens during a brisk cold winter. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy carefully observes military demonstrations as his nation awaits Russian invaders. Ukrainian protestors march and showcase their disdain for the Russian invasion.
As tensions and evacuations rise, TikTok plays an unlikely role in informing the world population of international crises. Through a TikTok user’s-for-you page, within 15-90 seconds, a user is acquainted with news reports and unseen footage from Ukrainians. Some citizens resort to inconspicuously sharing videos of Russian forces entering Ukrainian grounds. Others like TikTok user Xenasolo provide detailed accounts of what’s happening on the ground. Additional TikTok users provide absurdist commentary to bring awareness to a potential war.
Why TikTok? In recent years, TikTok has become a hub for obtaining political news, knowledge, and now promotes youth political participation. With TikTok’s zippy download rate and emphasis on visual imagery and narratives, the novel medium has the ability to quickly spread news via its algorithm as it is delivered far faster than many news sites. The Zoomer’s attention span is eight seconds, shorter than a goldfish’s, and TikTok’s short-form videos have the ability to capture their interest.
As a new political engine, TikTok paves the way for the younger generation to understand political issues and crises, from boosting voter turnout to breaking down the potential war in Eastern Europe. Wired Magazine states that TikTok is a “crucial tool” to document Russian movement. Tiktok has become a form of political communication among presumably youthful users to spread their concerns through absurdism and serious means.
Tipping the scales with absurd and serious tales/narratives is one of many virtues TikTokers hold dear. Infotainment and absurdity are two prevalent features on TikTok due to its buzzworthy potential; however, these often viral comedic conventions spread awareness to the youth. Absurdist TikToks also add much-needed levity to an anxiety-provoking conflict. Yes, a teen blasting the instrumental version of the song “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid offers valuable discourse as he shares his concern for the looming conflict.
Serious tiktoks depict the maelstrom which prompted strategists and leaders to heed the warning. US Defense Secretary Austin stated Russia will attack Ukraine “because he has assembled the kinds of things needed for a successful invasion.” As of this weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared the conflict “could be really the biggest war in Europe since 1945.” In these last moments of minacious ambiguity, the TikToks instill a sense of vigilance and perturbation as world leaders are at their wit’s end to find diplomatic solutions and prepare for combat.
In my analysis from recent research, coverage of the Ukrainian and Russian conflict is divided into three different categories of TikToks, absurdity, infotainment, and semantic. The semantic/serious videos are subdivided into three categories: narratives and imagery by everyday people, reports by renowned journalists, and snippets of press clips from leaders such as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
The content stemming from the Ukraine and Russia conflict directly exemplifies the three categories I have identified:
Firstly, absurdist TikToks are defined as presenting no educational nor advantageous content. They focus on enhancing ridiculous behaviors towards an issue or conflict.
One example titled, “When Gen Z finds Putin’s Instagram,” the following TikTok displays comments Gen Zers and TikTok users left on Vladimir Putin’s instagram. Comments include: “PAPI DONT ATTACK US 😍😍😍😍 I LOVE ❤️ RUSSIAN PAPI.” “DADDY PUTIN PLS DO NOT ATTACK US… WE WILL GIVE YOU MORE VODKA❤️🔥.” As seen from the illustrious commentary, the Zoomers resort to questionable tactics to imagine they can deter potential war via outrageous content that has a heightened chance of becoming viral.
The second set of TikToks fall into the realm of infotainment. Often employing jingles, dances, and attractive visuals, these TikToks explain the crisis in a comical and catchy way. Infotainment has long been a fear of many social scientists and journalists for vapidity; however, unlike their absurdist counterparts, there can be excellent informative content.
Take the Washington Post’s TikTok. Dancing to Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Starting Something, the journalist takes on each country’s role that has a stake in the conflict. In the TikTok, the United States and the West refutes Russia’s statement that they “removed some troops from the Ukrainian Border.” Even though dancing along a snappy beat to educate the youth may seem jejune for older generations, Freudian psychodynamic theories could postulate why Gen Zers are attracted to infotainment. The internet, specifically social media, is a canvas designed to appeal to our “social id” and “social ego.” The canvas, in this case, TikTok, reels in the curiosity of the youth to participate in flamboyant discourse, nurturing our “social id.” Whereas our “social ego” is satisfied by watching enjoyable content.
Finally, the last category of TikTok is a stark contrast compared to its two predecessors, as it features factual content. Whether it’s visuals of Russian tanks transported across Ukraine, narratives from fellow Ukrainians, and/or news reports from journalists, the latter TikToks highlight the gravity and detrimental horrors that await each stakeholder.
The aforementioned, Xena, a Ukrainian TikTok creator, amassed a steady following because of her updates to the crisis. In her TikToks, she calmly and stoically shares heartbreaking details such as the non-stop shellings in Donbas and a Russian projectile hitting a Ukrainian kindergarten.
International News Networks and reporters also hopped on the TikTok bandwagon. To name a few, LeMonde, TF1 (Télévision Française 1), and CNN International all either provide on- the-ground updates, share clips from press conferences, or explain the causes of the conflict. For example, one TF1 TikTok follows a French news reporter following a Russian soldier in Eastern Ukraine’s barracks. The clips serve as Generation Z’s newspaper equivalent.
As Gen Zers visualize the affliction and worries weighing on the narrator’s looking glass, the emotions targeting the viewer illustrate the profound, compelling nature of political storytelling, which differentiates TikTok from other social media. The power of storytelling is not something to be trifled with, and TikTok fosters narratives. Users can either express the same passions with an abecedarian news reporter or empathize with an individual who bears the burden of enduring a crisis. Thus, communities and amiability are built from narrations.
In the realm of global politics, TikTok is a new crucial actor in the Russia and Ukraine conflict. The purpose of the discussed TikToks is to educate the public about Ukraine’s volatile atmosphere. Absurdist TikToks speak to our chaotic desires and impulses, making #daddyputin and #vladdydaddy viral trends. Although unconventional, absurdism and infotainment can quickly amass online political participation and loosely provide news.
As the app favors user-generated content over professional content, it allows for primary sources to reign supreme. TikTok’s short flashes of information feed our doggish squirrel-attention-span, leaving the previous reign of standard news segments left in the peripheries of yester-second’s stream of thought. More importantly, with its storytelling abilities, TikTok builds a community that promotes engagement and provides key details about the crisis. Cognizant of the media’s power on social and political behavior, the time is ripe to consider TikTok’s latency to bolster behaviors, participation, and knowledge as TikTok disperses political information — even if it’s as absurd as showcasing Britney Spears twirling to avoid Russian missiles.
Kiana Karimi is a recent graduate of LMU and a contributor to Asia Media International.