New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, wrote “This is the first war that will be covered on TikTok by super-empowered individuals armed only with smartphones”. And Friedman was not alone in this idea, joined by Reuters and a variety of periodicals from The Telgraph to the Chattanuga Times Free Press in referring to the invasion as “the first TikTok war”. One tech popular podcast has entitled its last episode The Most Online War Of All Time Until The Next One. Other’s shed doubt on this label, arguing that is not literally the “first TikTok” war, since the conflicts in Libya and Syria had widespread use of the app, or the “the TikTok intifada,” as Vox titled it.
Whether or not this is the first Tiktok war, what is interesting is how technology both gives us access to the horrors of war while also filtering our impressions and understanding of what is going on. Certainly, when television allowed for the US War in Vietnam to be brought into the homes of those sending sons, fathers, and brothers into the conflict, not only did opinions on that war shift radically, but, from its justification and legitimacy to the price paid and devastation left in its wake, the notion of war as it was known would be thereafter constantly called into question.
Several decades on and technological light years later we see, instead of revelation and new truths, a distortion that both seeks truth to one extent while hiding it in others. Whether this is the first or the one hundredth war, brought to you by Tiktok, something very strange has happened regarding our ability to understand the contemporary world.
There are several diagnoses put forward to make sense of our current world, each with a plethora of subtleties and different approaches: Anthropocene, Hypernormalization, the Great Acceleration, Liquid Time, Turbulence, Critical Juncture Theory… Ziauddin Sardar's characterisation of “postnormal times” (PNT) elegantly captures the current zeitgeist, the specific mood of despair, uncertainty, and insecurity due to the simultaneous and overlapping crisis we are facing.
It is self-evident that the war in Ukraine —and most of the events of the last decade— respond, with a certain degree, to some of the characteristics of a post normal event. In words of Jerome Ravetz & Silvio Funtowicz “we can think of postnormal as phenomena or situations where facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. Furthermore, it is important to consider Sardar’s aforementioned diagnosis regarding our times, where the current interconnection and acceleration of the world generate the 3C’s of PNT: complexity, chaos, and contradictions, which lead us towards increased uncertainty and ignorance. Beyond this, PNTs conception of change is characterised by speed, scope, scale, and the simultaneity of those elements. Those characteristics deepen our incapacity to apprehend change, and thus bring about more uncertainty.
With it, the complexity and interconnection arguments are somehow a weak point, in the sense that a linear thought of “cuspid of progress” is not new at all. Modernity, as an epistemic apparatus, made Western societies considered themselves as the most (inter)connected, advanced, or developed in history. And today, I am inclined to think that we are repeating this folly.
Today, we have social media platforms. We inhabit the Internet, and we are from and a result of it. And it would be stupid to ignore the reality that it is the means through which we perceive History as we live it, and is increasingly taking a central, determining role that history has in the way we understand the present world. We are recipients of huge amounts of non-hierarchical information, where news of the war is shared in-between memes. The grotesque side of this constant flow of content is revealed; the war has become content, flowing across every platform at once, and the videos/posts are both Internet jokes and deadly serious war documents. As one TikTok user put it “im literally watching thirst traps followed by footage of w@r crimes and then an ad for moisturizer all within 30s of each other”.
anyways back to my silly little video games♬ Young - Vacations
happiness in simple things!♬ sonido original - Valentina
@valerisssh I found the last avocado in the supermarket!!!!! #ukraine #stopwar #russiastop ♬ Sleigh Ride - Leroy Anderson
A video with millions of views, labelled as “Ghost of Kyiv,” showed a supposed fighter pilot shooting down Russian jets, actually came from a video game called D.C.S. World, which graphics are easy to mistake as authentic. Same error with one video showing Russian paratroopers, it is actually from 2016.
Certainly, the Internet incentivises the creation of quickly assembled narratives —a fistful of links and it's ready. And certainly, each new historical event of the Internet age has been quickly associated with the latest trend in digital media. In 2011 the Arab Spring and Facebook; in 2012, Israel and Hamas were said to have engaged in the first war of tweets...
This calls to mind the late French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard’s thesis in the La Guerre du Golfe n'a pas eu lieu, where he argues that the instantaneous media reports, and the simulations for understanding military tactics made Western experiences of the war purely virtual. His ideas of hyperreality —the inability to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality— and simulation —the blending of “reality” and representation, without clear limits between them— are certainly important in the consideration on how we understand and glimpse the Ukrainian war, and also drive connections toward understanding PNT theory.
The 1920s German psychologists behind the Gestalt theory said that the human mind is prone to order our experience in a manner that’s regular, orderly, and recognisable. That is to say, to perceive structure, logic, and patterns, allowing us to create meaning in a complex and chaotic world.
However, the unprecedented interconnectivity of the tangled and complex web, from which we try to extract knowledge, and that responds clearly to the 3C’s of PNT, deactivate the possibilities to understand, to know and pose solutions to current issues. In words of the South-African philosopher Paul Cilliers argues that “to fully understand a complex system”, “[…], we need to understand the system’s complete environment before we can understand the system, and, of course, the environment is complex in itself. There is no human way of doing this. […] This means that some aspects of the system are always left out of consideration”.
Previous overarching narratives or meta-narratives, and their established ways of knowing, doing and being are just not up to the task of letting us comprehend the complexities of the world, and thus we are domed to ignorance, and, thus, uncertainty. Adam Curtis, a particularly lucid British documentary filmmaker, names it "HyperNormalisation", where we have given up on the complex “real world” and become lost in a fake simpler world run by corporations and kept stable by politicians.
As Sardar puts it, we are at “an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense”, and PNT theory considers that today’s epistemology and knowledge itself is complex, uncertain and incorporates ignorance.
Facts are no longer fully perpetual, one of the core ideas contemplated by PNT as part of our present ignorance. Misinformation is far from new, yet we must investigate further to what extent TikTok affects perceptions of the war. As we continue to experience war through the lens of various social media platforms, I myself am looking forward to seeing what Curtis will do out of all the footage we leave behind.
Culliford, E; Dang, S. (2022) “TikTok war: How Russia's invasion of Ukraine played to social media's youngest audience”. Reuters. Online Available at: https://www.reuters.com/technology/tiktok-war-how-russias-invasion-ukraine-played-social-medias-youngest-audience-2022-03-01/ [accessed 13 February 2022].
Chayka, K. (2022) “Watching the World’s “First TikTok War”” The New Yorker. Online Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/infinite-scroll/watching-the-worlds-first-tiktok-war [accessed 13 February 2022].
Baudrillard, J. (1991) “La Guerre du Golfe n'a pas eu lieu” Editions Galilée
Tiffany, K. (2022)“The Myth of the ‘First TikTok War’” The Atlantic. Online Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/03/tiktok-war-ukraine-russia/627017/ [accessed 13 February 2022].
Sardar, Z. (2009) “Welcome to postnormal times”
Sardar, Z. (2015)“Postnormal times revisited”
Stokel-Walker, C. (2022) “The first TikTok war: how are influencers in Russia and Ukraine responding?” The Guardian. Online Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2022/feb/26/social-media-influencers-russia-ukraine-tiktok-instagram [accessed 13 February 2022].
Francisco de Paula Soler Rosés is an Art Historian and International Relations graduate deeply interested in the intersections between contemporary society and its human productions. His main area of work is cultural management, as he understands it as a way of sharing knowledge, creating linkages, and making a change. He is currently working for the Spanish Foreign Action Ministry in Rabat on matters of cultural diplomacy.