TikTok’s algorithm feeds people videos it believes they are hungry to see. And there’s plenty of appetite for videos about war right now: In the eight days between February 20 and February 28, views on videos tagged with #ukraine jumped from 6.4 billion to 17.1 billion—a rate of 1.3 billion views a day, or 928,000 views a minute. (Content tagged #Украина, Ukraine in Cyrillic, is almost as popular, with 16.4 billion views as of February 28.)
Many of TikTok’s most viral Ukraine videos have been shared by Marta Vasyuta, a 20-year-old Ukrainian currently based in London. When Russia invaded, Vasyuta found herself stranded outside the country and decided to co-opt her TikTok profile, which only had a few hundred followers, into a platform to share footage of the conflict from Telegram with the wider world. “If you post a video from Ukraine, it will be likely for only Ukrainians or Russians to see it,” she says. That quirk is a result of how TikTok often localizes videos it shows on its For You page. Hoping that her location in London would help footage from Ukraine sidestep the algorithm, she began posting. Until she was blocked from posting by TikTok late last week—something she thinks may have been caused by Russian bots mass-reporting her profile—she had gained 145,000 followers. (A message from TikTok shows Vasyuta was temporarily barred from posting for three videos and one comment that breached the platform’s community guidelines. TikTok did not respond to a request for clarification on what rules were broken.)
Despite the suspension, plenty of Vasyuta’s videos have a half-life far beyond TikTok, thanks to the ease by which videos can be downloaded and reshared on other social media platforms.
Sharing videos off-platform has long been a tool deployed by parent company ByteDance to help promote TikTok. One of Vasyuta’s TikTok videos, showing bombs raining down on Kyiv, has been seen 44 million times on TikTok—and shared beyond the app nearly 200,000 times. Where it’s gone is difficult to tell—TikTok’s method of sharing removes the ability to trace a video back to its source—but a search of Twitter shows plenty of videos shared from TikTok on the platform.
But that immediacy and reach on and off TikTok comes at a price. Emotive videos can cause people to overlook whether or not information is legitimate. Couple that with a younger, sometimes less media-literate audience, and it’s a recipe for trouble. “Disinformation is really aimed at trying to elicit an emotional response,” says Venema, “It’s the stuff that gets you outraged, that gets you emotional, that tugs on the heartstrings. Combine those two, and that’s why there’s so much of it.”
How emotion can help create a viral hit is best shown in one video showing a soldier in military fatigues, gently coasting down to the grain fields below with a grin spread across his face. The video, posted to TikTok and reshared on Twitter, racked up 26 million views on the app and purported to give a glimpse into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Except it didn’t. The video dated back to 2015, and was originally posted on Instagram, fact checkers found.