TikTok influencers are spotlighted in Russian-Ukrainian war information battle

Victoria Hammett is a 23-year-old recent University of Southern California graduate who posts short TikTok videos almost daily of herself talking about, as she puts it, “politics and stuff.”

Last week, she posted a roughly 30-second message claiming that imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine risks aggravating the conflict. The basis of his analysis: a private briefing Thursday with White House officials.

Ms Hammett was one of around 30 female social media creators who joined the briefing remotely. It was perhaps the starkest example to date of how the struggle to control the narrative of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine plays out on social media, often with unlikely actors who are well in outside of traditional mass communication channels.

Ms. Hammett is the deputy executive director of Gen-Z for Change, a group formerly known as TikTok for Biden that includes around 500 TikTok influencers who collectively have around half a billion followers.

Victoria Hammett, a social media creator who participated in a White House briefing on the Ukraine invasion, posts short TikTok videos almost daily.


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VICTORIA HAMMETT

“The access we have to this network of creators allows us to reach an incredibly large audience,” said Ms. Hammett, whose TikTok channel has around 750,000 subscribers.

The briefing, which was later parodied on Saturday Night Live, included creators active on TikTok, though many of them also have prominent presences on YouTube, Twitter and other platforms. Administration officials said it was important to provide digital creators with factual content they can use to explain the conflict in Ukraine to their millions of followers. And they said the United States needed to counter the efforts of the Russian government, which they said was paying TikTok creators to generate pro-Kremlin materials.

The Kremlin said its military actions were aimed at protecting Russia’s security and that of Russian speakers in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

“Whether people agree or not, digital creators and influencers have become a source of truth for many, especially millennials and Gen Z,” said Krishna Subramanian, CEO and Founder of Captiv8, a company analytics tool that analyzes influencers.

On Friday, Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, produced a report analyzing 186 Russian influencer accounts on TikTok that it said were trying to drum up support for Russia through a seemingly coordinated campaign. Russian influencers – many of whom don’t normally discuss politics – posted nearly 200 videos between March 4 and March 8 using the caption “Russian Lives Matter #RLM”, indicating their support for Moscow, according to the report.

Some of the posts had identical captions, text in the video and even typos, “suggesting they were the result of some degree of organization,” according to the Media Matters report. Some of the influencers performed a dance of forming the letter “Z” with their hands. The Russian government has used the “Z” symbol to rally its citizens around the war.

Ukrainian influencers have also taken advantage of social media, as has the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has posted numerous posts to get his point across. The influencer feeds that a few weeks ago were full of Gucci handbags and skincare tips changed almost immediately after Russian tanks crossed the country’s borders. A Ukrainian influencer with a million Instagram followers has posted instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail on her Instagram Stories.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has posted numerous messages on social media to get his point across.


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Ukrainian Presidency/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On March 3, Oleksandr Zinchenko, a Ukrainian-born footballer who plays for Manchester City, posted a video in English to his 1.6 million Instagram followers along with several other athletes urging the Atlantic Treaty Organization North to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The video has been viewed approximately 150,000 times.

The conflicting viewpoints and often graphic material present a challenge for TikTok and other social media platforms trying to moderate warzone content in real time. The Russian government, meanwhile, has clamped down on various types of media. It passed new rules threatening prison sentences for spreading what it considers false information about the country’s armed forces, prompting TikTok to stop all new content from Russia.

And the Kremlin has blocked platforms, including Facebook, although loopholes remain in its efforts to block information from outside Russia. On Friday, he announced that he would also start blocking Instagram. Russia’s attorney general’s office has asked a court to have the parent company of photo-sharing app Meta Platforms Inc.,

said an extremist organization for allowing violent statements about Russian troops invading Ukraine.

Ukrainian-born soccer player Oleksandr Zinchenko ahead of a game between his team Manchester City and Manchester United this month.


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Olli Scarf/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The White House’s embrace of influencers at Thursday’s meeting, which was previously reported by The Washington Post, is an acknowledgment of how TikTok and other social media platforms shape thinking today. Administration officials view this content produced by influencers as one of the important ways that Americans, especially young Americans, learn about the war and its progress.

“People are using TikTok to stay informed,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “We hadn’t thought of TikTok as a news app before.”

The hug is also heavy, she said, thanks in part to the nature of the platforms. TikTok has been awash in propaganda since the war began, and it’s hard to discern truth from rumor in many cases, in part due to the lack of dates and timestamps on many posts. “People may think they are seeing something current, but they may be seeing something that is days or years old,” she said.

“People are using TikTok to stay informed,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who testified remotely before a Senate subcommittee last year. .


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Al Drago/Press Pool

Government geopolitical agendas aren’t always a good fit for influencer platforms, especially TikTok, which has grown in popularity largely thanks to dance videos and other content designed to provide quick bursts of entertainment.

Some of those who joined Thursday’s meeting at the White House were unswayed. Jules Suzdaltsev, a 31-year-old TikTok influencer who took part, has a channel called Good Morning Bad News which has around 1.1 million subscribers and features analysis focused on issues such as social and economic inequality. He said the event showed the US government’s respect for the type of work he and his peers do.

But Mr Suzdaltsev, who said he was born in Ukraine and moved to the US as a baby, was also disappointed by the event, saying the conversation lacked substance and officials responded poorly to certain questions, such as the one asked by an influencer. on how the White House plans to deal with the impact of rising inflation on young consumers. “It was ultimately kind of a rehash of the talking points that the White House has been providing for some time around the war in Ukraine,” he said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at [email protected] and Deepa Seetharaman at [email protected]

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