Russia's invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a flood of misleading and false material on TikTok. The popular app used by more than 1 billion people has been amplifying videos portraying old conflicts, scenes from movies and even video game battles as if showing on-the-ground live footage.
In times of crisis, social media platforms are always struggling to stay ahead of misinformation and make round-the-clock calls on when a viral post should be removed. But the flurry of conflict-themed footage now on TikTok has overwhelmed the platform in new ways, sending countless fake or videos framed as if depicting the war in Ukraine to millions of viewers.
"Though it's crucial that the public remain informed of such high-stakes situations, it seems that the platform's design is incompatible with the needs of the current moment," wrote Abbie Richards of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters.
As of Friday evening, videos with the hashtag #RussianInvasion have received 32 million views and videos with the hashtag #RussiaUkraine have racked up 132 million views.
"This is the first time TikTok has really been central in a conflict situation of this scale," said Sam Gregory, the program director of Witness, a nonprofit focused on the ethical use of video in humanitarian crises.
"And the volume of misleading videos does seem new to me. Some people are doing it because they want attention, some people want to monetize it, others are doing it potentially as misinformation and disinformation," he said.
Some users are exploiting features that help videos on TikTok go viral, including reusing an audio clip with new footage.
Audio of gunfire uploaded from before the war started was used in more than 1,700 videos before it was removed, often featuring shaky camera footage to give the impression that it was capturing a conflict, according to Media Matters. The group also found that a video featuring audio from a 2020 explosion in Beirut was watched more than 6 million times in just 12 hours.
TikTok's community guidelines say it bans misinformation "that causes harm to individuals," such as videos that incite hate or prejudice. But footage misrepresenting scenes of war does not appear to explicitly violate the company's content policies.
TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said on Monday the company partners with independent fact-checkers to help root out out inauthentic and unsafe content. She said those efforts have been newly energized in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"We continue to closely monitor the situation, with increased resources to respond to emerging trends and remove violative content, including harmful misinformation and promotion of violence," McQuaide said.
She also said users can navigate to the app's Explore page and find the "digital literacy hub" on the app, a feature where users can learn how to differentiate between real and fake videos.
In the past two days, an NPR reporter was served up an unlabeled video showing a movie depiction of war that was viewed nearly 50 million times and prompted a conversation in the comments about whether it was Ukraine. An old Albanian training exercise purporting to show Ukraine that was seen almost 15 million times. And a 2014 video watched on the platform about 5 million times claiming to show Ukrainian and Russian soldiers "face to face."
TikTok's design creates something of a paradox: If you watch a video repeatedly to try to decipher whether it's authentic or return to one after conducting research, "you're telling the algorithm you want more of this," Gregory said.
Researchers like Gregory say TikTok can do more to give users tools to quickly figure out if a video is fake: the ability to do instant reverse image searches to see whether the video has circulated in the past and databases where users can go to see if popular videos have already been debunked.
Often if a video is fraudulent, TikTok commenters will point it out and the comment will rise to the top of the video's discussion section, but waiting for a TikTok user to figure out if a video is fake is often too little, too late, researchers say.
Gregory said TikTok has the potential to make humanitarian crises and wars more vivid and tangible to a massive audience who may not have otherwise engaged at all, but time spent watching fake videos of war does little to add to a person's understanding of a conflict.
"We shouldn't reject instantly that ephemeral moments in peoples' lives is bad. There can be ways TikTok can help people engage and have dialogue with people on the front lines," Gregory said. "But the challenge is finding those moments within all the manipulation."