Sunday Coffee with Jeemes: The 2022 Chronicles Part VI

THE 2022 CHRONICLES

Part VI

by Jeemes Akers

                   Ukraine–The First “TikTok War”

TikTok, the short-video app popular for showing off new dance moves, is now performing a delicate balancing act itself to comply with varying requirements from Brussels, Moscow and Beijing over content related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, highlighting the challenges of operating a global platform in a divisive world.”[1]

 

“In the new digital age, wars will be fought not only on the ground or with drones but on Twitter.

                                                                                Stephen L. Miller[2]                                                                        

 

“Instead of a ‘Reichstag’ moment, [Russia justified the invasion as necessary for denazification] Russian soldiers are finding themselves part of other ‘moments’ that, in the age of social media, quickly become iconic: The moment when Ukrainian sailors, in response to a Russian ship’s order to surrender, replied: ‘Russian battleship, go f__k yourself!’ The moment when a Ukrainian woman put sunflower seeds in a Russian soldier’s pocket so that ‘at least sunflowers would grow when you all [die] here.’ People around the world have seen Ukrainian farmers steal abandoned Russian tanks with their tractors. They’ve also seen a broad swath of Ukrainian civilians who—in perfect Russian, using profanity—questioned why Russian soldiers were invading their country, and told them, often impolitely, to go home.”

                                                                               Victoria Smolkin[3]

 

         Putin’s ongoing invasion of neighboring Ukraine is a vivid harbinger of what we will face as we stand at the threshold of the post-Cold War era.

Everything is changing.

Including the way war is waged…

… and reported.

Today, we are watching a New World Order coalesce. As a result, war in the post-Cold War era, most likely, will be dictated in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran—with the West reacting, rather than dictating, the terms.

As journalist Stephen Miller observes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only the largest European land conflict since the 1940s—it’s also the first for the TikTok and YouTube generation.[4] Today, much of how we view war and what is aired on various television cable news programs are videos culled from viral clips—tapping an entire information ecosystem—first shared on Twitter, Telegram and other social media sites.[5]

As fast-breaking events in Ukraine illustrate, crisis situations in the post-Cold War era will occur in uncomfortable, spasmodic, at times breathtaking, rapid-fire fashion. Nothing exemplifies that rapidity of change more than social media. Today (Friday, March 4, 2022) is a case in point. I had this missive ready to mail out but then received news that Russia’s parliament just passed a law stating that those who intentionally spread “fake news” about the Russian military in Ukraine will face 15 years in jail.[6] Moscow’s censors have banned Facebook and throttled other American social media services (Microsoft and Apple had previously banned sales in Russia) and are using increasingly sophisticated Internet censorship technology. TikTok and Google have reportedly been sent warning letters. Even two weeks ago, Russia’s Internet was “comparatively free and integrated into the larger online world, allowing civil society to organize, opposition figures to deliver their messages and ordinary Russians to gain ready access to alternative sources of news in an era when Putin was strangling his nation’s free newspapers and broadcast stations.”[7] According to Runa Sandvik, a security consultant and developer on the Tor Project: “We are moving toward the point where Russia is having the same Internet environment as China.”[8] (For a thoughtful treatment of the lasting impact of social media platforms on future war after the Ukraine invasion,  by one of my favorite techno journalists, see Christopher Mims’ recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Russia-Ukraine Cyberwar Could Outlast the Shooting War”).[9]

 

The Ukraine invasion has changed everything.

In a hurry.

One of the by-products of these changes is the role to be played in the post-Cold War world by social media platforms. Certainly, it is not a perfect process. Misinformation is also an unintended consequence of this new TikTok war. For example, the account of the “Ghost of Kyiv”—a Ukrainian hero myth born from a single shared video of a Ukrainian fighter jet and pilot who rocketed to the top of the trends for supposedly downing several Russian aircraft—has been debunked.[10] In another case, TikTok and Twitter videos of Russian paratroopers were actually filmed years earlier.[11] As one journalist noted: ‘the onslaught of words and images is fueling a confusing media environment where disinformation is rampant.”[12] This point is buttressed by one of my favorite Christian blog writers:

 

“I have been voraciously following of the war in Ukraine,  and both sides are definitely trying to make themselves look as good as possible. As a result, social media and major news outlets are being flooded with photos and videos that are supposedly from the war. In some cases they are accurate, but in other cases they are not. In fact, some of the most viral material has already been proven to be completely fake, and you need to be careful because in many instances viral videos are actually being used to raise money for fake charities.”[13]

 

But even with the dangers of misinformation and disinformation, social media platforms such as TikTok have changed the decisional calculus of going to war. It is no longer the Cold War, when Soviet tanks rolled secretly into Budapest, Hungary in 1956 to quell a major uprising (interestingly enough, Moscow had to subsequently subsidize Hungary with oil and gas well into the modern era: some Russian experts see the same future for Ukraine).[14] What is the main difference between Hungary in 1956 and Ukraine in 2022? Certainly not the Russian resistance to the idea that a neighboring state may slip into the Western orbit, or America’s fumbling policy response, or—for that matter—the Molotov cocktails that resistance fighters will rely on in the face of Russian armor: it is ubiquitous social media platforms. When viewed from a geopolitical perspective, smart phones with videos of scenes liable to go viral in an instant, make it a new world for military planners and politicians alike. It was TikTok videos, for instance, that provided real-time evidence of the Russian build-up on the border (as Russian authorities denied a threat). In the new World Order, military authorities will find it increasingly difficult to orchestrate covert troop build-ups. In the case of Ukraine, even before the invasion started, hundreds of tanks, with tank emojis, appeared by the hundreds on TikTok showing the Russian buildup, prompting one journalist to speculate that the upcoming incursion would be the “first TikTok conflict.”[15]

Of course, I am using the phrase “TikTok war” as a stand-in for all the various social media platforms coming into play in the Ukraine invasion: it is certainly not my intention to downplay the very real physical suffering, casualties and dislocations caused by Putin’s intrusion.

 

So, what is TikTok? And why is it such a difference maker?

Only techno-dinosaurs like me dare ask the question.

TikTok is a video-focused social media platform (videos with durations of 15 seconds to three minutes) that is enormously popular around the globe. Depending on what source you consult, TikTok is the seventh largest social media platform. In September 2021, TikTok announced it had surpassed one billion users globally (a figure that does not include the hundreds of millions of users of the Chinese version, Douyin),[16] and, according to Wikipedia, Cloudfare ranked TikTok as the most popular website of 2021, usurping Google.  Yet TikTok is less than five years old: it was launched in 2017 for iOS and Android in most markets outside mainland China and is now available in 40 languages. In Russia, the app has 70 million monthly active users (nearly half the country’s population). The social network is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., and Chinese officials regard the recommendation algorithm behind TikTok’s popularity—the machine learning and artificial intelligence mechanism that keeps users glued to the app—as a key technology that requires government approval for export.[17]

In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag traced the evolution of war journalism, from the first professional photojournalists during the Spanish Civil War to the Vietnam War, the first televised war (making the carnage of combat zones “a routine ingredient of the ceaseless flow of domestic, small-screen entertainment”). Today, the small screens are our smartphones rather than television.[18] More recently, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter played a major role—although the extent of the influence remains highly debated—in the so-called “Arab Spring,” a revolutionary wave of protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa between 2010 and 2012.

So, what do we have now? The Instagram account of an Internet-famous cat named Stepan, for example, whose owner lives in Ukraine and has amassed a million followers, recently shifted from sharing goofy pet portraits to posting photos of a missile attack on Kharkiv. “Such hard evidence of the invasion suddenly punctures the placelessness of the Internet, reminding viewers that they are watching a real person in real trouble.”[19]

That is, I respectfully suggest, the emotive power of the TikTok war. One video circulating in recent days appears to show a Ukrainian man gingerly removing a mine, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, off a road and into the woods—a single tweet earned the clip more than ten million views, but it could also be found on TikTok and YouTube. A TikTok video from February 12 shows an outfitted Ukrainian soldier moonwalking to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” on an empty field (earning more than twelve million likes and hundreds of thousands of comments). Or then there is a woman giving birth while sheltering in a Kyiv metro station. These war videos speak to TikTok users in their own language.[20]

A word of caution: in a recent WIRED article on the TikTok War, the writer observes “as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine plays out online, the platform’s (TikTok) design and algorithm prove ideal for the messiness of war—but a nightmare for truth.” In addition, the article notes, TikTok has created a stream of war footage the likes of which we’ve never seen, from grandmothers saying goodbye to friends to instructions on how to drive captured Russian tanks. So much of TikTok’s success comes down to how visual it is and how instant it is.[21]

Indeed, the popularity of TikTok in Russia and Ukraine has made it a battleground in an information war involving conflicting accounts from Moscow, Kyiv and Washington about timely on-the-ground developments.[22] The TikTok platform allows users to quickly upload “snappier videos” than ever before which can, in turn, go viral within hours.[23] Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—with his background in media and entertainment—is particularly adept at using social media to his advantage and certainly knows how to manipulate these formats better than world leaders twice his age (read here Putin and Biden).[24]

Nevertheless, Russia also has been extremely active on media sites including TikTok. As far back as 2014, during Moscow’s takeover of Crimea, the country flooded the internet with fake accounts pushing disinformation to cover its intentions. Eight years later, according to some experts, Russia is mounting a more sophisticated effort as it invades Ukraine: armies of trolls and bots stir up anti-Ukrainian sentiment; state-controlled media outlets seek to divide Western audiences, and clever TikTok videos serve up Russian nationalism with a side of humor.[25]

The reliance of Russians on TikTok has led to a love-hate relationship with the app. In 2021, TikTok was flooded with videos of pupils taking down portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and teenagers cutting their passports in half and throwing them away. Several court rulings in 2021 led to combined fines on TikTok of 8.1 million rubles (US$ 105,000) for failing to remove illegal content.[26]  More recently, the Kremlin is reportedly blocking Russians’ access to Twitter and other social media platforms to thwart the domestic Russian protests and criticism concerning Putin’s invasion.[27]

What about now? Russian state television has largely stuck to the script that Putin’s “special military operation” is going according to plan. State TV hosts have decried “fakes” about the Russian army enduring heavy losses, morale and logistics issues among the troops, or missile strikes against Ukrainian urban areas, trying to get a step ahead of the disturbing images coming out of the war through TikTok and other social media.[28] Moreover, it appears the social media site Telegram is growing in popularity in both Ukraine and Russia as an alternative to more traditional social media sites. As WIRED described Telegram: “[it] has no targeted advertising, no addictive algorithm, courage in the face of autocracies, and hundreds of millions of users. It’s also a haven for extremists, a hotbed of misinformation, and the perfect platform for plotting insurrection.”[29]

 

For authoritarian types seeking to benefit from post-Cold War developments, new social media platforms pose unique challenges. In Moscow, for example, “Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications director, on Monday [Feb 28, 2022] demanded TikTok stop recommending military-related content to minors, a move that some read as an attempt by Moscow to censor what is happening in the Ukraine.”[30]

In the build-up to the invasion, Russian security authorities launched an advertising campaign urged Russian troops not to use social media networks such as TikTok for fear of giving away military secrets. The posters showed a Russian soldier with a huge “Nyet” (No) as he is passed a phone with a TikTok app logo on it.[31]

On Monday (February 28) in China, TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin said it had taken down more than 3,500 videos and 12,100 comments related to the Russian aggression, and that it would continue to investigate violations ‘such as vulgar ridicule, content that makes fun of war, incitement to hype false information, and unfriendly comments.’ Other Chinese social media platforms that answer to Beijing’s internet censors have taken similar steps.”[32] For Chinese social media platforms, the subject is too sensitive to address publicly and so TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have been silent on the matter, a noticeable difference from US-based global tech firms such as Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft.[33]

To be sure, Chinese military planners—with a future invasion of Taiwan in mind—have been closely monitoring Russian efforts on the battlefield as well as how successful they have been in shaping the battlefield (and domestic political) narrative using social media.[34] On the Twitter-like Weibo platform, a page sponsored by state broadcaster China Central Television and populated with posts carrying the hashtag “Ukraine’s President Says the West Abandoned Ukraine” received more than 1.1 billion views by last Friday. China’s more freewheeling social media users expressed support for Putin, mocked “toothless” policies by Western countries and drew parallels to a future invasion of Taiwan.[35]

 

Social media sites are not the only indicators of a new techno post-Cold War reality. Even the billionaire entrepreneurial technocrat Elon Musk has waded into the Russo-Ukrainian fray, in what is perhaps a foretaste of how non-state billionaire elites—often more powerful and rich than entire nation states—will interact in future post-Cold Wars. Since the invasion began, many Ukrainians have experienced Internet disruptions, especially in urban areas. As a result, last weekend Ukraine’s vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, made a direct Twitter appeal to Musk for help. Less than twelve hours after Fedorov’s request, Musk responded: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine, more terminals en route.”[36]

 

Moreover, the modern age of warfare incorporates much more than social media sites and influential billionaires. There is a new psychology at play targeting (and messaging) the participants themselves. As one journalist notes:

 

“Earlier this week a friend in Kyiv posted a photo she took of a billboard message addressed directly to Russian soldiers and imploring them to stop: ‘How will you be able to look your children in the eyes?’ it asked. ‘Leave! Remain a human being.’ …  What is perhaps most powerful about these messages is that they are written in a decidedly civilian voice. They appeal to the Russian soldier not as a military combatant or moral monster but as an ordinary person with a family and children, a human being with a conscience, someone like themselves.”[37]

 

         Finally, another new wrinkle in post-Cold War military activities is introducing us to a different way of financing military operations using cryptocurrencies. As Ukrainians attempt to push back Russian invaders, and become increasingly desperate for funds, and as the Russian economy faces a meltdown, both sides in the conflict are turning to crypto. Trading volumes in bitcoin using Russia’s ruble reached a nine-month high in the last week of February, and those using Ukraine’s hryvnia also spiked, according to Paris-based crypto research firm Kaiko.[38] Last weekend, the Twitter account of the Ukrainian government called for donations in digital currencies to help support the fight, along with a plea for donations in Polkadot, a blockchain network.[39]                              

 

         Ah yes, it’s a different world out there …

 

 

[1] “Ukraine invasion: China’s TikTok does a delicate dance to keep Brussels, Moscow and Beijing happy,” South China Morning Post, Mar 2, 2022.

[2] Stephen L. Miller, “The Ukraine invasion is the first social media war,” Spectator, Feb 28, 2022.

[3] Victoria Smolkin, “One Reason Russia Is Struggling In Ukraine,” (Opinion), Politico, Mar 3, 2022.

[4] Miller, “The Ukraine invasion.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Caitlin O’Kane, “Staff at Russian news channel walks off set at end of broadcast,” CBS News, Mar 4, 2022; see also Craig Timers, et.al., “A new iron curtain is descending across Russia’s Internet,” The Washington Post, Mar 4, 2022.

[7] Timers, “A new iron curtain.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Christopher Mims, “The Russia-Ukraine Cyberwar Could Outlast the Shooting War,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar 5, 2022.

[10] Miller, “The Ukraine invasion.”

[11] Ramishah Maruf, “Here’s why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being called the ‘TikTok war,’” CNNBusiness, Feb 27, 2022.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Michael Snyder, “24 Things That I Think That I Think About How The War In Ukraine Is Going,” The Economic Collapse, Feb 28, 2022.

[14] Tunku Varadarajin (echoing Robert Service’s views), “The Two Blunders That Caused the Ukraine War,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar 4, 2022.

[15] Verity Bowman, “Russia-Ukraine crisis: Will this be the first TikTok war?” The Telegraph, Jan 29, 2022.

[16] “TikTok said to restore Russian media account, video on Ukraine crisis after government intervention,” South China Morning Post, Feb 21, 2022.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bowman, “Russia-Ukraine.”

[19] Kyle Chayka, “Watching the World’s ‘First TikTok War,” The New Yorker, Mar 3, 2022.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Chris Stokel-Walker, “TikTok was designed for war,” WIRED, Mar 1, 2022.

[22] “TikTok said to restore,” SCMP.

[23] Bowman, “Russia-Ukraine crisis.” Bowman observes how open-source investigative groups like Bellingcat, for example, used Facebook and Twitter posts from Russian soldiers to show that Russia provided the Buk missile launcher that downed the commercial jet MH17 in 2014, killing over 300 people.

[24] Miller, “The Ukraine invasion.”

[25] David Klepper, “War via TikTok: Russia’s new tool for propaganda machine,” AP News, Feb 26, 2022.

[26] “TikTok said to restore Russian media account,” SCMP.

[27] Audrey Conklin, “Ukraine crisis: Kremlin blocking Russians’ access to Twitter amid protests, criticism: researcher,” FoxBusiness, Feb 26, 2022.

[28] “Russia appears to have no way out as Putin goes ‘all in,’” The Guardian, Mar 4, 2022.

[29] Darren Loucaides, “Message Received,” WIRED, March 2022.

[30] “Ukraine invasion,” SCMP.

[31] “Russian posters warn troops not to use TikTok for fear of giving away military secrets in modern-day equivalent to the wartime ‘walls have ears’ campaign, Daily Mail, Feb 19, 2022.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] “What lessons are there for China in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?” South China Morning Post, Feb 26, 2022.

[35] Sha Hua, “Mockery of West, Warnings to Taiwan Fill Chinese Social Media After Ukraine Invasion,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb 25, 2022.

[36] For a good discussion of Musk’s intentions and Starlinks technical limitations re. Ukraine, as well as the possibility of future Russian interference, see Marina Koren, “The War on Ukraine Is Testing the Myth of Elon Musk,” The Atlantic, Feb 28, 2022, and Jon Brodkin, “Elon Musk: ‘High’ probability of Russian attacks on Starlink in Ukraine,” ars technica, Mar 4, 2022.

[37] Bowman, “Russia-Ukraine crisis.”

[38] Jane Li, “Russians and Ukrainians are piling into crypto,” Quartz, Mar 1, 2022. See also, Rebecca Heilweil and Emily Stewart, “War in the time of crypto,” Vox, Mar 1, 2022.

[39] Ibid.

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