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#SlavaUkraini: Bringing the War Home to Your Smartphone Screen

How Social Media Displays War to Younger Generations

By Nate Vigdor ’23

A Russian fighter-bomber flies towards the window of a house, in an instant firing two rockets as it screams overhead. An explosion ensues, followed by the sound of breaking glass and the chilling wail of a young child, as the videographer scurries away from the window to safety.

Videos like this one, which popped up on my feed while I was scrolling through TikTok, have exploded across social media following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They bring the harsh realities of the conflict to the eyes of a younger generation with an intimacy and immediacy not seen in previous conflicts. The scenes of war recorded by Ukrainian citizens are as gripping as they are heartbreaking. Nobody wants to lose their house, their town, or their loved ones.

Clips like this represent the new way in which war is reported, and provide a platform for civilians and soldiers alike to broadcast their experiences to a very large audience. They force us to understand the often-tragic experiences of those caught in the conflict, and make those experiences much more vivid. I for one could never imagine having my house bombed or my neighborhood overun by hostile tanks, but it’s now much easier to imagine thanks to social media.

TikTok is the fastest-growing social media platform in the United States, with 2020 growth numbers reporting an 87.1% increase in users, dwarfing the next highest platform Reddit, which only saw a 25.9% increase in users. An increasing number of Americans say they are getting their news on TikTok, a contrast to the decline or stagnation that many other popular social media sites have reported. These numbers are certainly reflected in media about the War in Ukraine, with the hashtag ‘ukrainewar’ racking up a whopping 3 billion total views on videos across the app.   

A quick search of ‘Ukraine War’ on TikTok reveals a new breed of media consumption. While there remain some videos from traditional media outlets documenting the events of the war, there are far more videos showing the visceral reality of the conflict. Individual users post a litany of clips captured on smartphones, including firefights between groups of soldiers, aircraft being shot down, and videos that show the sheer amount of destruction occurring in towns across the country.

When compared to the more composed presentation of information by traditional media outlets, these videos often have a much more human element to them. A video taken by one user shows a Russian tank on a road swerving into the opposite lane in order to flatten a civilian car driving past it. This horrific scene is accompanied by the terrified screams of the civilians looking on, unable to help the presumably injured driver, and was terribly chilling to me as I watched on, unable to do anything. 

With all of these videos of the war circulating, one might wonder who exactly is consuming them. 80% of all TikTok users like myself are between the ages of 16-34, with the majority of users aged between 16-24. This young demographic is changing the way we learn about war, and they are doing it in a way that magnifies the lived experiences of those affected the most by the conflict.

Their presence is most certainly felt. Each Tik Tok video has hundreds of comments and many shares, Tik Tok users clearly becoming very invested in this conflict and the new style of civilian journalism it has given rise to. The phrase ‘Slava Ukraini’ (Glory to Ukraine) is written out across videos and comment sections, leading to a clear sense of unity driven by young people all over the world. Their connectivity has allowed them to understand war from many more angles than were historically available, which exponentially increases support for Ukrainian resistance. As we enter into a new era of social media use, platforms like TikTok will continue to be at the forefront of bringing the reality of war to billions of young people across the globe.

Nate Vigdor ’23 is a Whitman College Biology major from Seattle, Washington. He wrote this Op-Ed in the fall of 2022 as a student in Professor Shampa Biswas’s course, “Global Politics of the War in Ukraine.”

Published on May 19, 2023
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