Slav-centric content was filling the video platform long before Putin's invasion
TikTok’s most obvious expressions of variously pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine propaganda have not gone unnoticed by reporters.
Open up the TikTok app, and you’ll be greeted with unabashed expressions of mis- and disinformation: clips from video games, recycled images from past conflicts involving other countries, de- or re-contextualised photos, misleading audio tracks, which are all passed off as genuine footage from the ‘frontlines’ of Ukraine.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
As Vox reporter Rebecca Jennings points out, it’s difficult to determine how many of these videos are genuine. There are thousands of examples of soldiers defending their country, alleged footage of the now debunked ‘Ghost of Kyiv,’ and even a growing number of videos of people dancing in bunkers and bomb shelters. In a tweet thread, mis- and disinformation researcher Abbie Richard lays out a few more striking examples:
A fake TikTok from Ukraine has garnered over 5 million views in 12 hours.
It features a couple repeating “oh my god, oh my god” then there’s a loud explosion, screaming and he saw “ow my leg.”
I found this exact audio on another video from the 2020 Beirut explosion. pic.twitter.com/fP20IdtfX7
— Abbie Richards (@abbieasr) February 25, 2022
TikToks, like memes, aren’t merely the provenance of the young, trend-conscious, or brand marketers; they’re the lingua franca of a world that’s all but completely mediated by digital communication. TikTok can be as serious as Facebook or Twitter, and this has been true for a long time, even if the seriousness is sometimes delivered in formats we’d normally clock as comedic or “for kids.”
It’s rare that I agree with mainstream analyses of what is or isn’t disinformation or misinformation, as they themselves are so often party to their own agendas. However, these watchdogs and journalists are right that something isn’t right here. Where my thinking diverges is that I believe something’s been up for a long time: this issue extends well beyond spliced video game edits on sock puppet TikTok accounts. And that doesn’t just mean the ridiculous accusations of “Russian bots” so common in progressive American discourse, either.
A little over a year ago Slavic, though more often than not, Russian, personalities began blowing up on TikTok. There was nothing out of the ordinary about these accounts; popular themes included riffs about Russian versus American parents or girlfriends, half-serious dating advice about why Russian women were able to demand more from relationships, quips about Babushka disapproving of your short skirts, and how if your man really cared about you, he would buy you a Birkin — look at how we treat our Russian boyfriends.
Twin trends slowly filtered into the mainstream Internet, like, ‘Russian bimbocore,’ which is a TikTok-native aesthetic that borrows from Russian fashion, and videos depicting how “good” life was under the USSR all set to music by the Belarusian band Molchat Doma (often greeted by response videos like this one), and revivals of catchy, Russian hard bass songs.
A quick poke around online youth subcultures reveals that affecting some sort of vague Slavic-ness is hot in certain, albeit niche, corners of the Internet. There is certainly no shortage of Cyrillic display names and pseudonyms like Olga or Margarita, particularly among teen girls.
One theory for these videos’ appeal is that Eastern European culture — as diverse of a category as that is — stands in stark contrast to everything in the West. Eastern Europe has strong gender roles, traditional mores and therefore rules to break, and a sometimes too-brutal honesty now unheard of in countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. Slavs are the perfect foil to us, and therefore, fertile ground for trend-making.
So in many respects, the strange convergence between Slav-curious TikTok and the outbreak of war has slowly conditioned people to sympathise with a ‘seemingly random’ group of people in the months before they needed support the most.