Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already fueled some nascent disinformation tactics, including the airing of realistic video game footage and the use of TikTok to create fake warzone live streams.
The content highlights how misinformation on the internet tends to constantly evolve, with some older forms of misleading content remaining relevant (many users continue to share older videos mislabeled as from the ongoing conflict).
And while TikTok has been committed in recent years to fighting misinformation, its relatively recent entry into the mainstream as a major social media platform, along with some of its unique features, has made it ripe for misleading content.
“The platform is flooded with raw footage, which is both good and bad. For some people, it really feels like a more authentic experience that doesn’t go through the filter of a news agency,” said said Abbie Richards, a TikTok researcher at the nonprofit Accelerationism Research Consortium, which studies terrorist movements online, “At the same time, there’s just no verification.”
The war had already taken center stage on TikTok in recent weeks, where legitimate videos of Ukrainians showed Russian forces move towards the border more than a week before the Russian attack.
And in recent days, viral misinformation has also spread on the platform. Among the more unique forms of misinformation are live streams that have attempted to mimic some of the scenes in Ukraine, with users pointing cameras at unspeakable scenes or looping video and playing sirens in the background.
In a livestream on Thursday, a TikTok user pointed the camera at the residential street outside a window and dubbed the sound of air raid sirens over the footage. A few days earlier, the same TikTok user showed a different angle of the same street, and the number plates of the cars matched those in the UK
Thanks to TikTok’s donation system, which is widely used during live streams as a way for users to tip creators, these streams can provide immediate financial incentives, although it was unclear how many money a particular flow was yielding.
A TikTok spokesperson said it is taking action against users who claim to be streaming live from Ukraine in order to solicit donations.
“We continue to monitor the situation closely, with increased resources to respond to emerging trends and remove violent content, including harmful misinformation and promotion of violence,” a TikTok spokesperson said.
Some TikTok users have already figured it out. In comments sections of live streams containing misinformation, TikTok users leave comments such as “Don’t donate” and “Please report, this is a scam”.
A TikTok user has posted videos urging his 65,000 followers to watch their Ukraine live stream. In the livestream, the user thanked viewers for sending in donations while an air raid siren sounded in the background. Returning to the same user’s account, videos showed them manipulating Moldovan currency, leading to comments calling the livestream a “scam”.
Only a few hundred viewers were watching the Moldovan user’s live stream, but another live stream with over 130,000 viewers appeared to be looping grainy footage from inside a crowded Ukrainian metro station.
Other fake videos on TikTok are not livestreamed, but rather regular short videos that take advantage of the app’s audio features, allowing users to dub their content with sounds in the audio library generated by the app. platform user.
The sounds of screams, gunfire and air raid sirens were uploaded to TikTok as an original soundbite by a user and were later used on more than 240 videos claiming to be from Ukraine.
Video game scenes portrayed as real are a relatively new and increasingly popular form of misinformation on TikTok and Twitter, which has gained momentum as games become more realistic.
Images of the “Digital Combat Simulator World” flight simulator were shared by the official Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on Twitter and received more than 600,000 views. The footage has already been uploaded as part of a highlight compilation on YouTube. Facebook, Twitter and TikTok users have repeatedly shared footage from the “Arma 3” video game as war footage from the Ukrainian invasion.
Clips of video game footage and users rummaging through their own apartments are usually spiced up with a more dramatic sound of actual atrocities.
The ease of use of this feature, which was initially used to lip-sync to music and was essential to TikTok’s growth, is now being used to add more realistic war sounds to computer-generated or otherwise mundane videos.
Richards, the TikTok researcher, identified an otherwise innocuous video of a man fleeing on his porch over which was dubbed the sound of a 2020 chemical explosion in Beirut. The video, uploaded Thursday, had 6 million views in 12 hours.
Richards said the ease with which these videos can be created is a problem.
“I think their infrastructure – the literal design of the platform – is part of the problem. It amplifies fear and misinformation,” Richards said. “TikTok’s infrastructure is structurally incompatible with the moment.”
Still other videos are far more common forms of misinformation. On Thursday, shortly after Russia began its attack on Ukraine, a TikTok user posted a video of a soldier parachuting from a plane. The video was first posted in 2016 by an Instagram account with the same username.