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The Russian aggression in Ukraine began just a week ago. It is obviously not the first war with social networks, whose legend of freedom began in 2011 with the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
But it is the first big intervention for TikTok. The difference is not substantial but it is significant, for several reasons.
1. This week Meta presented its quarterly report on activity on Facebook. For a few months now, it has added to its updates on the internal health of Facebook some pages about “widely viewed content” on the network. For some reason, they make an effort not to call it “most viewed.”
Facebook divides the categories between posts, pages and domains. At the moment it is only for the US, although in Meta they told me that although they do not have a date, their objective is to be able to have data from more countries and in more languages. It’s the same as not saying anything, but it would be nice to have it in Spanish soon.
But why this long reference to Facebook in a piece about TikTok? Because TikTok is the second most viewed domain on Facebook after YouTube. Most posts on Facebook are without links. But when there are, TikTok has crept to the top, above Twitter, Spotify or Amazon. A TikTok does not work only on its own platform. You just have to look at this data from Facebook (140 million views in the third quarter of 2021 in the US) or the millions of views of tiktoks that go viral on Twitter, like that of this alleged Russian soldier who was later false.
2. Sputnik Mundo was still broadcasting videos on TikTok this Thursday, with 51,000 followers and some videos with millions of views. This Thursday morning it was still accessible with videos calling dead Russian soldiers “our comrades” and there was a recent one with more than 2 million views. I asked TikTok the reason for following this Russian public media outlet when it is no longer in Europe on other platforms. A couple of hours later they called me to tell me no, that he was gone. So it was. Coincidences.
This Wednesday the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) released a report on Russian propaganda on TikTok in the days leading up to the attack. He dedicated a couple of paragraphs to the Spanish account: “The activity of the Sputnik Spanish account illustrates how popular TikTok features have been used by Russian-backed media to spread disinformation. Numerous videos on the account feature a Sputnik presenter using the popular green screen effect to appear in front of a still image, while all videos feature on-screen subtitles and quick edits and feature music.”
Beyond the specific case of Sputnik, the incredible variety of videos, rehashes, images with subtitles or music on TikTok with millions of views is enormous. The Maldita.es fact-checkers have launched, together with other organizations, a page to dismantle hoaxes about Ukraine. I asked them and they told me that almost half of the hoaxes are on video (48%) and that this implies with some certainty that they will also go through TikTok: “If we look at where we have found these videos, only 8% have seen them on TikTok , but in real terms it is much higher, because we assume that almost everyone will go through TikTok at some point. We would like to have the data to measure the impact, but not all platforms give it to us,” says Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, coordinator of Public Policies at Maldita.
3. TikTok is just a different network. In the rest we have greater control of what we see when we get into some groups or follow some accounts. But the core of TikTok is pure virality, plus videos that don’t require the editing of YouTube or the aesthetic effort of Instagram. In TikTok there is anything and the cutrez viralizes as much as the rest. That facility to record on the one hand and watch viral on the other is a large part of its success. It’s honestly hard to open TikTok and not get hooked on its menu of funny, crazy, or irritating videos.
Russian and Ukrainian tiktokers who speak Spanish pass through there, with millions of followers, fragments of TV appearances by pro-Russian opinion-makers, cuts where Putin is left as an alpha male for resisting the rain. The hashtag “Russia” has been viewed 7.8 billion times on TikTok.
It should not be surprising that TikTok was precisely the network where Russian citizens posted their home videos of Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border. It is the most agile network for short videos. Basically it doesn’t even matter if the video is true or not for its virality. Although not with ill will, but just a joke. At new yorker they do the fine exercise of comparing the inexhaustible source of videos with the traditional photojournalism with quotes from Susan Sontag. Something curious remains.
The ISD report has a revealing detail about TikTok’s enormous ability to garner an audience for its videos compared to YouTube: fewer videos, much larger audiences.
4. TikTok has announced in some markets that it will start allowing 10-minute videos, more than triple the current maximum duration, 3 minutes. Only in July 2021 the duration went from 1 to 3 minutes, the progression is fast. It’s a far bigger impact change than when Twitter went from 140 to 280 characters, but we barely hear about it. TikTok’s luck in living under the media radar is remarkable. In a post on media analytics organization Media Matters they write: “At a time when the world needs clarity, TikTok’s decision to drastically expand video length risks adding to the confusion.” More long videos, more ability to tell stories.
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