Dominating the first TikTok war

March 11, 2022

Ukraine is winning “the first TikTok war”. User-generated content already contributed to the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, but the role of social media in the war in Ukraine is truly unprecedented. As an ex-comedian and TV personality, selfie-president Zelensky clearly knows how to use social media to draw international support. His speeches have become viral sensations and together with the young digital native minister Mykhailo Fedorov and other media-savvy personalities, such as former boxer Vitali Klitschko, Ukraine is currently dominating the information war on social media.

Although the social media strategy of Ukraine is partly orchestrated in a top-down fashion, and Western digital gatekeepers play their part as well, the most important contributors in this information war seem to be average citizens and soldiers. Compared to traditional mass propaganda or the embedded journalism of the Iraq Wars, there is no single director in this decentral information war. There is an overwhelming stream of eyewitness videos, brought to us in the typical intimate and ‘authentic’ formats of TikTok and Instagram. We have seen viral videos of farmers stealing tanks, a stoic citizen removing mines, soldiers dancing on Michael Jackson, and the famous Bayrakter TB2 song. This remarkable, and sometimes uneasy, combination of Ukrainian bravery, suffering and humor is what is invoking the huge wave of solidarity among the West.

This first TikTok war makes it clear that centralized mass-propaganda has peaked in the 20st century and nation states need a new toolkit to win the hearts and minds of people in the media landscape of the 21st century.

Burning questions: 
  • Is the moral outrage in the West the preferred geopolitical strategy to de-escalate the conflict? 
  • How long will this moral unity on social media last?
  • Could an autocratic state such as Russia ever win a TikTok war? 

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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About the author(s)

Economist and philosopher Sebastiaan Crul writes articles on a wide range of topics, including rule of law in digital societies, the virtualization of the lifeworld and internet culture. He is currently working on his doctoral degree on the influence of digitalization on mental health and virtue ethics, having previously published dissertations on the philosophy of play and systemic risks in the finance industry.

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