10am February 24th 2022. This time and date marks the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, the biggest war on a European state since World War II. And this incredible piece of history is happening right now, even in this moment, just one continent over. As a young person living in the 21st century, I never thought that we would exist along the same timeline with as globally-threatening and delicate of a war as the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Nevertheless, here we are.
Good morning fellow students and Ms. King Cohen. I’m here today to tell you that this war is different. Not only because this is simply a war happening in the 21st century, but what this exactly means for the mechanisms of this conflict.
What do you think of when I ask what is one of the most significant features of our current century? Well personally, 21st century, big tech. We’re currently living in the age of technology. And I can say without question that all of us here have at the very least had some discussion about how technology is changing the world, the way we think and function as a species. Definitely a lot of positives, most definitely a lot of negatives, such as social media and the impact it has on mental health, or the issues of how big tech is collecting our data and exploiting us for profit. In fact my speech two years ago was about how our increasing reliance on social media as a form of communication would ultimately become the downfall of civil organization as issues like extreme political polarization arise.
However, I was continuously proven wrong in these past two months.
Today I’m for once here to persuade you that social media might have been one of the most beneficial and crucial tools in the inventory for this war.
About two months ago, I opened TikTok as I do, and the first thing on my screen was a video taken by a regular Ukrainian TikTok user. This video was of just moments after a catastrophic event. A Russian missile had hit a quiet civilian area and the footage showed blood streaming from a charred car and the ground had been absolutely demolished, small buildings, houses, you name it, crumbling and there were a few censored dead bodies laying on the sidewalk. Obviously this is not the type of content that I see on the app most of the time. I’ve actually never seen anything like that before. And this was around the time when the Russian invasion had really dominated the media stream and people of the global community were getting increasingly worried about the escalation of the conflict. We were all talking about it, yes, but I believe that it was this footage playing on my phone that made the conflict real to me. Many short video footage showing the brutality and consequences of the war went viral on TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook.
Believe it or not, using the media has become one of Ukraine’s most crucial tools to winning this war. Russia has long been known as the Internet's most wily user, and the nation's propaganda machine has for years used social and state-backed media to deceive and disempower its enemies. But Ukraine has in many ways begun to beat Russia at its own game, using constant, colorful communication to stir up digital resistance and expose Russia’s aggression on a global stage. The tactics reveal how social media has opened a new dimension of modern war, showing how the Internet has become not only a territory to fight over but a tactic for real-world conquest. A flood of real-time videos across Facebook, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter has blunted Kremlin propaganda and have highlighted Russia's most embarrassing tactical and logistical errors, puncturing the nation's carefully crafted image of military supremacy. And most importantly, it has rallied the world to Ukraine's side as it fights to defend its democracy.
We all know what it’s like to have unlimited social media access, and you may have your own opinions on whether social media is good or bad. But to form a fair opinion, I implore you to see both sides of the story. What would it be like if we didn’t have social media the way we do now?
The latest move by Russia has been to censor Western internet services. Russia has banned Facebook, and Instagram and has restricted access to Twitter, Google News, BBC News, NPR, and the list goes on.
So it makes the unbelievable situation a little more believable when it is known that people in Russia believe in false claims about murderous biological weapons being developed in Ukraine by NATO. As well as the false claims that Ukraine is now run by ultranationalists who want to eradicate Russian speakers and want to “kill, bash in the heads” of anyone who speaks Russian in Ukraine. This is a direct quote from a politics program on the Russia-24 channel, by the way. Except this totally ignores the fact that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is himself a Russian speaker.
When presented with the fact that the Russian military had in fact bombed the hospital in Mariupol and other civilian buildings, most Russians don’t believe it all, thinking, “Why would Russia do that?” or simply think they have a totally justifying reason for it. These people only have Russia Channel One and Russia-24 as their source of politics and current events. So naturally, they truly believe all of this disinformation. As much as I believe Erica is my name and as much as you believe that your name is yours. This is clearly a problem and it is one that is 100% amplified by the fact that they are not exposed to any kind of spontaneous, raw content that can be found on social media that exposes the truth.
Spontaneous and raw content. There is no other social media more spontaneous and raw than TikTok. The 2011 Arab Spring, Syrian children choking from chemical weapons, and Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 2021. We’ve had a fair share of wars and devastating political conflicts in the 21st century, and they were definitely documented and spread through the means of Twitter and Facebook. Images of unspeakable horrors filling people’s feeds on social media is nothing new at this point. So, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the first social media war—but it is the first to play out on TikTok. And what difference does that make? Oh, it makes all the difference. I told you before that a devastating TikTok I saw two months ago, was what helped me give a sense of reality to the Russian-Ukraine conflict in my head. So much of TikTok’s success comes down to both how visual it is and how instant it is. It captures and clips the world with an immediacy other platforms can’t. If Facebook is bloated, Instagram is curated, and YouTube requires a shedload of equipment and editing time, TikTok is quick and dirty as The Wired magazine likes to say—the kind of video platform that can shape perceptions of how a conflict is unfolding. And any social media users should know that what happens on TikTok rarely stays on TikTok. In other words, content made in TikTok has no boundaries whatsoever. TikTok is intimate, TikTok is raw, and TikTok most definitely can be real. It brings a voice to people who need it the most at this time. It reminds us through the little screens we stare at everyday that the war is happening in a country called Ukraine, and that women and children are dying and screams at us with visuals that we cannot ignore, that we should not ignore.
Without social media, perspective from the people on the ground cannot be delivered as raw and real as it could be. But with social media, the narrative from the true victims, the innocent civilians, will be told the way they want their narrative to be told. Through platforms like TikTok, an actual name is given to each person who is suffering from the conflict. A name to remind us that real people are dying, real people are fighting, and real people are shouting for help.