Eric Pilgrim / US Army Reserve

‘War Is Coming’: Mysterious TikTok Videos Are Scaring Sweden’s Children

The campaign offers an early test for the country’s new anti-disinformation agency.

In Sweden, an unusual anxiety is afflicting children and young teenagers. Some can’t sleep. Some ask their parents if Russia is about to attack their country. Where did they get that idea? TikTok. 

“War is coming,” say some of the videos that the social-media platform is feeding to young Swedes. Other videos tell their Swedish users that Russian forces will bomb their country or even invade. No wonder the children are becoming anxious. The Chinese-owned, algorithm-driven platform is, in fact, the perfect tool for a country wishing to weaken another country’s morale.

This weekend a question posted on Twitter turned into a gathering of adults concerned about things they’d been picking up from their nine-, ten-, eleven, twelve-year-old children and pupils. Is it true that information saying that war is coming to Sweden is being pumped out on TikTok? a Twitter user asked. The question drew dozens of parents to report that their young children had suddenly begun asking if Russia was about to invade. 

“My 11-year-old was extremely frightened yesterday and asked whether there was going to be war soon,” one mother wrote. 

Other parents reported that their children suddenly seemed anxious. When they asked what was the matter, it turned out the kids had been seeing the same kind of videos on TikTok. Elementary-school teachers reported that pupils had mentioned similar fears. Other parents checked with their children and sure enough, they’d seen them too. 

On Saturday, the Swedish daily Aftonbladet reported that BRIS – a nationwide Swedish organization that advocates for children’s rights and operates a hotline for children and teenagers – had begun receiving phone calls from children and teenagers anxious about an impending invasion. BRIS social worker Marie Angsell told the newspaper that TikTok’s efficient algorithm, which has perfected individualized feeds, means that children and teenagers who view such videos once are consequently fed more of the same and end up overwhelmed by fear of a looming conflict. Angsell recommended that adults tell the children in their lives how the app works, to defuse the sense of impending calamity.

Children and teenagers suddenly overcome by fear of war, in a country that last saw a war more than two centuries ago and last mounted major territorial defenses in the 1980s? Someone is trying to weaken Sweden’s resolve by frightening children. To be sure, anyone might be concerned by news reports of the past week’s failed NATO-Russia negotiations, Russia’s veiled threat of “catastrophic consequence”, and Poland’s warning that Europe is on the brink of war. But few children, tweens, and teens read the newspaper: in Sweden, three percent do so on a daily basis. Some 30 percent, by contrast, use TikTok.

So who’s behind the frightening videos? 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. Just last week Sweden moved additional soldiers to its Baltic Sea island of Gotland. The source of the TikTok fear campaign could, of course, also be another country wishing to weaken Sweden’s resolve—China comes to mind—or it could simply be TikTik malcontents with nothing better to do. But in the fight against disinformation, the most pressing goal isn’t finding the perpetrator, it’s finding an antidote to the lies.

Fortunately, Sweden has a new psychological defense agency tasked with doing precisely that. The Swedish Psychological Defense Agency was launched on New Year’s Day to strengthen the public’s resilience to disinformation. Importantly, it will also conduct the complicated work of identifying and exposing the perpetrators of disinformation. With the TikTok disinformation campaign in full swing, the Psychological Defense Agency will need to swiftly issue advice – on TikTok perhaps – to children, teenagers, parents, and teachers.

Indeed, other countries should consider a similar move. If the war-anxiety machine hasn’t already reached their children, it will soon. Social media makes the adage that all is fair in love and war easier than ever to implement.