get your war on again

Welcome to WarTok

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Tik Tok

Like any other Gen-Z gym rat in 2021, Andriy Kurilenko used TikTok to record his workouts, amplifying his MMA training sessions with distorted chopped-and-slopped Ukrainian rap featuring bass so loud it vibrates your iPhone. His feed was all punching-bag practice, sweaty mirror selfies replete with bulging biceps, shameless thirst traps for his followers.

Toward the end of January, Kurilenko’s TikToks changed. The tight-fitting workout shirts were gone, replaced with a bulletproof vest and a black skully cap. His demeanor hadn’t changed, but there was a rifle strapped to his chest. With the shift in content came a bigger audience. His videos now receive millions of views.

Kurilenko has been in Ukraine’s armed forces for three years, he said via DM with help from Google Translate, since he was 19. What does he think of his newfound popularity? “I don’t care. It’s just a video,” he says. To him, the gym videos and shots of his unit out on patrol are the same thing. “I’m shooting my life at work,” he says. “I just shoot motivational videos of my daily life.”

TikTok’s mind-reading algorithm nearly predicts what you want to watch before you watch it. It serves you a stream of videos it hopes you like and then observes how you respond, whether they’re of gross kitchen concoctions or endless versions of smartly dressed Gen-Zers rotely dancing to Nelly Furtado’s Say It Right. Now the algorithm is trying out something new on many of us. The cute animal videos, self-recorded teen breakdowns, Karens acting up at the local grocery store, and Euphoria reviews are joined by a novel variety of programming: scenes from a sudden war. Call it the birth of WarTok.

The ease with which users can apply filters, add music and animations, and splice together clips, plus the ubiquity of ultra-high-quality cell-phone recording, means everyone with a phone is the next Michael Bay. If you express any interest in one video, TikTok will serve you video after video of tracer rounds darting through the night sky, Ukrainian soldiers loading artillery or hanging off the side of their tanks, everything synced up to the latest EDM beat as we seemingly untz, untz, untz our way into World War III. (It’s a one-sided view; we’re not seeing TikToks from Russian forces.) The videos are often short and fly by too quickly for any meaningful context or verifiability, leaving you to revel in or reel from a cacophony of explosions, machine-gun fire, and dancing soldiers, each clip seemingly more absurd or disturbing than the last. It’s cinematic, not informational — entertaining and definitely shocking, but not documentary. You’ll see none of the thousands who have been killed on both sides, for instance. At least twice this week I’ve shown a friend a video and they’ve asked, “That isn’t real, right?” The growth of WarTok seems to skirt the edges of reality, pushed to the brink by a voracious audience of teens drinking up the contextless chaos as if it were their first Four Loko.

The platform, like other platforms, is rife with mistakes and misinformation — such as videos claiming to be from the current invasion of Ukraine but which are instead from fighting there in 2014 or other conflicts entirely. It’s nearly impossible to easily identify what’s real and what’s not. But whether a TikTok is from this conflict or another, war has never been produced and consumed by a global audience in this way before.

Here are some of WarTok’s finer, scarier, most unbelievable moments so far.

Elena Filonova, a Ukrainian influencer, poses in a barren yard. She wears a Fendi puffer jacket and an Yves Saint Laurent handbag in front of what appears to be a crumpled but intact missile. She bends down to point toward the metal before the camera pans over a collection of debris that covers the field she stands in:

One of the most striking genres is young Ukrainians addressing their life-or-death dilemma with dancing and memes. A young woman in a white hotel robe bops along to DJ David Guetta’s “Who’s That Chick?” while plates of eggs and salmon are arrayed neatly on a table behind her:

A similar video by a Ukrainian with family still in the country shows her staring blankly into the camera with a popular meme about anxiety just above her forehead:

One soldier regularly posts dance videos that receive millions of views. In this one, Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” plays loudly as they moonwalk in body armor:

Elsewhere, a man stands on a roof overlooking a parking lot between two apartment buildings. EDM blares from what seems to be the loudspeaker next to him as he utters a brief message in Ukrainian. Commenters translate it as, “If I die, I die with music”:

Another young soldier, with a sword or cross tattooed on his left cheek, rides atop a vehicle on a blizzardy road. A slickly produced hip-hop beat adds to the unit’s tempo:

More than Facebook or Twitter or even Instagram, TikTok is a platform about performance. That performance is self-referential, and the remix reigns supreme. As a place to record yourself dancing to the trend of the week, TikTok strips away any context. Cat video, cat video, Michael Jackson dance, missile exploding into the side of an apartment building, cat video — the more you like, comment, or save, the more you’ll see of urban firefights, soldier selfies, fighter jets streaking above. It’s not about who or where you are, but about the dance, the trend, the style — the show. It’s almost beside the point that many of the videos racking up views on WarTok are not videos taken from Ukraine in the last few weeks. Go elsewhere for news about where the paratroopers are landing. WarTok deflects the gravity of the Russian invasion, isolating standout moments from a life at war.

TikTok’s First Big War