Want Clicks? Put War Videos on TikTok

December 20, 2022

Here is another story about the importance of click-throughs to social media companies, repercussions be damned. BBC News reports, “Russian Mercenary Videos ‘Top 1 Bn Views’ on TikTok.” The mercenary band in these videos, known as the Wagner Group, is helping Russia fight its war against Ukraine. Writer Alexandra Fouché cites a recent report from NewsGuard as she reveals:

“NewsGuard said it had identified 160 videos on the short-video platform that ‘allude to, show, or glorify acts of violence’ by the mercenary group, founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Fourteen of those videos showed full or partial footage of the apparent killing of former Russian mercenary Yevgeny Nuzhin which saw high engagement within days of being uploaded last month, it said.”

That brutal murder, which was performed with a sledgehammer, was viewed over 900,000 times on TikTok before ByteDance took it down. Nuzhin was apparently killed because he switched sides and denounced the Wagner Group. Sadly but surely, there are many viewers who would seek out such footage; why blame TikTok for its spread? The article continues:

“NewsGuard found that TikTok’s algorithm appeared to push users towards violent Wagner Group content. When an analyst searched for the term ‘Wagner’, TikTok’s search bar suggested searches for ‘Wagner execution’ and ‘Wagner sledgehammer’. The same search in Russian resulted in the suggestions ‘Wagner PMC’, ‘Wagner sledgehammer’ and ‘Wagner orchestra’. Wagner refers to its fighters as ‘musicians’. NewsGuard also found that videos could be found on TikTok showing another Wagner murder involving an army deserter in Syria in 2017 and that they had reached millions of users.

The online analysis group said it had also identified other music videos on the platform that advocated violence against Ukrainians, including calls to kill Ukrainians claiming they were ‘Nazis’.

Funny, when I searched Google for “Wagner,” the first three results my filter bubble turned up were composer Richard Wagner’s Wikipedia page, Wagner paint sprayer’s home page, and Staten Island’s Wagner College. Some actual news articles about the Wagner Group followed, but nary a violence glorification video in sight. TikTok certainly knows how to generate clicks. But what about China’s “reeducation” camps? The Chinese company is not circulating videos of those, is it? It seems the platform can be somewhat selective, after all.

Cynthia Murrell, December 20, 2022


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