When Russian forces escalated attacks in Ukraine in February, social media users were forced to sift through mounting misinformation. But a new TikTok phenomenon is preying on Sweden’s most vulnerable. In a January 2022 article for Defense One, Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, discussed Swedish youth’s growing anxiety caused by a series of TikTok videos warning of an imminent Russian invasion. Just days before Braw’s article was published, NATO-Russia negotiations in Brussels proved unsuccessful, where Russia alluded to a “catastrophic consequence.”
“My 11-year-old was extremely frightened yesterday and asked whether there was going to be war soon,” said one parent online.
TikTok’s “For You Page” (FYP) is highly individualized. Each user’s FYP is tailored to their interests based on an algorithm, providing a never-ending stream of content from creators the user may not even follow. This means engaging with content on TikTok’s FYP by liking or commenting on a video quickly results in dozens of similar clips from related creators.
According to a January 2022 report by Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, BRIS—a Swedish-based children’s advocacy organization—received countless phone calls via its hotline from frightened young people across the country. Callers shared how the stress of watching the videos negatively impacted their mental health. BRIS social worker Marie Angsell urged parents to explain the harmful ways in which TikTok operates, as well as how quickly inaccurate information can spread on the app, to help alleviate concern.
Establishment media outlets such as the Washington Post and NBC News have recently covered the rapid dissemination of unverified information on social media about the Russia-Ukraine war. In March 2022, the New York Times even reported about how American teens have relied on TikTok as their sole source of news during the conflict. However, the corporate media has yet to cover the psychological effect of these videos on young minds.
Source: Elisabeth Braw, “‘War Is Coming’: Mysterious TikTok Videos are Scaring Sweden’s Children,” Defense One, January 16, 2022.
Student Researchers: Viviana Sebastiano, Brendan Lally, Alison Chmielewski, and Taimur Malik (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)