Can We Trust Content Creators Fighting The TikTok War?

When I first saw “Saturday Night Live”’s most recent cold open, which covered President Joe Biden’s “historic meeting” with the nation’s most popular TikTok creators in attempts to counteract Russia’s social media propaganda, I thought it was an “SNL” invention, created for a laugh.

But I must have gotten distracted with other parts of last week’s news flow, because I was wrong. Biden’s meeting with TikTokers was indeed very real.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that top White House and National Security Council staffers held a briefing with around 30 trending social media content creators to discuss what has become known as “The TikTok War.”

The China-owned short-form video platform has become a prominent vessel for real-time news for much of the world. TikTok users in Ukraine captured exclusive footage from the initial Russian invasion, along with videos depicting their resilience and strife in the aftershocks of war.

Especially now, with Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter suspended in Russia, cutting off tens of millions of users from the rest of the world, TikTok has become a major platform. As of last week, TikTok videos featuring the hashtag #ukraine have received over 26.8 billion views.

Included in that vast number, though, are videos of Russian propaganda, which TikTok creators -- such as those invited to the White House -- have attempted to dispel with factual information by posting reaction videos and comments.

While "SNL" featured caricatures of silly and strange TikTok pranksters, dancers, fascist animal-makeup artists, and even pop-star Jason Derulo, the creators invited to the actual White House produce videos specifically focused on covering the war. 

A White House official told the Washington Post that briefers provided these creators with information about Ukraine and the U.S.’s projections on how the conflict will progress.

The official also said that arming content creators with factual information and answers can be a critical tool, since the Russian government continues to pay TikTok creators to produce pro-Kremlin propaganda.

“All creators at this meeting already felt compelled to call out misinformation, but the internet is powerful and it is overwhelming,” said creator Jules Terpak in a live NBC interview. “There is an overwhelming amount of information, especially on TikTok, where overnight a piece of content from a random creator who has never received reach before can go crazy, getting thousands if not millions of views, so this meeting at a very high level made the United States initiatives clear.”

Terpak also mentioned that the comment section on TikTok videos is a place where creators like her, with hundreds of thousands (or millions) of followers, can use their popularity and voice to call out lies and misinformation, or recommend other creators they respect.  

Other creators in the meeting, like Marcus DiPaola, who has 3.5 million TikTok followers, shared takeaways from the meeting on social media: “First, if Russia uses chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the United States will take escalatory steps. We don't know what that means, but it won't be good for Russia. Second, Russian troops are not happy with their own invasion, and it's really impacting Russia's ability to make progress in this war. Third, Russia is not going to win in Ukraine. Things have gone so badly for them that it's just not possible anymore.”

It's interesting that social media users -- TikTokers especially -- have a window directly into the White House. But without the fact checking of any reputable traditional news source, it’s still a risky game for TikTokers to be playing. Still, it’s one that seems inescapable now, with the vast power of Big Tech and the social media platforms they’ve created and struggle to control.

Call me paranoid, but if being a successful social media creator means amassing likes, views and followers, how can we trust the word of those profiting from a popularity contest? It’s a truly difficult question to answer, especially when dealing with a platform originally built for lip-syncing and dance videos.

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