“Significant breaking news out of Ukraine,” the broadcaster breathlessly intoned. “Ukraine has killed a Russian major general this evening… He was a senior military officer and a war criminal. And tonight, he can no longer invade Ukraine.”
It wasn’t the information itself that caused my jaw to drop. No, what prompted me to take note and re-evaluate all previous assumptions was its source; an obscure (to me anyway) “influencer” on TikTok.
“Ukraine,” Aaron Parnas confidently concluded, “is winning this war.”
His confidence stemmed in part from the fact that he and thirty other “top TikTok stars” had just attended a White House briefing in which National Security Council staffers and presidential press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking by Zoom, had discussed America’s goals in Europe and various other strategic concerns. They had also taken questions.
“As the crisis in Ukraine has escalated,” the Washington Post reported in explaining the strange online press conference, “millions have turned to TikTok for information on what is happening there in real time. TikTok videos offered some of the first glimpses of the Russian invasion and since then the platform has been a primary outlet for spreading news to the masses abroad.”
Gosh, and here I thought it was only for dancing.
I said as much, in fact, just last month in a column decrying the sexualization of what I called TikToking teens. “What struck me,” I wrote, referencing several psychologists in support of my thesis, “is the vast difference between some young women’s online and in-person personas. Face-to-face in close physical proximity, they seem like sweet, reticent, poised and innocent young ladies. Put them in front of a webcam, though, and a whole new personality can quickly emerge.”
Some of those concerns appear to be shared by California’s first Filipino American attorney general, Rob Bonta, who recently announced he was heading up a national investigation into the risks TikTok poses to children. “Our children are growing up in the age of social media,” Bonta stated on his government website, “and many feel like they need to measure up to the filtered versions of reality that they see on their screens. We know this takes a devastating toll on children’s mental health and well-being.”
Apparently the Biden administration has decided at least some of those “filtered versions” are acceptable. “An astonishing amount of people are learning about the invasion of Ukraine through digital creators who have begun to cover it,” Rob Flaherty, White House director of digital strategy, tweeted regarding the TikTok briefing. “We take that really seriously and are working to make sure those creators have the ability to have their q’s answered.”
Teddy Goff, founder of a consulting firm called Precision Strategies, had a bit more to add. “There’s a massive cultural and generational shift happening in media,” he told the Post, “and you have to have blinders on not to see it. The reach of a piece in a traditional news outlet is a fraction of what a big TikToker gets.”
Social media influencers say they like that just fine. Kahlil Greene, 21, a TikTok creator with over 534,000 followers, told the newspaper he wasn’t the least bit surprised to find the recent White House invitation in his email inbox. “People in my generation,” he explained, “get all our information from TikTok. It’s the first place we’re searching up new topics and learning about things.”
Ok, Ok, everyone, I know what you’re thinking. How can old fogies like me and the state’s attorney general presume to know what’s really going on in the heads of today’s youth? I can’t speak for him, but I’ll say this for myself: color me corrected.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a collection of short stories entitled “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column runs weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.