Young Ukranians on using TikTok to show the reality of war

From hiding out in bunkers to travelling across Europe as refugees, the app has become a daily chronicle of ever-changing horror.

by Daisy Schofield
21 April 2022, 7:00am

Early on the morning of 24 February 2022, Kristina Korban, a 32-year-old from Kyiv, was in bed when she heard a loud explosion. “I thought my neighbours were having a party with fireworks,” she recalls. “But then another one went off, and I realised it was definitely not fireworks.” 

Almost instinctively, she reached for her phone and started filming. “I still had no idea what was really going on at that point,” she says, “I was definitely just in shock.” Kristina uploaded the footage to TikTok (“this could be the start of something serious”, she says in the video) before going back to sleep. By the time she’d woken up, the video had amassed thousands of views and an outpouring of comments expressing their support and concern. 

Since then Kristina has been providing almost-daily updates from Ukraine to her now 60,000+ TikTok followers. “I felt like I was at the centre of it all; like I would feel guilty if I didn't share,” she says. Her videos capture everything from footage of missiles falling from the sky, to clips showing life in Kyiv almost seeming to carry on as normal — its citizens defiant and set on keeping their city running in the face of Russian attack. “I feel like it’s my calling,” Kristina adds. “Like it’s my duty as a Ukrainian citizen.”

Since the invasion of Ukraine began, TikTok has offered audiences intimate and startlingly direct glimpses of war. These videos — which often deploy the choppy editing and pop songs associated typical on the app — are being watched by millions. In one video with over 6.6 million likes, TikTok user @valerisssh documents the things in her bomb shelter that “just make sense”, while in another video, @whereislizzyy points to what appears to be an explosion outside her window with the caption “when the Russians attack so we r leaving at 8am” set to a sped-up “Who’s That Chick?” by David Guetta ft. Rihanna. 

Seeing these documents of war presented as memes and stock TikTok jokes has felt surreal. But while there’s been much talk of Ukraine being “the first TikTok war”, this is largely misleading. The app has, for example, been used during civil wars in Libya and Syria, while the surge in Palestinians using the app to expose Israeli atrocities was dubbed “the TikTok intifada” last year. And, of course, the filming of conflict on social media is nothing new — during the Arab Spring, for example, activists used Twitter and Facebook to amplify their demands. But what makes TikTok feel arguably different is the sheer scale of younger users, allowing people documenting the war in Ukraine to reach new audiences. For Kristina, it’s helped her to build a loyal community of followers. “I feel like we’ve formed a close bond… I don't like to sugarcoat anything [to them].” When Kristina went offline for a few days because she was in hospital, she was flooded with worried messages. “They don’t like it when I’m absent,” she says.  

Sandra G, a 23-year-old Ukrainian musician, is also grateful for the community she's built on the app. At the beginning of the invasion, Sandra says she “started to feel really lonely,” which is what led her to start posting about the war on TikTok. “Having all these strangers [on TikTok] appear in my life has helped me to get everything I feel off my chest.” Sandra is also acutely aware of the value of providing a Ukrainian’s first-hand perspective of the war. “I felt like as someone experiencing living here, who sees everything from inside, it will be more legit than stuff on the news, which is not always true.” 

Dzvenyslava Hlibovytska, a 19-year-old Kyiv native studying in Lviv, started posting TikToks at the beginning of the war for a similar reason. “There’s lots of political analysis and martial reports [in the media]. But I don’t see many stories of actual Ukrainians being told; how the war has affected our lives,” she says. “I felt I had to tell the world my story; what I'm experiencing and what is happening around me, so that people could see the truth.”

For Dzvenyslava, this meant capturing her daily routine amid the war — from packing an emergency bag, to volunteering, and “hiding from Russian bombing” — in a video captioned: “is this really how my life at 18 should look?”. Other videos are more humorous in tone, such as one which reads: “Random guy at a bar: what’s your favourite cocktail?” to which Dzvenyslava, flashing her Ukrainian passport responds: “Molotov, babe, Molotov”. 

Dzvenyslava, Kristina and Sandra all say they are committed to offering accurate accounts of war. For Kristina, this is part of the sense of duty she feels: “As Ukrainian citizens, we’re all doing something different to help – whether it's humanitarian aid or spreading correct information.” On TikTok itself, where misinformation is rife, this has proven vital. An investigation from News Guard found that scrolling the curated For You Page exposes users to misinformation within just 40 minutes. Efforts to curb the spread of misinformation have seen President Joe Biden speaking to some of the biggest American TikTokers to brief them on the facts of the conflicts, while TikTok itself has also taken some steps to stop the spread of misinformation.

But still, some users posting about the war say that their content has been unfairly banned. Sandra says one of her videos talking about the murder of a Ukrainian girl by a Russian was removed, only to have it subsequently restored by TikTok. “TikTok actually said they were sorry,” Sandra says, “that I didn’t violate anything.” Kristina says she’s had three videos banned, including one of her crying with explosions in the background, which supposedly breached TikTok’s policy on graphic content. She describes the subsequent “hush-hush culture” she and her followers have developed — such as referring to President Vladimir Putin as ‘P’ and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as ‘Z’ — to avoid getting banned. 

“We continue to increase our safety and security measures in response to the war in Ukraine, and are working aggressively to help ensure people can express themselves and share their experiences, while we also seek to mitigate the potential for harm,” a TikTok spokesperson told i-D. “Our Community Guidelines prohibit content that contains misinformation, hateful behaviour, or promotion of violence — these apply equally across our platform.”

Like many TikTokers who went viral at the beginning of the war, Dzvenyslava has now fled Ukraine. After an arduous evacuation journey – which she documented on the app – Dzvenyslava made it to Denmark. But she has no intention of stopping posting about the war. “Even when I’m here abroad right now, people on TikTok still have so many questions: what does the process for the temporary dislocated person application look like? How are you granted a residence permit or work? What do people that do not have any money or savings do?”. It’s a small insight into the bureaucratic nightmare that many of the estimated 11 million+ people who’ve now fled the war in Ukraine face, along with the experience of all people who’ve been displaced from their homes.

Sandra, who remains in Western Ukraine, is often asked by her followers why she has not yet left the country. It’s something she addresses in one of her TikToks: “I’d never leave my family,” she says. “If I did, I’d regret it forever.” She tells me that her dad is of conscription age (aged between 18 to 60) and therefore banned from leaving Ukraine.

For Kristina, the decision to leave was incredibly fraught: she fled in April to an undisclosed location, just two days before we speak. “I knew I’d have to go at some point,” she says. “There was a bit of a lull, but now things are really heating up again — and things are really frightening.” 

But like Dzvenyslava, she plans to continue posting to TikTok once she’s reached safety. “I want people to know that it's a genocide; there is so much cruelty that is happening,” she says. “I personally don't have the vocabulary to describe the barbaric activities that are being done on our land. It's unspeakable.” Although a far from perfect tool, the cut-through of these TikToks is allowing some Ukrainians to feel heard, and their plight understood.

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