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As Russia invaded Ukraine last week, one TikTok user couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“There is no way I’m watching a war on TikTok,” Oshane Drews commented last Thursday, reacting to a viral video of what appeared to be a parachuting soldier. The original 15-second clip—which showed a man in military fatigues descending from the sky alongside fellow paratroopers—racked up 20 million views on TikTok.
But it turned out that Drews was mistaken: He wasn’t watching the Russia-Ukraine war. As Politifact noted, the video in question was first uploaded to Instagram in 2015.
Culver City-based TikTok is currently awash in raw footage of the Russia invasion, as civilians and even some soldiers upload videos from the front lines—with the conflict quickly earning the moniker of “the TikTok war” in the media. But the social media giant is also flooded with false or misleading clips of explosions and gunfire, and videos that are deceptively edited or unrelated to the invasion have gained millions of views.
It remains to be seen how well TikTok combats misinformation during the war, and too early to tell what this moment will ultimately mean for TikTok’s future. But this does feel like TikTok’s turn in the geopolitical spotlight—much like when Facebook and Twitter were forced to confront Russia-backed “fake news” about the 2020 presidential election. After hitting 1 billion monthly users last year, much of the world is now watching this war through TikTok, and with that comes scrutiny over the app’s content moderation practices. (TikTok representatives did not return requests for comment, but a spokesperson told NBC News that the company has “increased resources to respond to emerging trends and remove violative content, including harmful misinformation and promotion of violence.”)
To be sure, TikTok was already starting to face backlash over viral hoaxes and other harmful content. But if TikTok is unable to reign in misinformation now, the Ukraine crisis could put the platform’s flaws into sharp relief; critics are already blaming the company’s video editing features and recommendation algorithm for helping to enable and spread misinformation.
For example, its reusable audio feature—which usually lets creators lip-sync and make memes—was a big problem last week, according to Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog. In one instance, audio containing gunfire from a viral clip, uploaded before Russia’s invasion even began, was used in more than 1,700 videos before TikTok finally took it down. “It seems that the platform’s design is incompatible with the needs of the current moment,” Media Matters wrote in a blog post.
TikTok may ultimately shrug off the criticism it is now facing without consequence—but it needs only to look at Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, as a cautionary tale. While the social media behemoth had already faced backlash over the toxicity found on its platform, significant global events like the pandemic and the Jan. 6 insurrection showed the full, devastating power of digital misinformation on social media. — Christian Hetrick
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What We're Reading Elsewhere...
- Contrary to reports over the weekend, Netflix will not be adding Russian propaganda programming to its platform in the country.
- Instagram is ending support for its IGTV standalone app, which will leave app stores next month.
- Haste Arcade is giving gamers the chance to earn money playing old-school arcade games.
- Ukraine’s vice prime minister confirmed that Elon Musk sent a SpaceX truck full of Starlink user terminals to the country.
- Triller, the AI-powered open garden tech platform for creators, has acquired combat sports company Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship for an undisclosed amount.