Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the first social media war—but it is the first to play out on TikTok. The 2011 Arab Spring was fomented and furthered on Twitter and Facebook. Clips of Syrian children choking from chemical weapons filled social media timelines in 2018. And the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, with all the chaos that wrought, was live-tweeted into our homes last year. Images of unspeakable horrors supplanting the banality of status updates and selfies is nothing new. But the current conflict is a very different kind of social media war, fueled by TikTok’s transformative effect on the old norms of tech. Its more established competitors fundamentally changed the nature of conflict, but TikTok has created a stream of war footage the likes of which we have never seen, from grandmothers saying goodbye to friends to instructions on how to drive captured Russian tanks.
Americans on TikTok “need to worry about it, because it is a surveillance apparatus for Beijing. Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, told me. “It is a Trojan horse on people’s phones.”
At first glance, such alarm might sound like paranoia. How can videos of kids dancing to hip-hop music possibly be a dire threat to anything? But in Washington. The perceived national-security risks of TikTok are very real, and in recent weeks, attitudes toward the company have hardened. TikTok has become a symbol of the new challenge a rising, tech-enabled China presents not simply to a free society, but to American dominance in the technology sector. The internet today is largely run—for better or worse—by American corporations such as Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook, and TikTok is the first Chinese company to truly break through to the American, and global, consciousness, something its compatriots, including Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, have yet to do.