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Watching a War Unfold on TikTok

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In 1964, at the height of the Cold War and just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, director Stanley Kubrick released his dark, madcap comedy, Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb starring Peter Sellers. The popular film at once lampooned the nuclear-arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and highlighted the reality of the nuclear threat on the way to a dystopian ending with footage of nuclear explosions.

There’s no doubt that many who grew up around the time the film was released remember the popular culture masterpiece and likely drew a good deal of understanding about relations between the United States and the Soviet Union through its lens. After all, beyond TV, radio, and newspaper headlines, there was little in the broader, collective media to bring the reality of nuclear threats home.

Only a few years after Kubrick’s film was released, all that changed when television news crews embedded in combat zones in Vietnam brought that war directly into people’s homes. It was called the first televised war—a more immediate and realistic depiction of brutal combat than viewers had seen before.

Today, as news and images travel across the internet faster than ever before, a new generation is bearing witness to a gruesome war in real time – and one that comes with a chilling new nuclear threat, decades after the end of the Cold War. Russia’s war in Ukraine may be playing out in far-away cities, but social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter are bringing the dangers home for people all over the world. Just one month ago, Ukrainian content creators were posting cheerful TkTok videos of their everyday lives; now they are filming themselves in bomb shelters, trying to survive missile attacks.

The New Yorker has already coined it “the world’s first TikTok war.” The effect is that young people’s perception of war, including the nuclear threat invoked by Vladimir Putin, is being shaped by what they see and like on this relatively new medium. In an article in Wired magazine, author Chris Stokel-Walker writes about how the platform’s easy editing style has made it suitable for war as it can effortlessly capture how the conflict is unfolding. One big risk: As the platform works to monopolize users’ attention in the form of 15 second clips, it can serve as a breeding ground for nuclear misinformation even as it raises awareness about the growing risks.

The last time the threat of nuclear annihilation felt so real, at least for many in the United States, messages and information about the threat were being shared by government leaders and reputable news sources. During the Berlin crisis in 1961, President Kennedy gave a national radio and TV address in which he presented the standoff between the Soviet Union and the West as a national emergency and implied that nuclear war was a real possibility. He committed to a fallout shelter program, pledging to “let every citizen know what steps they can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.” Today, no one has to wait for information from the government in a crisis—there are more than 46.3 million pieces of content on TikTok alone related to the possibility of nuclear warfare.

A World Economic Forum article published in January 2020 states that “54% of young people surveyed felt a nuclear attack was likely in the next decade.” Two years later, after Putin announced he was putting his country’s massive nuclear forces on heightened alert, the threat of nuclear warfare surely is becoming an even greater source of angst and uncertainty around the world.

The questions now: What will this generation do about it? Will we see a new anti-nuclear protest movement? Will  young people take to the streets of Bonn, London, Brussels, and New York City as they did in the 1980s when they protested nuclear missile deployments and demanded an end to the arms race? Will we demand a nuclear-free world along with action on climate change? As a new generation watches a new and terrible war through their smartphone screens, how will we sort through the misinformation to understand the nature of the risk and decide what actions to take—online and otherwise—in response?

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