Various analysts and political observers have found a unique and unlikely source of vital information about Russian military movements along the Ukrainian-Russian border through the use of rising social media and video sharing platform TikTok.
TikTok, domestically known in China as Douyin, is a Chinese-owned social media platform owned by ByteDance Ltd. For those who are unfamiliar with TikTok, it is a platform where individuals can share 15 seconds to 3-minute videos across all genres, including but not limited to educational, comedy, and dance content. As of 2022, there are over 1 billion users of TikTok, where many are based in the United States, Russia, and Southeast Asia. The user base in Russia and Belarus had started sharing photos and videos showing Russian military weapons and vehicles being transported by train toward the border.
TikTok Military Tracking
This TikTok video posted by a certain Russian train enthusiast, Dinis Vogonov, whose name translates to Mr. Railway Car, shows military vehicles being transported via train to an unknown location. However, several internet sleuths and a slew of analysts have determined the train’s location, likely near the Siberian train station in Polushkino traveling westward – in the direction of Ukraine. The train contains Tigr-M multipurpose terrain vehicles, among other equipment.
Another video posted by a certain roma_collins19900 showed a train carrying tanks and other military vehicles from an unknown location. Many of the comments said that these pieces of equipment were for Russian and Belarusian military exercises, while some had said they were to strengthen borders. There are reports of military exercises and a base transfer from Russia to Voronezh and Yelnya, both of which are near Belarus and Ukraine.
However, even after the military exercises were completed, the equipment reportedly did not return to Russia. Various reports have also said that there were efforts to censor the movements across social media but failed, as shown by the prevalence of these videos on TikTok. Some posted videos were also determined to be less than 40 miles from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Several of the comments were worried that this transportation of military equipment was a potential staging for an invasion.
Several analysts, including SOFREP’s Editor-in-chief, Sean Spoonts, had said in a previous article that an invasion of Ukraine by Russia was unlikely, stating that the Russia build up so far is not sufficient for anything but a limited incursion into Ukraine let alone a full scale invasion. Thus far we still have not seen reports of field hospitals and the large ammo and fuel dumps needed to move and support large armor formations on the offensive.
Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin, stated in a video published by CNN, “Nobody is threatening anyone with military action, this will be just a madness to do that.”
The President of Ukraine recently criticized the West and NATO for stoking panic in his country with talk of an imminent invasion by Russia.
TikTok seems poised to be a valuable open source of military intelligence for analysts, observers, and media personnel in a time of heightened diplomatic crisis at the Ukrainian-Russian borders. TikTok is believed to be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, a charge denied by its parent company Byte Dance. In China TikTok is known by the name Douyin and in 2020 Byte Dance agreed to not allow TIkTok to be seen in Communist China which maintains a Great Wall of censorship. Should TikTok remove these videos showing Russian troops and equipment movements it will be seen as clear proof that the company does the bidding of Beijing.
US Reservations with TikTok in the Past
Former US President Donald Trump described the application as a threat to national security and could track and collect US citizens’ data and give it to the Chinese government.
Incumbent US President Joe Biden signed an executive order in June 2021 to address and investigate Chinese-based applications such as TikTok, WeChat, and eight other applications for evidence of any action that indicates these apps have been collecting sensitive personal data and transmitting them to foreign adversaries. This overturns Trump’s executive order that effectively banned TikTok in the past.
Technology Professor Kirsten Martin from the University of Notre Dame stated that TikTok’s data collection and practices were fairly standard compared to other social media applications.