While the rise of TikTok is relatively recent, the instinct to turn to social media in the face of a crisis – and the use of similar techniques by armchair sleuths and internet sleuths – has been an essential tool for navigate the events from the Arab Spring to January 1st. 6 riot.
Konrad Muzyka, director of Polish group Rochan Consulting – specializing in defense analysis of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian armed forces – said TikTok, along with Instagram, have become the platforms for sharing military videos. This is after the government cracked down on what was being shared on Russian social networking website VKontakte in 2014 when the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
He said he had even seen videos on the app from Russian soldiers themselves. “Several times I was shocked [about what soldiers share online]. I don’t know if they care or not, or if they know what they’re doing,” he said.
Using videos, Muzyka matches tactical markings on military vehicles to identify which brigade or regiment it belongs to, and data from train stations to track their location.
He said he was particularly shocked by “the extent of the movement of the kit” from eastern Russia, which meant military hardware had traveled thousands of miles west. “It’s a complex and unprecedented thing,” Muzyka said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It seems to me that they have brought and they continue to bring capabilities to actually carry out a strategic operation against Ukraine,” he added.
Michael Sheldon, an associate researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, has also used TikTok to track military equipment that has traveled from the far east of Russia.
While Russia and Belarus say forces are simply gathering for military exercises, the Biden administration has suggested this could be used as a cover. Some analysts believe the scale and locations of accumulation may support this idea.
“Right now we see military equipment – armored fighting vehicles, multiple rocket launchers and tanks – only in open fields. Nowhere near a training area, so it’s a bit suspicious,” Sheldon said.
But he acknowledged that there are limits to the amount of information that can be extracted from social media and satellite images.
“We are currently in a moment of uncertainty over the actual details,” he said. “While we have a very good general overview of towns near all of this, we don’t know exactly where it’s parked all the time.”
As its Western allies sound the alarm, Kiev has downplayed the immediate Russian threat. On Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the number of troops gathered at the border “at the moment” was “insufficient for a full-scale offensive”.
“Not the style of Russia”
But whatever Putin’s intentions, social media is being used not only by outside observers but also by members of the public in Russia itself to discuss the standoff.
In a video posted on January 11, a young railway worker, standing at a level crossing in Smidovich, in Russia’s far east, saw dozens of military vehicles being brought west through the city on trains merchandise.
She did what many young people would do and uploaded the video to her TikTok account. Nearly half a million views later, the comments section of her video has become a lively discussion space where women express concern for their conscripted sons and husbands, and ordinary Russians debate the uncertain future relationship between their country and Ukraine.
Some commentators revealed which military units their friends or family members belonged to and speculated about the nature of the forces sent from the east of the country.