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The TikTok war and the struggle for the truth

The war in Ukraine has been called the first TikTok war. Striking images of the conflict flow into homes, alongside holiday photos and images of friends' new-borns. The image flow creates engagement and drives public opinion, but how well does social media really convey a war?

Flyktingmottagande i Warszawa i mars 2022
Volunteers receive refugees from Ukraine at Warsaw Central Station in Poland in March 2022.Photo: Olya Solodenko/Mostphotos

“Twitter and Facebook were designed two decades ago to convey trivial personal messages under conditions of peace and freedom. This means that they are ill-equipped to handle major global events such as the current war,” says Mattias Svahn.

Mattias Svahn is head of research for eGovlab at the Department of Computer and Systems Science at Stockholm University. He is an expert in media psychology with a focus on disinformation in social media.

Read more about Mattias Svahn's research

Business’ complicated role

According to Mattias Svahn, Facebook has been given a role in the Ukraine conflict that a private company has difficulty handling.
“In such a polarized climate as Ukraine, where Russian information is propaganda serving a war-related purpose, it is difficult for a company to take a mediating or judging role.”

Images with unwanted effects

The constant flow of images from a humanitarian disaster straight into homes can also lead to effects such as mental illness.
“There is a phenomenon called the ‘halo effect’. It means that what you last read affects what you read next. Constantly taking part in the war on social media can lead to you also perceiving events around you as greater tragedies than otherwise. The war comes intimate. Psychologically, it is probably actually better for us to keep the private world separate from serious global events.”

Driving development

At the same time, there are positive effects. During the 1990s war in Yugoslavia, there were no social media. At that time, it took years before the world at large worked to stop ethnic cleansing. According to Mattias Svahn, the Russian regime may be surprised by the rapid advance of opinion in the Western world since then.
“In war, both sides struggle over the truth. Traditionally, the two sides have information authorities and controlled channels to convey their message. In the new media flow, we get a stream of more personal images from the war directly into our private media flow in a way that is uncontrolled by governments.”

Archetypal story

And the story of the war in Ukraine is a story we recognize, which immediately creates commitment.
“It is a story that is very archetypal, about David's fight against Goliath. Social media here helps to undermine the Russian story. It will be much harder for Russia to build a big lie with all the contradicting stories flowing out.”
This means that Russia is losing ground in the information war.

Strategy to sow division

According to Mattias Svahn, Russia's information strategy in the past has been more to shatter stories, to sow division, e.g., during Brexit, when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, probably by Russian forces, or in connection with "Black Lives Matter".
“In the end, there will be so much informational noise that no truth is left. Nobody believes in any story. Now, on the contrary, Russia wants us to believe in a special truth, their truth. They must then build their own narrative, which does not appear credible in the stream of counter-narratives on social media about the reality of the war.”

War propaganda seeking control

Traditionally, war propaganda tells a controlled story, something that supports one's side in a war. It's about creating and taking command of the overall story.
“Germany under Nazism was good at it and so was Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia. During the war in Ukraine, Russia tries, but so far their efforts have only worked on their own people. Right now, we see in Sweden how Russia, via their embassy's website, has begun posting on Facebook about the persecution of Russians in Sweden, so that these stories can be used on the home front. It's a way of trying to catch up in the propaganda war.”

What does this mean for the struggle over the "truth"?

“We see that Ukraine, despite resource inferiority, delivers its message much better. The archetypal basic story becomes more important than the propaganda apparatus. Russia's disinformation campaigns take place internally at home, but do not work at all outside Russia.”

How important is it for the war?

“While social media can petty in a war, it drives opinion development in the Western world. And a strong opinion in turn affects development in different ways. For example, with pressure to impose and maintain sanctions. One example is when Spotify hesitated to close their Moscow office. They were then subjected to a shame campaign.”

Is it dangerous for individuals to spread war info?

“Well, if you’re in a part of Ukraine occupied by Russia, then things can get hairy.”
Mattias Svahn believes individual social media users risk acting on biased information. When our social media world consists of people who share our views, then it is easy to imagine that the physical world does, too.
“This makes us more inclined to express an opinion. But in a situation like what we see now, it is probably more appropriate for those in Ukraine to be careful.”

“Think. Check. Share”

According to Mattias Svahn, it is always best to stick to the same basic principle: Do not post anything that can be used against you later.
“Regardless of whether you are in Ukraine or Sweden, it is good to stick to the old hobbyhorse: ‘Think. Check. Share’. Start by thinking. Do not share impulsively. Do not act too emotionally. Where does the information seem to come from? Is it a credible source, or a source I’ve never heard of? In other words, take a deep breath before sharing. Be aware that even social media posts by friends and acquaintances can be written in a troll farm in St. Petersburg.”


Why is the war in Ukraine called the "Tiktok War"?

The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1975, is usually called the "first television war". It was the first time private individuals via television could follow events on the battlefield in quick news items. The war in Ukraine is now called "the first Tiktok war", because personal digital testimonies on social media channels play such an important role in the image of the war.


Co-creation reveals disinformation

In the research project "Co-inform", which ended in 2021, the main focus was to find tools for revealing misinformation on a large scale. The project was part of the EU program Horizon 2020 and was led by Mattias Svahn and e-Govlab.

Mattias Svahn

Mattias Svahn is an expert in media psychology with a focus on disinformation in social media. Photo: Juliana Wiklund

“The most important conclusion was the possibility of combining more sophisticated human assessment with machine reading of, for example, images to see whether they have been used in different contexts, using something called co-creation. Machine learning-supported co-creation is a completely new concept. In this way, you get the best of both worlds.”
To increase reading volumes, the project engaged grassroots movements that could collaborate with machine learning. But, according to Mattias Svahn, co-creation faces several challenges before results can be satisfactory.
“The problem is that to make it work, a stable grassroots movement is needed, with people who can work with assessment. This is something that we researchers do not have the opportunity to create. Another challenge is that machine learning with AI can only reach a certain percentage match. It is allowable within a given margin of error. But if we happen to judge the WHO as unreliable due to mistakes in machine learning, the consequences would be catastrophic. The last percentage points are more important when it comes to anti-disinformation tools.”

Read more about the research on co-creation


Facts and links

What is disinformation?

Disinformation is an attempt to intentionally spread untrue and misleading information to cause harm or influence people's attitudes, positions and actions in a particular direction. Even unintentional dissemination of false and misleading information is sometimes counted as disinformation.


“Sometimes it is easy to imagine that what we see today is completely new. But most of what humanity does on social media existed long before digital media were invented. It is only the shape that is different and the scope,” says Mattias Svahn.

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Russia was a pioneer in image-editing as early as the 1940s and 1950s.
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Svenska Källkritikbyrån is an example of manual disinformation review.
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