On the snowy roads near Kursk, tanks and military equipment stop traffic. Videos from around the Russian city—roughly 100 miles from the border with Ukraine—show cars waiting in line to cross train tracks being used to transport tanks from one place to the next. Dozens of military vehicles have been filmed parked together. And shaky footage shows tanks rumbling across snowy ground alongside a busy road. All of these records have one thing in common: They were shared on TikTok.
If Russia invades Ukraine, don’t expect the TikToks to stop. From small Belarusian villages to industrial Russian cities on the Ukrainian border, as the tanks and troops have rolled in, local residents have captured the scenes on their phones—and uploaded what might one day be crucial evidence to social media.
“There is a lot of data out there,” says Benjamin Strick, investigations director at the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), a nonprofit organization that focuses on countering influence operations. The CIR team, along with other open source investigators, have been busy verifying and mapping videos of troop movements in Russia and Belarus for several weeks, painstakingly comparing landmarks in video footage with satellite images and other official data to confirm their authenticity. The CIR’s map of verified videos plots the movements of military equipment and troops all around Ukraine’s eastern flanks. In January, the CIR mapped 79 pieces of footage; in February, it has verified 166 videos so far.
Since April 2021, the mobilization of Russian troops has been accompanied by reams of digital evidence. These come from a variety of sources, from smartphone footage to high-resolution overhead images captured by commercial satellite companies. Troops, helicopters, and military hardware have all been spotted in satellite images. But for people on the ground, TikTok has emerged as a key platform for showing military movements.
“TikTok is definitely one of the main platforms being used to document this,” says Eliot Higgins, the founder of open source investigative unit Bellingcat, which has been exposing Russian espionage for years. That footage often also finds its way onto Twitter or other social media platforms and joins other footage being posted there.
The TikTok videos from around Kursk—all of which have had their location verified by the CIR—provide a snapshot of how powerful open source intelligence, also known as OSINT, has become. The videos contribute to media reports and policy discussions. They can be low quality and poorly framed, but they show exactly what is happening at a specific moment in time.
Accounts sharing short videos of troop buildups, which have been reviewed by WIRED, often appear to be from regular people—videos of tanks moving sit next to clips of children playing. This also means not many people are watching them. Multiple verified videos from around Kursk have under 1,000 views and even fewer comments and shares. “There is no need for traitors, on tik tok all the movements of equipment will be shown 😂,” reads one comment below a TikTok video of tanks waiting to cross a road.
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And while some people are simply sharing videos of something unusual happening in their hometown, others are using TikTok far more deliberately. Strick says he has seen numerous anonymous TikTok accounts created to upload and share footage of Russian military activity around the Ukrainian border. Since the start of this year, CIR has created new TikTok accounts to train its algorithm to show footage of military movements around Russia, Strick says. TikTok’s algorithm, although opaque, recommends videos that are similar to what people have already watched, liked, or followed. “That sort of interaction was enough for us to then refresh our content feeds and start to get the same kind of content recommended,” Strick says. Within a few weeks, the CIR had trained TikTok’s algorithm to show it a steady stream of videos appearing to be from the region.
Russia has downplayed its intentions to invade Ukraine as it holds negotiations with Nato and political leaders from around the world. On February 15, president Vladimir Putin said the country was still seeking a “diplomatic path” and avoiding confrontation. Official reports can be notoriously hard to verify, but open source documentation can help hold power to account. After Putin claimed to de-escalate the situation and withdraw troops, officials from NATO and elsewhere said they had not seen evidence of this—something backed up by Bellingcat and other open source researchers.
As more troops have headed toward Ukraine since the start of 2022, US and British intelligence officials have released details of what they believe Russia may be planning. This includes plans of alleged false flag operations, incidents that could be a precursor to an invasion. These intelligence briefings are often scant on details, due to information being classified, and hard for external sources to verify. But on the ground it is just as likely to be TikTok videos that reveal whether troops are moving forward or pulling back.
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However, there are risks. Those sharing footage from Russia and Ukraine—including open source investigators, journalists, and people on social media—could wind up amplifying incorrect information if it has not first been verified. “We will have to be careful consumers of information—suspicious to the possibility of active measures designed to fool us,” Sandra Joyce, an executive vice president and head of global intelligence at security firm Mandiant, wrote in a blog post. Joyce warns that the media could easily be manipulated through an excess of information, both in the context of Russia-linked cyberattacks and wider operations. “The media will also be especially challenged—they will be asked to shed light on active measures while adversaries simultaneously attempt to leverage them to launder their narratives and content,” Joyce wrote.
As well as legitimate videos and images of scenes from Russia and Ukraine, there will be efforts to manipulate this information. Russia’s disinformation operations are sophisticated and well-documented. Russian military satellite images released as evidence in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) were previously altered, Bellingcat has shown. Strick also warns that “less trustworthy” footage claiming to show military activity on the Ukrainian border is already being uploaded. “It might be old footage, it might be footage that was along Ukraine's borders but from previous years, as well as footage from other conflicts,” he says. Old or false information can potentially shape wider narratives and media reporting around what is happening on the ground.
If Russia does invade, there will be more videos. Around 61 percent of people in Ukraine own smartphones and, in contrast to conflicts in Syria, it is easier for international media to access conflict sites. However, there is a chance that the sheer quantity of information produced could overwhelm investigators, the media, and the public—in terms of its volume and the violence it might show.
In the world of open source investigation, speed and accuracy are everything. Videos and images circulating online need to be verified quickly to ensure false information doesn’t have an opportunity to shape narratives. News reporters and social media posters will be covering events live and can make mistakes immediately after an incident has happened. “A lot of the debate and the attempt to set the narrative around an event will be happening in the first 24 hours,” Higgins says. “That's when you have to get as much good information out there as possible.” Such efforts, he adds, will likely be countered by disinformation being spread by Russia and its allies.
And as digital evidence from the Ukrainian border continues to flow, Higgins and others in the OSINT community are racing to save as much of it as possible. Bellingcat is using a Telegram channel to save links to TikTok videos that can then be archived for potential use in investigations or legal proceedings. Troops assembling around the border may not reveal any illegal activity, but if war breaks out the details of units involved, and their prior movements, might just be hidden in those early TikTok videos.
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