Feb 15, 2022 - Technology

The TikTok war

Illustration of a pair of binoculars showing soldiers in the lens and featuring tik tok colors
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Alexandra Stanescu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Videos of Russian troops massing on Ukraine's borders are being widely disseminated on TikTok, giving the world an unprecedented view of what's happening on the ground ahead of a potential war.

The big picture: The world has moved away from a top-down view in which the public learned about major military movements only through big media outlets and governments. The troop buildup around Ukraine is there for everyone to see.

Details: Videos of Russian equipment being transported to the border of Ukraine began surfacing on TikTok during an initial military buildup last spring, and then again late last year as Russia began to build toward its current force posture of about 130,000 troops.

  • Russian military and open-source intelligence experts, including Michael Kofman of CNA and Rob Lee of King's College, have compiled Twitter threads with hundreds of crowdsourced videos of military equipment and units on the move toward the Ukrainian border.
  • Many are sourced from everyday Russian citizens posting on TikTok, Telegram, Twitter and other platforms about the unusual sight of tanks rolling through their local stretch of highway.

⚡ The latest: Russia's defense ministry posted videos overnight of some forces beginning to pull back from the border, but experts caution that Moscow still has the capacity to launch a large invasion.

Why it matters: The open-source intelligence community has evolved from a niche corner of the internet to a major player in one of the biggest stories on the planet. It has often preempted government warnings about Russia's military movement by a wide margin.

  • The investigative journalism group Bellingcat has won awards for its open-source reporting on the Russian military's covert activities, including the downing of a passenger airplane in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Be smart: This isn't the first time social media has been used to shed light on a conflict from the ground. It was an enormous organizing force during the Arab Spring, in the early 2010s.

  • Since then, however, smartphone adoption around the world has significantly increased, and new platforms like TikTok have made it much easier for users to upload video faster.
  • And TikTok's specific algorithm amplifies user-generated content over professional content, which is helping these videos about geopolitical conflicts overseas go viral quickly.

Yes, but: While social media can be helpful for foreign policy and national security officials, it also brings new risks.

  • Last year, misinformation about clashes between Palestinians and Israelis snowballed online, as images and videos were taken out of context.
  • Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia's military movements — and all the attention they're receiving — may be feeding a narrative about a looming invasion in order to destabilize Ukraine and cause panic.

Between the lines: While the preparations for a possible land war are now playing out in a fuller public view than ever before, one of the most potent tools in modern geopolitical conflicts — cyber attacks — adds a new dimension that's more secretive than ever.

  • Ukraine accused Russia of a crippling cyberattack last month; Russia has denied responsibility.
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