Gen Z is learning about Russia's invasion of Ukraine on TikTok. Why creators say it's critical to speak about the conflict 'in their language'

·6 min read
A.B. Burns-Tucker and Myca Hinton are two creators using their platforms to cover news of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. (Photo: TikTok)
A.B. Burns-Tucker and Myca Hinton are two creators using their platforms to cover news of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. (Photo: TikTok)

Social media feeds and TikTok's For You page are being inundated with posts and videos about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, from first-hand accounts from Ukrainian creators to clips posted by traditional news outlets. When it comes to providing the necessary information for Gen Z and young millennial audiences who might not know the historical context of the conflict, however, it is their peers who are doing the work of providing informative news in a relatable, digestible way.

A.B. Burns-Tucker, a single mom, law student and paralegal, started posting information about Russia's invasion of Ukraine on her TikTok on Feb. 7. In her very first video on the topic, she garnered more than 15 million views.

"When the Russia-Ukraine situation came up and I was watching it and kind of analyzing it, in my own mind, I was like, 'I'm gonna tell it as if I was talking to one of my friends and how that conversation would go,'" she tells Yahoo Life. "I never thought it was going to take off the way it did. I just thought my friends would see it and be like, 'Oh, cool. I get it now.' And next thing I knew, the video got like 15 million views and my face is everywhere."

Burns-Tucker explains that she started posting to social media about wrongful convictions following that of her own brother. Once she realized that people were interested in the conversations she was having about criminal justice, she started to discuss the political news that she was passionate about. It wasn't until conversations started brewing on social media about the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine that she took a different approach to sharing information. She also wanted to make it a point to speak directly to her younger, Black audience.

"When it comes to culture and race, I'm gonna be honest, I'm speaking to the people who know I'm speaking to them, right? They get it. And it's mostly the Black community because we don't have that type of representation that we can really look to," she says, referring to the lack of representation in traditional news media and her use of African American vernacular English (AAVE). "For me, this is kind of bridging that gap between feeling like we have to always wear this mask to be relevant or code switch to be relevant. When in reality, I'm saying the exact same thing that is being said on the news by more seasoned anchors. I'm just saying it in a way where my community can feel me on it and can relate to it. And they feel like they're fully included."

For younger social media users looking to parse through the onslaught of news and information being presented on the topic, this type of relatability is key. Sami Sage, co-founder and CCO of Betches Media, tells Yahoo Life that it's all about creating a frame of reference for Gen Z and millennial audiences who might not have an understanding of the historical context for a complex conflict like this one.

"It's easier for people to understand things when it's put in their language, but also explained with the references that they actually understand," Sage says. "So having sort of the millennial frame of mind and set of references not only to just explain things but also to know what people's base understanding of something is to even know how to start explaining it, is really helpful."

While Sage has mastered her communication with this audience through her work in media, she only began to introduce political topics and international current affairs when she felt that her audience was expressing interest throughout 2020 and 2021. She has since found her voice in the arena by hosting a daily podcast called Morning Announcements and exploring important news and headlines on her personal Instagram page. In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, Sage has engaged with her 58,000-plus followers through grid posts and interactive Instagram stories.

"People are drawn to what naturally feels fun, not that it's really easy to make a huge geopolitical conflict fun. But I think that there's just a little bit lower of a cortisol spike that comes when you're encountering someone's explanation of the situation on their Instagram Story versus watching cable news or sitting down and reading a desktop article," Sage says of meeting younger people where they're at. "There's an easier access point, it's not just the three nightly news networks anymore."

Not only is this access point "easier," but Victoria Hammett, deputy executive director and content manager for the TikTok page Gen Z for Change, which has 1.4 million followers, tells Yahoo Life that it's necessary.

"The reality is that young people don't watch the news the way older Americans do. Television viewership has collapsed amongst our peers. But, like any other generation, we want to know what is going on in the world around us. What young people do watch is TikTok, and we watch it at a rate that may shock older Americans," she explains. "With this in mind, Gen Z for Change figured out a way to deliver important information in a way that keeps young people watching, informed and engaged. Gen Z for Change makes it a priority to provide an outlet where we can spread accurate news in a way that is easy to understand and quick enough to grab Gen Z's attention. It's an added bonus that we can staff our videos with some of our generation’s most recognizable faces."

It is with that same understanding that Myca Hinton, a 21-year-old Fordham University student and TikTok creator, has built a platform that she says Gen Zers not only engage with but also trust. It's an added bonus that social media allows for a conversation where young people get the opportunity to ask follow-up questions about the details that they don't understand in the comments sections of posts.

"'What led up to this point? How does World War II play into this? What is the whole post-World War II order? What does that mean?'" Hinton lists off as some of the things she's been asked. "So they really have been asking the right questions. And I think that some people just need to have a little bit of grace with younger Americans because we genuinely do want to know what's going on in different parts of the world, but we just don't always have access to that information."

While social media's role in news and international affairs is still new, the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine will prove to be a pivotal moment in demonstrating how platforms like TikTok create more accessible avenues for gathering this information. Burns-Tucker hopes that it will provide an opportunity to make bigger change when it comes to political communication, engagement and activism.

"We're translating the most difficult concepts and language into plain terms, and everybody is receiving it. It's not just Black people, it's not even just young people," she says, noting that creators aren't "dumbing down" these complex events. "What we're seeing now, especially with the internet, is that we can break through those barriers and mindsets and still be just as effective."

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