Several journalists describe the Russian-Ukrainian war as the first TikTok war, echoing the pivotal role played by television in the Vietnam war, or even that played by Facebook and Twitter at the heart of the Arab Spring. However, if media platforms help us document armed struggles, they also shape our perception of events. When young tiktokers take up arms, what images of war do they put forward? Exactly what TikTok expects of them: they dance to Manu Chao while waving their Kalashnikovs.
In a military outfit in the colors of Ukraine, Nekoglai, a 22-year-old tiktok player, dances to a hit from 2001 and slips a poppy behind his ear. Me gustas tú, the song goes, “I like you.” The soft-eyed young man takes the opportunity to show off his gun and ammunition. In the comments section, girls everywhere are swooning. In the midst of “slava Ukraini!” » Marriage proposals regularly spring up. Myself, I liked his viral video.
But Nekoglai is no ordinary brother-in-arms. He is a professional content creator. Very popular with the Russian Twitch community, this Moldovan streamer lived until recently in Russia. By digging a little, we realize that he is also a hip-hop artist who accumulates millions of views on YouTube. When he’s not rapping over stacks of cash, he’s climbing a pink limo. In November 2022, he was reportedly expelled from Russia after posting a TikTok video that allegedly displeased the regime. He was reportedly detained and tortured, which convinced him to join the ranks of the Ukrainian army.
His atypical story helps us contextualize his video, but it does not explain his success. If his clip abounds on the app, it is not because it paints a plausible portrait of the war. Its virality may have more to do with the fact that it perfectly matches the grammar of the application developed by the Chinese giant ByteDance.
Launched in 2017, the social video-sharing app originally focused on dance and music. There are many TikTok videos that could be called thirst traps, an expression that refers to seductive posts that aim to seduce as many viewers as possible, such as this video where a smiling Nekoglai sways his hips. On TikTok, even war can be converted into fast-paced, seductive, and eye-catching content. Videos like the young man’s don’t document the devastating effects: they make her sexy.
Insofar as many of these videos decontextualize the armed conflicts to which they allude, military dress appears less like a necessity than a manly costume, the sign of a laudable sacrifice. On the heels of Negoklai, the videos of soldiers now dancing to Megustas tú all seem interchangeable. Combatants rarely specify the name of the army to which they belong. What seems to take precedence is the abstract idea of a war and the kind of bravery that goes with it. This idea helps to create an attractive image and allows them to get the holy grail of the social web: maximum views.
Soon, I saw pretty IDF girls smiling at my screen and tucking a flower behind their ear, their heavy rifles slung over their shoulders. In February 2022, even as Russia invaded Ukraine, Amnesty International denounced what the organization calls “Israel’s apartheid regime” since in the occupied territories, “the Palestinian population is treated as a racially inferior group and they are systematically deprived of their rights”. It makes you wonder who this glorification of the army really benefits.
If media representations of war always end up shaping the idea we have of it, it is important to question them. What point of view do these images convey? Or rather, what does Nekoglai’s seductive dance not tell us?
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, two of the largest defense companies in the world were already telling their investors that the growing tensions between the two countries meant good business.
Is digital media working for the benefit of these war profiteers? What is certain is that they are not neutral. They even tend to favor particular discourses. Recently, Facebook was even accused of facilitating genocide propaganda in Ethiopia. However, the inhabitants of Tigray did not have the luxury of staging themselves on TikTok and delivering their point of view. When the war started in 2020, Ethiopians in the region were instead left without internet and cut off from the world for more than two years.