In episode four of StoryTech, Jeff speaks to two people not only living through the Ukraine conflict, but also finding modern ways to share the realities of war. TikTok sensation Valeria Shashenok, and Anastasiya Magerramova, press officer for the Ohmatdyt children’s hospital in Kyiv.
Now a year on since the Russian invasion began, Ukraine has spent 12 months fighting not only for its country but also for headlines to make sure the wider world doesn’t forget what is happening. But thanks to advances in social media and smartphones, a lot of audiences now don’t have to rely solely on traditional media and instead are getting information from the people who live there, through platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
Jeff talks to Valeria and Anastasiya about how they use social media to document the effects of war and how these tools have helped them become the modern day war correspondent.
You can listen to episode four of StoryTech free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music right now. Or if you’re more of a reader, just scroll down for the full episode transcript and highlights from this week’s episode.
Valeria Shashenok is 21 years old and before the war in Ukraine not many people might have heard of her TikTok account, @Valerisssh. Now a year on, she has more than 1.3 million followers and over 50 million likes across her videos.
Valeria is not a professional journalist and doesn't work for a news organization. She's just a Gen Zer caught in the middle of a war, and has innovatively been sharing her stories through TikTok to help the world see what life is like for millions of people living in Ukraine.
Anastasiya Magerramova on the other hand was more familiar with the news world and, before the Ukraine war, worked as the press officer for the biggest children's hospital in Ukraine, Ohmatdyta.
Working in the hospital's PR department, apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Telegram were the tools of her trade. But everything changed when Russia invaded her country, and overnight the hospital's social media accounts suddenly took on a very different role. Telling the stories and tragedies of children living through the conflict to help gain support from the outside world.
You can follow Valeria on TikTok @valerisssh and follow Ohmatdyt hospital on Instagram @ohmatdyt
This 32 minute podcast episode was transcribed in 10 minutes by Trint’s super-powered AI. View the full transcript below or jump ahead to notable points from Jeff’s interview with Valeria Shashenok and Anastasiya Magerramovatwo.
[00:00:00] Jeff (V/O): Before we begin, a warning. This episode contains some disturbing descriptions about war and about injured children. If that's uncomfortable for you, you might want to skip this one.
[00:00:14] Jeff (V/O): This is StoryTech. I'm Jeff Kofman. Before the war in Ukraine, Anastasiya Magerramova had a pretty conventional job in media relations.
[00:00:27] Anastasiya: I am press officer of the biggest children's hospital in Ukraine, named Ohmatdyt.
[00:00:33] Jeff (V/O): She did the type of stuff you would expect from a hospital's PR department. Instagram, Facebook and Telegram were the tools of her trade.
[00:00:41] Anastasiya: We were writing about our doctors' interests in medical cases, happy stories that our doctors saved someone's life and so on.
[00:00:51] Jeff (V/O): And she enjoyed it.
[00:00:53] Anastasiya: I think it's really interesting and I think it's really important. And I am happy that our hospital has a voice.
[00:01:00] Jeff (V/O): But everything changed on February 24th 2022, when Russia invaded her country.
[00:01:09] Anastasiya: So when the war started, my life changed a lot because I lived at the hospital almost two months. And once we had more than 60 international journalists at once and we didn't know what to do, how to manage with them. But we wanted to show the world the truth and how, how we lived at the hospital. And we wanted to scream and to show the world what is happening to us, that children are suffering, civilian people are suffering. And every day we went to sleep and we didn't know what, if we will wake up or no.
[00:01:56] Jeff (V/O): Overnight, Anastasiya's life and her job changed. The hospital's social media accounts once told good news stories, but suddenly those Instagram, Telegram and Facebook channels took on a very different role.
[00:02:10] Anastasiya: We post our reality and what we see. Like our reality changed, that's why our social media changed.
[00:02:21] Jeff (V/O): Anastasiya isn't a journalist, but with her smartphone and through those social media channels, she's part of a new wave of eyewitnesses to war - telling stories from the front lines.
[00:02:33] Anastasiya: I saw that children, I saw children with bullets in their heads, in their faces, in their lips, legs. And that's terrible, like 21st century. And we see every day children with military wounds.
[00:02:49] Jeff (V/O): When I first started covering wars for ABC News, after 911, the Internet was in its infancy. The only eyewitness accounts of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq came from newspaper, TV and radio. The technology for newsgathering was expensive and cumbersome, and the so-called legacy media was still dominant. Between cutbacks and foreign coverage of major news outlets, and the proliferation of social media, the war in Ukraine more than ever before is being documented and shared with the world by people on the ground who are living through it.
[00:03:23] Anastasiya: I am not a soldier yet, but I can use my phone in the information of war.
[00:03:30] Jeff (V/O): Today I'm talking to two of those people to learn what that's been like. Anastasiya and TikTok Star, Valerisssh. From Antica Productions, Trint and the New House School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in cooperation with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station. This is StoryTech.
[00:03:59] Jeff (V/O): This is a personal journey I want to share with you. I spent the first 30 years of my career as a broadcast journalist, foreign correspondent and war correspondent, and the last eight years as founder and CEO of Trint - a tech company focused on transcription and streamlining the workflow of storytelling. We have seen so much technological change come at us so fast. The idea behind this podcast is to explore how those changes have shaped what we watch, what we read, and what we listen to. Today, the new war correspondent, social media.
[00:04:44] Jeff (V/O): Back in December, I spoke to Valeria Shashenok. She's 21 years old, she's not a professional journalist, she doesn't work for a news organization. She's just a Gen Zer caught in the middle of a war, sharing her stories through TikTok. She goes by the handle Valerisssh on TikTok - and that's Valerisssh with three S's - where she has 1.3 million followers and more than 50 million likes. Yes, that's 50 million. Valeria speaks to me from her parents apartment in Kiev. She's looking pretty cool and confident, wearing a black sweater with a big piranha on it, a white shirt peeking out of the collar, which feels slightly out of place because the room is dark, but for one small light. Electricity is being rationed after Russia knocked out critical infrastructure in missile attacks.
[00:05:37] Jeff: How are you doing?
[00:05:40] Valeria: Erm I'm fine. How I can react. in that I don't know. I'm, I think that I already get used to it maybe. So.
[00:05:52] Jeff: You don't get, you don't get thrown by this anymore?
[00:05:56] Valeria: I mean for example now I'm, I'm sorry, I don't like when this. Just a second.
[00:06:03] Jeff (V/O): At this moment Valeria stops. She wants to adjust the light that's beside her.
[00:06:07] Valeria: I don't like. I don't like this light.
[00:06:10] Jeff: Okay.
[00:06:13] Valeria: I guess yes. So now I can explain better my emotions. So what happened in Kiev.
[00:06:19] Jeff (V/O): There is something appropriate and weirdly touching about this moment. She's in an apartment in Kiev, living through blackouts, trying to conserve electricity. And yet she's here spreading her message and trying to get the lighting right for a podcast interview. In any case, she's feeling optimistic about the approaching winter.
[00:06:40] Valeria: Honestly, I really believe that winter will be more better than everybody told in social media interviews because everyone says as this winter in Ukraine will be the most difficult year. And of course I try not to believe in that. I feel that everything will be nice. But no, every time when Russia bombed Ukraine, it always went into infrastructure and electricity stations. And for example yesterday and the day before yesterday, city was completely dark. Honestly, the situation is horrible, but I tried to live for my life.
[00:07:24] Jeff (V/O): That interplay between hope and despair comes through strongly in various TikTok videos. I'd play some of them for you, but they're just made up of music tracks, images and captions so they don't really work on a podcast. Upbeat pop songs accompany footage of a city ravaged by war. Add a dash of national pride and tidbits of the mundane from everyday life, and you get a taste of what it's like living in Kiev right now.
[00:07:50] Valeria: Honestly, I just record what is around me and that's it. I have my phone, my brain, I have an app how I edit my video and that's it. And also find a popular music what is trending on TikTok. I just use it and ba-dumse.
[00:08:15] Jeff (V/O): In case that wasn't clear to you listener, she's mimicking drum sounds.
[00:08:20] Valeria: Ba-dumse.
[00:08:21] Jeff (V/O): Because one thing you need to understand about Valeria, and one of the reasons she's a viral sensation on TikTok, is that she's really funny. A video called, Why Do You Live in Ukraine, shows a series of scenes. One shows her mother eating soup with a caption, dates with my mother. The next shows Valeria standing next to a huge unexploded bomb with a very wry caption, Surprises from Russia. And then some video of candles burning in the dark with the caption, Romantic Without Electricity. Then a daylight shot, The Best View from a Destroyed Building, which is pretty self-explanatory. It's both raw and ironic.
[00:09:01] Valeria: So I think that's why I used humor, because first of all, for me, it's easier to spread information. How I told before had simple info. It's so understandable for everyone. And people can pay attention only to.
[00:09:20] Jeff: You know, in your very first one on Ukraine, when you went into the bomb shelter, there's this really sweet moment of your dog. And I think you said, "my dog doesn't understand why he's underground".
[00:09:31] Valeria: Yeah.
[00:09:31] Jeff: It made me kind of smile in the moment of pretty clear hardship and stress. You were kind of able to turn it around and make it, I mean, kind of sweetly funny in a way, and make the best of it, I guess.
[00:09:44] Valeria: And also my family, my father always said, tomorrow it will end. My mother just cooks out in a bomb shelter and how I can be sad when my family, my mother and father keep positive. I also want to be like them. I also want to believe that tomorrow it will end. Next Monday, everything will be okay and maybe just why, and it was so funny every time when I woke up in this bombshell and my father were already watch news with his coffee. And it was like a simple life I don't know.
[00:10:21] Jeff: What made you choose TikTok as the way you wanted to tell the story of the war?
[00:10:27] Valeria: Because I like music. It's so easy to make a video. Sometimes I feel how to make people to pay attention on my videos. Before I also make videos about water because I'm a photographer and it also had million views, so I already know how to work with it. It's not happened with me. Like one day suddenly I decided to post a video and I didn't know how to paint it. No, I know how to do it. But war in that moment and still in this moment, it's one of the most popular topic, and especially in the beginning for people from Europe, from United States. It was like, war in Ukraine. Like it's something like fairytale, I don't know, something.
[00:11:17] Jeff: Unexpected.
[00:11:18] Valeria: Yeah, like war, war?
[00:11:27] Jeff: Was there a moment when this conflict began after Russia began the invasion, when you realized that the content you were posting was starting to have an impact?
[00:11:39] Valeria: Yeah. I remember when I ran away from Russian bombs to Poland. I came to railway station and many Ukrainian refugees were there, and one Polish reporter, a journalist, she came to me and said, "Oh I know you, I watched your TikToks". And it was like, I remember I looked disgusting. I felt that I'm so tired. I spent more than two days to get to Poland and it was like, Oh, nice.
[00:12:14] Jeff: And suddenly you realized that you were in a small way, or maybe not such a small way, kind of famous.
[00:12:19] Valeria: Yeah, many people recognized me on the street. I remember whenever we were in a bar like the person who make cocktails just said to me everything for free to you. And it was like oh. Thank you so much.
[00:12:34] Jeff: Are there any moments that you have put on TikTok that really touched your heart, that reduced you to tears?
[00:12:52] Valeria: I mean, only one video, what I made it's about my cousin. Because he dead off a Russian bomb. I honestly I don't know what, maybe it was a missile in the house.
[00:13:05] Jeff: He was killed?
[00:13:06] Valeria: Yes. But the situation was erm. Okay, my cousin is 18 years old, and one day he decided to go with his father to their house of their friend. What happened to the sound of bombs and his father just hear the sound. And in front of him was his son and his son dead in that moment?
[00:13:35] Jeff: He was killed instantly.
[00:13:36] Valeria: Yes. And I remember when I, after a couple days when it happened, I made this video and only one video that would make me cry and just why I still don't understand what happened. If a bomb got in the house or someone left a missile in the house.
[00:13:55] Jeff: And did you know him well?
[00:13:57] Valeria: Yes. We were so close. I called him like a brother.
[00:14:02] Jeff: It's overwhelming to think about that.
[00:14:06] Valeria: Now I can talk about it like it's simple, but in the beginning, it was so hard. I remember when I listened music what he liked I cry, like everything what reminds about him. But now it's like.
[00:14:25] Jeff: I suppose that answers the question. Your videos talk about Putin with such anger, such fury, and I think you've just explained why.
[00:14:37] Valeria: They're not doing this with Putin. Also the Russians, people who support war, unfortunately, Russian support it. And what's the reason of this war? What is the sense of this war? He already occupied Crimea in 2014, two Ukrainian cities. And what else? He has a lot of regions in Russian, which is so poor. You can develop these cities. But no, you need to destroy a city much close to you. What's the reason?
[00:15:20] Jeff: What kind of feedback do you get from your followers?
[00:15:24] Valeria: Depends. Someone can say that I'm a war influencer. That I make money on war, but honestly, I don't understand how I make money on war. Where is the logic?
[00:15:36] Jeff: I mean, just to be clear on that question, you're not getting any income from TikTok?
[00:15:40] Valeria: Money? No, I don't have money from it. If someone can tell me, how I can get money from TikTok just write to me. I can get money, for example, I wrote a book about my war experience, which happened with me. Yes, I have money from it and I'm not too shy to tell about that because it's okay. It's work. It's okay to make money. For example, I want to buy water, right?
[00:16:07] Jeff (V/O): It's clear her work resonates with a lot of people. All you need to do is look at the comments on her videos to see that Valerisssh has followers cheering her on from around the globe. "Thank you for sharing your situation with humor and truth, the world is praying for you", from New York, USA. "Stay safe", wrote @Floundersauce. "I love your sense of humor", is the comment from Aida Isaias from Eritrea in East Africa. "Gen Z is built different, you made me smile, stay safe", said a note from @Apealice in Italy. Even though it doesn't pay the bills, Valeria talks about running her TikTok account like it's a job.
[00:16:52] Valeria: TikTok is more about independence. If you're a journalist, you work for someone. I mean, you have a boss. What I have now in my life, I make videos, I post videos, I answer on comments, on emails. Journalists who don't want to work on TV stations, they need to be ready. Say if they wanted to work independently, it's a really nice way to use TikTok. I mean, what do you want to report about homeless people? About war or about fashion? About. Well, you need to choose a topic and you can do everything what you want to do.
[00:17:32] Jeff: So do you see yourself as a journalist?
[00:17:35] Valeria: I am already. But I need to know how to grow up and I need to develop my skills. And also I don't want to make TikToks only about war in Ukraine. A lot of problems in the world. I can just fix manage Samson. So many ideas in my young head and I don't know how to organize it.
[00:17:57] Jeff: It's honest and I think it's, that's a good thing. That's a good problem is to have ideas. But I wonder whether you see yourself reaching a different audience than traditional media then all of those war correspondents from the United States, Britain, France, who are in Ukraine reporting. Do you feel like you're reaching people they can't talk to?
[00:18:19] Valeria: So my TikTok, if I correctly understand the question, my TikTok, watch people of different ages and people who are even from Ukraine, from Russia, from the United States who are 13-50 years old. As I've watched it, I can check statistics in TikTok and different ages. Yes, it's true that young generation don't watch TV because what for if everything in our phone, in social media. I mean it's so easy to read, post pictures, videos. And I choose what ever I wanna watch on TV. No, they just show once they wanted to show me. But when I have my phone, I can choose what I want.
[00:19:08] Jeff: You know, when I look at your videos, I mean, here you are standing in front of a bombed out building. You're standing in an apartment and saying, you know, you have some sort of funny, cynical comment about this apartment has fresh air or, you know, good light and the place has been blown apart. It's making war and the consequence of war so much more visible and accessible, easier for people to see and feel on a daily basis.
[00:19:33] Valeria: Yeah, it's true. Maybe because they see that I am a girl, I am a symbol. I'm sure that they trust me, what I show. And when person watch TV, maybe they, it looks like a perfect picture of person who stay in the middle of their screen with the microphone and say some important news with this face like la la la la la. Me, No, I just, "hey, Putin destroyed my country la la la". And maybe it's more easy to like, realize. I am try every day to do something, if I will not post something everyone can forget about me, about war. It's like a job, it's like journalism. What I can see.
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[00:20:56] Jeff (V/O): Unlike Valeria, children's hospital press officer Anastasiya Magerramova didn't try to be a social media star. But because of her job and the war, the spotlight found her.
[00:21:08] Anastasiya: Our Instagram became super popular since the 24th of February because before we had a few thousand subscribers and now it's more than 30,000. And because of war, unfortunately, we became more popular. But we are happy. We are happy to have such an audience.
[00:21:33] Jeff: Since the Russian invasion. Who are you trying to reach with these social media channels and what are you trying to achieve?
[00:21:41] Anastasiya: First of all, we want to show the world that war is happening. Before, we believed that if we will show that children are dying, the children are suffering, the war will stop quickly. But we were so naive and unfortunately, nothing had stopped. But before we believed that if we will reach international media, international audience, and people will see that such terrible things are happening to children, to women, to some civilians, and to politicians, stars will help us to stop it. And it works because if we had, for example, Antony Blinken at our hospital, we had Jessica Chastain, Hollywood star at our hospital. And I think it's really useful for us because thanks to them, we can reach a bigger audience to talk about our problems.
[00:22:45] Jeff (V/O): Traditionally, someone in Anastasiya's job would have had to rely on news organizations to get her message out. But now people are coming straight to the hospital social media channels for information.
[00:22:56] Anastasiya: We just post our life and sometimes famous people write us first and ask if we need some help from them. For example, one girl from London wrote me a message to our page on the beginning of the war that she working in some agency and they want to sell a Banksy painting and to get money for our hospital.
[00:23:26] Jeff: And did they?
[00:23:27] Anastasiya: Yes, they did. They sold this picture on Sotheby event and they gathered £85,000.
[00:23:38] Jeff: Wow. That's a lot of money. That's impressive. That's the power of social media.
[00:23:42] Anastasiya: For example. Yes.
[00:23:44] Jeff: What do you think you can do as a press officer using social media that journalists can't do?
[00:23:51] Anastasiya: Because I am living here so I can feel more like in real time. Yes. Because you cannot predict what will happen. Sometimes I took my phone and I just, "hello I am Anastasiya and I am now in the emergency department and we are waiting for three new patients that are affected by war". And you can see our surgeons is waiting for three injured children, two hits to the head, one to ribs. And we prepared operation room and people can see it like, they can see that we are worried. We are under pressure and so on. So, yes, now, like you can see the war in real time.
[00:24:37] Jeff (V/O): The stories and pictures that the hospital shares are shocking. There's Ura, a 14 year old boy with his arm in a sling looking at the camera.
[00:24:46] Anastasiya: His father was shot to death in front of him and a Russian soldier shot his arm.
[00:24:56] Jeff (V/O): A young girl named Marina lying on a hospital bed, missing a leg.
[00:25:01] Anastasiya: She's six years old and they were under occupation and their house was heated and she lost her leg.
[00:25:11] Jeff (V/O): There are so many stories just like these ones. But I noticed something else too.
[00:25:17] Jeff: I was looking at your Instagram, and one of the things that I did notice is that there are a lot of images of people smiling.
[00:25:23] Anastasiya: Yes.
[00:25:23] Jeff: Do you find that if you show too much sadness, too much misery, that people will tune out?
[00:25:32] Anastasiya: Yes, maybe. And also, like we have war today. We had the rocket attack in the morning. I heard more than six explosions actually by myself today. But anyway, we try to live our lives. We are not super said all the time. We are not crying all the time. We have also happy events and happy scenes in our lives still. We post our life and sometimes we are crying. Sometimes we want to tell terrible things. But sometimes we want to share some happiness with our audience.
[00:26:20] Jeff: I don't talk about this very much, but when I covered wars and I saw a lot of injury, I had to be as a reporter, you know, I, I tried to be strong and I was in public, but there were times in private when it just overwhelmed me and I would just go somewhere privately and cry. Does it overwhelm you at times in that way?
[00:26:40] Anastasiya: Yes, sometimes, yes. For example, sometimes I take interviews. Then I go to my office or to toilet and cry. Yes. And for example, it happened to me. I was carried to go to this girl and her father, whose mother was killed in front of her house. Her name was Milana. Milana is a six year old girl. And they were hiding in the middle of the flat, but missile hit their house and her mother was killed and this girl saw it and her brother saw it. And this man, her father also saw it and it was terrible. An ambulance took them to our hospital and girl was shocked. Her brother was shocked. He was holding Coca-Cola bottle and didn't, he was super traumatized.
[00:27:42] Anastasiya: And then I needed to go to this man and to this girl. And few days I was thinking, "Oh my God, how I will come to them and what will I tell them?" I was super, super scary to see them and to talk to them. And I was ready that they will refuse me in the interview. And, you know, I came and this man, he said, "Oh hello, maybe do you want a water or we have chocolate?" And I was like, What? And this man lived with his daughter here. He buried his wife and he lived with us and he became blood donor at our hospital. He helped us with humanitarian help, you know, an injured person who just lost his wife. He helped our doctors. He helped our nurses. And once he heard that our doctors needed some special medicine, some special thing, and he ordered it in west of Ukraine and by post he gave it to our doctors. You know, he just listened to conversation of doctors. And it was, for me, a very touching.
[00:29:18] Jeff (V/O): The kind of stories that Anastasiya and Valeria are telling just didn't exist when I was reporting on the Iraq War for ABC News from 2003 to 2005, or from Haiti in 2004. The Internet was in its infancy during those conflicts. Online news was mostly a digital form of what was available from the big TV and radio networks and the big newspapers. Smartphones hadn't been invented yet.
[00:29:42] Jeff (V/O): By the time I reported on the Arab Spring in 2011, Facebook was starting to have an impact that reached beyond legacy media. I remember at the time doing a story on how a Facebook posting in Arabic about a fruit seller who set himself on fire in rural Tunisia, ignited the Arab Spring. Maybe that's a topic we'll explore in a future episode of StoryTech.
[00:30:06] Jeff (V/O): Ten years later. Facebook feels kind of quaint. Instagram still has some edge, but for Gen Z, it's all about TikTok, which was only launched in 2017. Opening up yet another new frontier for telling stories to audiences that traditional media couldn't reach. A final word from Anastasiya.
[00:30:26] Anastasiya: Not a lot of people really understand what is happening. That war is still going on, that some children were raped by soldiers, some children were killed and it's not okay. And we want to stop it. And I think if we will invite people that can some influence in the world, maybe we can change something. Maybe I am naive and I will believe in such things. But anyway, I want to keep going and carry on. And I don't want to stop because I believe that my work is also important.
[00:31:15] Jeff (V/O): That was Anastasiya Magerramova. You can follow her at Ohmatdyt Children's Hospital on Instagram. That's O H M A T D Y T. And Valeria Shashenok. You can find her on TikTok @Valerisssh, with three S's. We'll include links in the show notes.
[00:31:53] Jeff (V/O): StoryTech is produced by Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in association with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station. Our senior producer is Kevin Sexton. Our associate producer is Emily Morantz. Mixing and sound design by Mitchell Stuart. Our associate audio editor is Cameron McIver. Our theme music is by Josh Spear. Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica Productions. Our executive producers are Laura Regehr and me, your host, Jeff Kofman.
[00:32:30] Jeff (V/O): If you have any story ideas, suggestions or thoughts, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like this show, why not show us some love and subscribe and tell your friends about us on social media. Help us spread the word. Thanks.