I read two stories in American news media back to back, each claiming to be exclusive, each telling a story about TikTok influencers and their role in promoting certain state narratives.
The Vice story by David Gilbert sheds light on how Russian TikTok influencers are being paid to sell a narrative but doesn’t explicitly say who is paying them. Meanwhile, Taylor Lorenz’s story in Washington Post reports how the Biden administration gave a briefing on Thursday to 30 influencers on US’ strategy in the Ukraine-Russia region.
Each story is a testament to the power TikTok influencers wield over audiences and also tells a new story about how governments understand the need to get their message across to an audience who do not rely on traditional even new media for their news. Incidentally, the Biden administration has worked with influencers to get its message on Covid vaccinations across, they claim, to much success.
While a Ukrainian-born journalist quoted in Washington Post described the press briefing to TikTok content creators as one “for kindergarteners”, it nonetheless got the desired results because nearly all those invited quickly blasted information out.
While the Kremlin may not be hosting Zoom meetings for its army of influencers, the Vice story found how well coordinated the campaign was: influencers were told where to capture videos, what hashtags to use, and when exactly to post the video.
Perhaps the most famous modern day propagandist Joseph Goebbels said it was the state's absolute right to "supervise the formation of public opinion."
States across the world now have influencers to help them achieve their aims.
Undoubtedly, TikTok is changing how war is reported. However, unlike journalists who receive training in the newsroom and understand ethics, social media influencers do not. I don’t want to dismiss someone like Aaron Parnas, invited to Thursday’s White House briefing, as unqualified but it’s another reminder that news outlets failed to recognize where the new audiences were going for their informational needs.
Generation Z does not want their information from Boring Old [white/brown etc] Person on TV. Russian/American/Chinese/You Name it propagandists have been smart enough to recognize this.
I would be equally remiss if I did not point out the hypocrisy in how Western publications report on the Biden administration working with influencers vs the tone they use when reporting on China doing the same.
TikTok was clearly caught off guard by the war in Ukraine and is dealing with multiple issues as they crop up – not dissimilar to how other social media platforms had to contend with issues when they began hosting political content.
However, TikTok is huge – 1bn users huge; the majority of which is under 25 years of age. The platform offers a heady mix of disinformation on the war but also reliable on the ground commentary as well as good explainers on a complicated conflict for its audience. Thus, it won’t be fair to paint the platform as purely evil.
Tik Tok also recognizes there is a problem and on March 4 released a statement describing the steps it was taking to create "protective measures" by adding more context, fact-checking and highlighting safety tools for its users.
My question however is if it will apply those rules across the board or is its focus right now purely on combating Russian misinformation? Can I hope to see the same commitment to tell the truth on other wars being fought on Palestinian lands, Kashmir, Yemen to name a few?
Here’s hoping that is the case but I'm not holding my breath.
The writer heads Aaj News' digital properties and tweets at Ledeing Lady