In the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, «Nykolai» can see weapons, soldiers and explosions on TikTok.
But what does «Alexei» in the Russian neighbouring city of Belgorod get to see of the war?

Worlds apart

So close, and yet so far away.

From Russian Belgorod to Ukrainian Kharkiv it‘s about eighty kilometers. The border runs in the middle between the two cities.

In Kharkiv, the war is raging. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of videos like this have been uploaded to TikTok.

The social medium has become a place where an increasing number of people are looking for the latest news about the Ukraine war – although it can be difficult to know what’s real.

In Belgorod, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked. Chinese-owned TikTok still operates as one of the few global, non-Russian platforms.

But will a TikTok user who lives here get to see any of what’s going on in the Ukrainian neighbouring city?

To find out, we need to do some preparations.

First we create two robots that can swipe through thousands of TikTok videos.

Then we get access to IP addresses from the two cities.

This ensures that TikTok thinks we are local Russians and Ukrainians when we create new accounts.

Age and gender also affect the algorithms. We let the robots be 19-year-old men.

That makes them old enough to see adult content, but still young enough to be relevant to the military.

We call the Ukrainian robot Nykolai. The Russian gets the name Alexei. The names are taken from a list of the most popular names in the two countries.

The images are created using artificial intelligence.

Now it's time to let the robots loose.

When a brand new TikTok user takes their first swipe, the algorithms serve up a series of popular videos to find out what you like.

After only three clips, it already becomes clear that the differences are great between Belgorod and Kharkiv.

Ukrainian Nykolai gets to see men in military attire singing patriotic songs about loving Ukraine.

Or talking about it being a man's duty to sign up for battle.

He also gets to see a video of what looks like a child. «I'm going to war», it says, while the boy is putting on a bulletproof vest and a gas mask.

Russian Alexei sees a man tripping over in the water, a puppy patting a duckling on the head and some funny, homemade costumes.

In the first few minutes, Nykolai and Alexei scrolls through 25 videos.

Ukrainian Nykolai sees content related to the war with Russia in 18 of them: Bomb shelters, burned tanks and prisoners of war.

Russian Alexei sees only four videos that is related to the war. One of them is an ironic dance performed by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky years ago.

But none of the Russian videos shows war.

One reason may be that Russia introduced a comprehensive law against "fake news" on March 4 – eight days after the war began. Violation of this can result in up to 15 years in prison.

As a result TikTok turned off the ability to upload new content in Russia.

Everything Russian Alexei sees was hence made before or at the very beginning of the war. But in Ukraine, new films of bombed-out houses are constantly being released. Followed by a message in a language Russians understand.

Why do none of them show up at Alexei's?

After a few days, Nykolai and Alexei have watched over 600 TikTok videos each.

A word count shows that Nykolai has mostly seen videos tagged with "Ukraine" or the blue-yellow flag. Other words are "war", "Zelensky", "зсу" (Ukraine's defense) and "fucking Putin".

Alexei, on the other hand, has mostly seen an advertising campaign for a make-up brand, funny videos, the editing app Capcut and songs by rapper Shadowraze.

But the hashtag # нетвойне (no war) also appears.

To give TikTok's algorithms free rein, we have so far let the two 19-year-olds watch each video they have been served for about the same amount of time.

But no one uses the app that way.

Most people quickly swipe away anything they're not interested in, and spend more time on videos they are curious about. This makes TikTok understand what you like and will give you more of it.

Let's see if it's possible to get some of the videos from Ukraine into the feed of Russian Alexei.

We make the Russian robot more interested in the war in the neighbouring city. Every time a Ukrainian flag or a word related to the conflict appears, we let him spend a lot of time on the video clip.

He will also like the video if it shows war, weapons, uniforms or military vehicles.

Over the next few days, Nykolai and Alexei will watch over 1,000 new videos.

Ukrainian Nykolai stops more than 300 times to watch soldiers flossing, war memes and protesters being arrested.

Russian Alexei, on the other hand, doesn’t find much to look at.

In fact, there’s only one act of war that gets through: a surveillance video showing a missile hitting a building in Kharkiv.

The clip is shared by a Russian account and contains a gaming reference for pausing games.

Via our Russian IP address, we try to search for some of the war videos that Ukrainian Nykolai has watched.

But they simply don’t appear. Someone doesn’t want us to see them.

Who?

Is it a Russian requirement for allowing TikTok to operate in the country?

Or is it TikTok censoring itself so as not to clash with Russia?

We send TikTok these questions, as well as questions about why the experiences of our two robots are so different.

TikTok sends us a previously published statement in which they emphasize the safety of their employees and users.

(...) in light of Russia's new «fake news» law, we have no choice but to suspend livestreaming and new content to our video service in Russia while we review the safety implications of this law.

It is therefore not possible for Russian users to upload new content. NRK knows that TikTok also blocks videos from foreign accounts - without it being said publicly.

This is supported by a report from the European activist group Tracking Exposed, which estimates that 95 percent of the global content on TikTok has become inaccessible to Russians within a short period of time.

When Nykolai and Alexei have seen a few thousand videos each, we turn off the robots. Out of more than 4,000 clips, only 19 have been seen by them both.

Those are typical TikTok videos where someone sings, dances or makes a fool of themselves. None of them has anything to do with the war.

One of the last videos Ukrainian Nykolai sees is of some soldiers firing a missile. While Russian Alexei gets to see a lip sync by the TikTok collective XO Team.

Geographically, the cities of Kharkiv and Belgorod are not far apart. But on TikTok, they live worlds apart.