In Sweden, children and young teenagers are plagued by an unusual fear. Some can’t sleep. Some ask their parents if Russia is about to attack their country. Where did you get this idea from? tick tock
“War is coming,” say some of the videos that the social media platform feeds young Swedes. Other videos tell their Swedish users that Russian forces will bombard or even invade their country. No wonder the kids get restless. The Chinese-owned, algorithm-driven platform is indeed the perfect tool for a country looking to weaken another country’s morale.
This weekend, a question posted on Twitter turned into a gathering of adults concerned about things they’d overheard from their children and students, ages 9, 10, 11, 12. Is it true that information saying war is coming to Sweden is being pumped on TikTok? a Twitter user asked. The question prompted dozens of parents to report that their young children had suddenly started asking if Russia was about to be invaded.
“My 11-year-old was very scared yesterday and asked if there would be war soon,” wrote one mother.
Other parents reported that their children suddenly seemed anxious. When they asked what was going on, it turned out that the kids had been watching the same type of videos on TikTok. Elementary school teachers reported that students had expressed similar concerns. Other parents asked their children and indeed they had seen them too.
On Saturday the Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet reported that BRIS – a nationwide Swedish organization that campaigns for children’s rights and operates a hotline for children and young people – has started receiving calls from children and young people who are afraid of an imminent invasion. BRIS social worker Marie Angsell told the newspaper that TikTok’s efficient algorithm, which has perfected individualized feeds, means that children and young people who watch such videos once consistently get more of them and end up fearing an impending conflict be overwhelmed. Angsell recommended that adults educate the children in their lives about how the app works to defuse the sense of impending doom.
Children and young people who are suddenly overcome by fear of war in a country that last experienced war more than two centuries ago and last built up large territorial defenses in the 1980s? Someone is trying to weaken Sweden’s resolve by scaring children. Of course, everyone could be worried by news of last week’s botched NATO-Russia talks, Russia’s veiled threat of “catastrophic consequences,” and Poland’s warning that Europe is on the brink of war. But only a few children, tweens and teens read newspapers: in Sweden, three percent do so every day. Around 30 percent, on the other hand, use TikTok.
So who is behind the terrifying videos? As with most other disinformation, no country has taken responsibility, but Russia has a clear interest in sowing fear and confusion in a country that has begun to rebuild its defenses in recent years. Just last week, Sweden transferred more soldiers to its Baltic Sea island of Gotland. Of course, the source of the TikTok scare campaign could also be another country that wants to weaken Sweden’s resolve – China comes to mind – or it could just be TikTik malcontents with nothing better to do. But in the fight against disinformation, the primary goal is not to find the perpetrator, but to find an antidote to the lies.
Luckily, Sweden has a new psychological defense agency tasked with doing just that. The Swedish Agency for Psychological Defense was established on New Year’s Day to build public resilience to disinformation. Importantly, it also does the complicated work of identifying and exposing the perpetrators of disinformation. With the TikTok disinformation campaign in full swing, the Psychological Defense Agency needs quick advice for kids, teens, parents, and teachers — maybe on TikTok.
Indeed, other countries should consider a similar move. If the war scare machine hasn’t reached her children yet, it will soon. Social media is making the adage that all is fair in love and war easier than ever to implement.