How TikTok is being used as propaganda machinery during war time

A dancing and lip- syncing app which served as a comfort source during the pandemic has now turned into a platform spreading major misinformation about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

When the Russia- Ukraine war started on February 20th, TikTok was bombarded with triggering videos of the war. TikTok has become a war time sensation. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky himself appealed to influencers to stop the war. TikTok as a  platform easily became the source of spreading misinformation. According to the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, Alex Stamos, it is difficult to identify fake videos and remove them from the platform.

No one has been spared from watching the atrocities of war posted on TikTok and there has been an increase in interaction with triggering content. The Russia- Ukraine war has been declared as “TikTok war” by several international newspapers and experts thereby offering insight into how the war is beyond the domain of reality and influenced deeply by virtual social networking platforms. 

Identifying reel and real

A study conducted by  News Guard analysts reported that when a new searcher looked up information about the war, TikTok search results were rampant with false information in its top 20 results. By the time they kept scrolling the feed, it gave miscellaneous information which was hard to sort as reliable or unreliable – thereby potentially making it more challenging for users to access the reliable information about the war.

Social media has largely affected how people, governments and institutions react to the Russia- Ukraine war and has played a major role in shaping public opinion. There have been quite a few instances in which videos on TikTok were proven to be fake:

Pravda, a Ukrainian newspaper, demonstrated audio clippings of Ukrainian military facing Russian military demanding them to give up. Many TikTok videos made use of it and went as far as to state that all 13 soldiers were killed which was later claimed to be false information by Ukrainian officials. Though Pravda corrected the information, TikTok did not take efforts to remove the misinformation on their platform.

Other trends which social media researchers detected included formation of letter Z to show solidarity with Russian military, promoting #RussianLivesMatter and urging TikTok influencers to support the Kremlin’s actions in Kyiv. A Telegram channel recruited some influencers on TikTok to promote Russian propaganda defending its actions in Ukraine. Many instances reported recordings from video-games were taken to show them as real-life events. The inability of TikTok to segregate content during war time has created a serious issue of rampant misinformation on the platform increasing human right violation in Ukraine. Trending hashtags on TikTok like #RussianLivesMatter has possibly increased support of the war in Russia, only based on misinformation.

Young generation and war-viewing

Gen- Z are constantly learning about the conflict from TikTok. For some it is the first- time viewing a war online and some completely lack the historical context for the war being posted on the ‘For You’ feed of Tiktok. They are not only learning about the tensions between two nations through the platform but young people are amassing huge following by posting about the war. This is increasing their incentive to post about the war without verifying the accuracy of information.

A young girl from Ukraine namely Marta Vasyut became a Tiktok star posting certain videos from the conflict- zone. However, she admitted that it is confusing to identify verified videos, but she tries her level best. Sam Gregory, the programme director of Witness confirmed that on TikTok – “Content is served up to you based on your interests, not your feed.’ This increases the possibility of TikTok turning into an echo chamber and increasing polarization and conflict in war zones. However, a possible benefit of TikTok in Ukraine has been the ability to even turn young citizens in Ukraine into revolutionaries thereby increasing their potential to increase humanitarian efforts for other citizens impacted by war.

Challenges posed by the app

First and the foremost challenge with Tiktok is that its interactive audio and video engages the audience deeply making everything shared on the platform seem authenticated. Other more technical issues are with its algorithm which shows people content they already agree with, thereby turning into an echo chamber.

As the app relies mostly on algorithms rather than the chronology of war time situations, it becomes more susceptible to misinformation. Experts believe TikTok was launched quite recently in 2016 and therefore lags handling too much information on the platform. The social media app has come across such a situation for the first time, and it has posed several challenges regarding whether information being shared is reliable or not and the accounts sharing them are verifiable or not. Usage of pseudonyms on TikTok conceals the identity of the sharer making it impossible to identify the source of fake news while making the platform more susceptible to propaganda from government entities worldwide. Tiktok videos being converted to several other languages makes the platform prone to manipulative information.

Actions taken by TikTok

Like all other social media, Tiktok has tried to do its bit by banning its  services in Russia on March 6, 2022. Even after the ban certain propagandist and state- sponsored videos continued to be shared on the social media platform. In addition to this, Tiktok banned Sputnik and Russia Today in the European Union.


TikTok must take greater efforts to ensure that the right information reaches people through its platform. War Time anxiety is real and TikTok should take efforts to reduce the presence of false triggering content on its platform.

Tiktok must realize that they are catering to the younger who is still learning to navigate social media, specifically in times of war. They must work on their algorithm system and verify accounts with actual names thereby reducing misinformation on the platform. Pseudonyms must be banned to make identification easier, specifically in war zones. Moreover, Tiktok must release warnings for sensitive information and restrict-users from sharing fake news.

Formulating better community guidelines is essential to ensure better use of the platform as one to help humanitarian efforts rather than increase polarization. Banning the app in Russia is not enough, propaganda is more global in nature. TikTok must take efforts to reduce global propaganda during war time.

Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who covers international relations, defence, diplomacy and social issues. Her current focus is on India-China relations.