The attention economy is a war zone
Read to the end for a good Instagram post
More Details On The Swedish TikTok Panic
Alright, so, last week, I expressed some mild skepticism about a TikTok-based panic growing in Sweden. If you missed it, there was a new English-language report in the national security-focused publication Defense One titled, “‘War Is Coming’: Mysterious TikTok Videos Are Scaring Sweden’s Children,” which claimed that Swedish children are seeing scary videos warning them that Russia plans to invade the country.
The piece’s author, Elisabeth Braw, a senior follow with center-right think tank American Enterprise Institute, makes a pretty wild conclusion in her piece. “So who’s behind the frightening videos,” she writes. “As with most other disinformation, no country has claimed responsibility, but Russia has a clear interest in sowing fear and confusion in a country that has in recent years begun to rebuild its defenses.”
Fair enough! Except Braw’s Defense One piece and the Swedish articles she links to didn’t actually point to any of the disinformation that was apparently scaring Swedish children. The only primary source linked to in the piece was a Swedish tweet with a few retweets asking if anyone else noticed scary TikToks about Russia invading Sweden. Which isn’t very helpful.
It’s been seven years since Adrian Chen’s New Yorker piece told the world about how Russia’s Internet Research Agency operates. And, thanks to the Mueller Report, we kind of know what Russia’s IRA was able to accomplish during the 2016 U.S. election. In America, they mostly pretended to be black Americans on Facebook, posted tweets that ended up being included in viral listicle round-ups, and there was that one poor Russian chaos agent who tried to build a following on Tumblr. There were also a few instances of Russian trolls successfully organizing small political rallies via catfishing on Facebook.
Most of their work was done pseudonymously using sock puppets. It’s the kind of cyber warfare that can easily be deployed from a basement in St. Petersburg. So the idea that Russia is currently destabilizing Sweden via TikTok, a highly visual platform where the biggest accounts are tied to real people’s identities, is a bold claim and one worth interrogating. Especially because, as I noted last week, Braw, in her Defense One piece, warns at the end that Russia could be doing this in other countries too. OK, well, where is it? And how are they doing it?
Thankfully, a couple very helpful readers sent me some of the TikTok videos that are making the rounds in Sweden right now. Berit Glanz, a Reykjavík-based reporter who speaks German, attempted to track down some of the Russian invasion TikTok content and sent me a post she wrote (in German) detailing her findings. Here are some interesting tidbits.
First, and most crucially, according to Glanz, Swedish outlets haven’t connected the Russian invasion TikTok videos to a Russian disinformation campaign. That appears to be solely from Braw’s Defense One article. As for the content itself, the numbers are low.
One TikTok video Glanz found (screenshot above) only had about 4,000 views and 20 comments. The video was basically just a Swedish news report about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine with ominous music added. Another series of TikTok videos that Glanz found had even smaller view counts and were essentially just screenshots of news articles written by the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, which is, incidentally, the Swedish outlet that Defense One linked to in their article. Funny how that works. The disinformation snake eats its own tail, apparently.
Another reader named Jessica sent me some more information about the Russian invasion TikToks. Last week, another Swedish paper called Dagens Nyheter published a big piece on the trend titled, “The image of a Sweden at war is spreading on TikTok,” and it offers a much more complete view of what kind of content Swedish teenagers are actually seeing.
One of the TikToks included in the piece is actually just a goofy meme about Russia invading Sweden posted by a Swedish-language account. If the account is connected to a Russian troll farm, it seems like the Kremlin is paying the user a lot of money to post lip sync videos at various Swedish bars. A few of the other videos Jessica sent me are more serious. One is a video that claims that Russian tanks are on the ground in Sweden (they’re not) and the other is another scary news clip remix video like the one that Glanz found. The view counts on all of these videos are fairly low and the accounts, for the most part, seem to be associated with people in Sweden.
But there are also Swedish teachers posting on Twitter about how Swedish kids in classrooms are talking about Russia invading the country. And these kids are claiming they’re seeing content on TikTok about it. So, yes, it does seem like Swedish teenagers are getting whipped up into a frenzy, but it doesn’t seem particularly coordinated. It, honestly, feels closer to U.S. TikTok conspiracies like the child trafficking car seat hoax or the Couch Guy witch hunt.
You might, at this point, be wondering why this all matters. We know that Russia’s Internet Research Agency is extremely interested in sowing confusion and chaos online. So, obviously, Russia must be on TikTok, right?
Well, when we’re talking about international political disinformation, it isn’t a black and white matter. There are institutions out there with as much to gain politically from the idea of a Russian disinformation epidemic as Russia does from its actual disinfo campaigns. In fact, nowadays, most countries have some equivalent to Russia’s Internet Research Agency and it’s quickly become a very meta battleground — research about disinfo as a disinfo weapon. In some countries, like Russia or Turkey, these troll farms are an official branch of the government, in others, like America, it’s something done via think tanks, research institutes, placed opinion pieces, TV pundits, and the kinds of people chosen to be interviewed for trend pieces.
And considering there are reports this morning that the Biden administration is considering deploying troops to Ukraine, I think it is probably worth questioning any and all narratives surrounding Russian internet campaigns. The international online attention economy is a war zone and there is a lot of money being spent right now to not just win it, but define the very nature of it. This is especially true for TikTok, a platform we are still trying to understand. And, in this case, it seems like Swedish teenagers are being PsyOp’d by, well, their own media and each other.
The videos teenagers are seeing are, in many instances, literally just screenshots or clips created by their own news outlets. These videos are filtered and edited and, in some cases, given spooky soundtracks, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything super complicated happening here. Which makes sense. Even without TikTok, kids are both very observant about the world around them and, also, you know, kinda stupid. But with TikTok, they can create levels of hysteria that can spread around the world.
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Two Irish Guys Swearing At Each Other
The West Elm Caleb Mess Continues
There’s a document circulating around TikTok at the moment titled the “DC Safe Dating Directory,” which is basically a series of bad men from the local dating scene summarized West Elm Caleb-style.
One interesting dimension to the West Elm Caleb trend is how localized it became. It’s essentially the perfect storm of two different completely toxic TikTok algorithmic quirks. The first is what I called “the witch hunt machine” on Friday. TikTok has a similar “main character effect” to Twitter, but ramped up to 11 in both speed and intensity. Conspiracy theories and vigilante online harassment can easily engulf a random user in a matter of days, if not hours. But there’s another key feature to TikTok that the West Elm Caleb content cycle seems to be getting a huge boost from. It’s one that I pointed out back in August. Physical locations seem to get stuck in TikTok’s algorithm. The most notable example of this was the Alabama sorority rush onslaught last year.
“All of this seems to have led to a localized viral content storm which is now hovering over the various sorority houses of the state of Alabama,” I wrote at the time. That seems to be happening again, but in major cities around the country.
Though, the fact that the West Elm Caleb copycats in Washington, D.C., seem to be particularly intense, I think, says more about the kind of people, in general, who live in D.C., than anything 👀.
Butt Book For Sale
Xiran Jay Zhao is a Canadian author and online creator who recently published a novel called Iron Widow. It’s a New York Times bestseller and based on my own social media feeds, it seems like it’s pretty good! I’ve seen a lot of Iron Widow posts on Tumblr actually.
Zhao has a great TikTok where they talks with fans and posts funny videos. And it was on TikTok that they made a throne out of promotional copies of their book and posed with them. Well, because the internet is full of maniacs, many users started asking Zhao if they could buy the book that they… uh… sat on.
And, well, last week, Zhao put a butt book on eBay where it sold for almost $4,000.
Zhao didn’t profit off the auction, though. All the proceeds went to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition. So it’s nice that digital horniness could be channeled to do some good here.
This is not the first viral thing Zhao has been a part of it btw. They’ve had a good following around the web for a while, but, also, last year they led a petition to make Yu-Gi-Oh! an Olympic sport.
The Proper Way To View An NFT
While we’re talking about Web3. Facebook and Twitter are in an NFT arms race. Meanwhile, Netflix took a second amid their stock price free fall to tweet this extremely ominous question.
The big thing to watch here with Facebook and NFTs is that up until now, Meta, as a company, has seemed fairly uninterested in cryptocurrencies that they don’t have complete control over. So the fact they’re said to be exploring NFTs I think says a lot about the absolute state of their crypto coin and wallet project.
Will This Finally Be The Moment We Talk About Virtual Humans?
I feel like I answered my own question in the course of writing this item because I almost completely deleted it out of disinterest. But Unilever-owned skin-care/wellness company Dermalogica has created a virtual assistant called Natalia that they say they’ll be using to teach the brand’s “network of professionals” on how to use a new eye gel they’re releasing. Here’s what Natalia looks like:
She looks pretty freaky tbh! Vogue Business has a good piece on how Dermalogica developed Natalia. She runs on the Unreal Engine and “was developed by Dermalogica’s global education team and designed not to resemble any particular race or age.” I guess the whole thing is that Natalia’s virtual skin can be manipulated to show how particular products work. Once again, this is all pretty weird!
Over the last few years, there has been some question about whether or not virtual influencers were the future. We’ve seen experiments with artificial TikTokers and Instagrammers, but those haven’t really felt like anything that could blow up or stick around in a meaningful way. And, actually, VTubers, the very real human streamers who wear motion capture suits to look like anime characters, seem to have built more a fandom than wholly artificial internet personalities..
But one use case for virtual humans, which is troubling to say the least, is as internal or external corporate spokespeople or human resource assistants. So maybe we’re inching closer and closer to a world where only the highest levels of the workforce will be the only ones who have a human boss they can talk to.
A Good Tweet
Some Stray Links
“The Avengers was the real beginning of the ‘Marvel movie’ as we know it” (I wrote this one!)
P.S. here’s a good Instagram post.
***Any typos in this post are on purpose actually***