Lviv – Over the last month since the Russian invasion and the starting of the war in Ukraine, more than three million people have fled the country, in what is the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. It has been widely documented how the internet in general and social media in particular play a central role in the conflict: while Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram have been banned in Russia, Ukrainians are using their smartphones to document the war and the shelling of cities, or to seek shelter in neighboring countries. Now, to ask for help or to embrace the resistance cause, many of them are turning to Tinder.
The popular app, invented to connect strangers with a simple swipe of the screen, is being flooded lately with patriotic messages and colorful profile pictures with the Ukrainian flag, but it also became a space where supply and demand of safe havens to live in peace meet while waiting for the war to end.
Zina, 28, is planning to escape to Moldova
Zina, 28, born and raised in Odessa, daughter of a Ukrainian father and a Vietnamese mother, tells Blasting News that she is planning her escape to Moldova, and from there to Bucharest, Romania. The possibility of a Russian invasion of the strategic port city on the Black Sea is no longer imminent, but she can no longer bear to wake up to the air raid sirens, so she decided to take her 64-year-old mother and six-year-old daughter away from the warring country to the home of friends who have long since emigrated.
In the meantime, while scrolling without much expectation through numerous profiles on Tinder, she met some men living in Italy and Turkey who, after exchanging a few messages, offered her to move into their homes to start life over.
“At first, it seemed crazy to me to even think about it,” Zina said. “But then I met a man who wrote to me from Rome, who seemed serious; we exchanged contacts on WhatsApp and have been in touch every day since.
He showed me pictures of his house, his family. We have also been in touch via voice messages.” He is ten years older than her, follows the news about Ukraine every day and seems concerned and involved. “He said he would like to start a family, and I would also like to find stability. But I also have to think about the safety of my little girl.
And if I’m still on Tinder, it’s because I haven’t convinced myself,” said Zina.
The use of Tinder as a tool for finding homes abroad is made possible primarily through a paid feature called Passport. For about ten dollars a month, you can set up your location anywhere in the world.
We scrolled through Tinder users’ photos in Lviv, Odessa and Kyiv for a few days, trying to be as transparent as possible: we wanted to collect stories of individuals caught up in the humanitarian crisis.
Our goal – made clear early on – was to hear the views of those who now use Tinder beyond its basic function in a space where other social media has been silenced. We set our search to men and women, getting replies only from the latter.
Many, even without matching with us, show that they use the dating app to fight misinformation or call for solidarity for their country. “The Russian army is shooting at us. Protect us, please. Ask your president to help us. To give us bulletproof vests and to close the sky to Russian planes,” writes in her bio Viktoriia, 24, a student at the Lviv Polytechnic National University.
Marta, 24, a tattoo in exchange of support
Marta, 24, presents herself as a pansexual and pangender displaced person who works as a tattoo artist: “I am looking for friends from the LGBT community from all over Europe. I am Ukrainian and we are living in war. I would be grateful for any support. I can make a tattoo for you.” Many profiles contain the hashtags #stoprussianaggresion and #standwithukraine.
Dasha, a 25-year-old graphic design student from Lviv, set the passport function to go virtually to Moscow with a political goal: to help local activists tell Russians how Ukrainians are living by sending images of death and destruction. “Russians are brainwashed by their television, they don’t know how things are,” she says. After the first profile picture that shows her lying barefoot on a lawn, the following images show a Ukrainian city devastated by the war. In its bio, a paragraph written in Cyrillic, in blue on a yellow background, reads: “Please do not turn around: close the skies, not your eyes” (the reference is to the request, also made by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, to NATO countries for a no-fly zone over Ukraine).
But it is mostly foreign men, it seems, who are changing their location to meet Ukrainian women in this time of war. And Tinder’s ease of use, combined with the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the Russian invasion, is allowing the app to function as a politically neutral entity – connecting warring Ukraine with liberal, democratic-minded nations but also sexually repressive regimes, circumventing any censorship.
Alyona and her friend Svetlana both posted the same message on the dating app when they fled their home in Sumy, a city of about 260,000 people located in northeastern Ukraine, just a few kilometers from the Russian border. “I know I’m easy prey for guys looking for fun, but I can defend myself without problems,” Alyona, 26, who uses Google translator to communicate, tells us.
For now, she is in Lviv, but is ready to leave for Poland and from there to reach Barcelona, a city she has always loved.
Many people have swiped right on her profile to make superficial proposals, or using an almost predatory tone, but one man convinced her by offering a hotel where she will be alone for a few days, waiting to get to know each other better and maybe take a next step. Not only that, this person also put her in touch with a friend who lives in a small town in Catalonia. “I have some money saved up from my job as a beautician, and if I see that the situation doesn’t work for me, I can handle it on my own,” she said.
The problem of the scams and the risks for women
Tinder helps to quickly connect with those still living in Ukraine, but also to run into scams.
One of our first chats in the app was with a 22-year-old woman from Kyiv who, right after we matched, wrote to us: “I urgently need to leave Kyiv and I am in financial difficulty. I’m embarrassed to ask, but maybe you can help me?”, leaving us her IBAN code. When we attempted to carry on with the conversation, she disappeared.
Many people in Europe are eager to do something for the Ukrainian cause, but sponsoring a refugee through a platform that has always been associated with sex has its risks for those in a state of emotional and material fragility. Irina, a 33-year-old nurse from Odessa with two children, tells us she is in contact with a family of four from Bristol who are willing to host her.
Along with Germany and Poland, England remains one of the most popular destinations for Ukrainians.
But Brits who want to host refugees for free must fill out dozens of pages of forms. So the lengthiness of the system transforms Tinder into a tool used by ill-intentioned people. “I have already been contacted by a couple of men who invited me to England offering me a plane ticket, and promising me to do all the paperwork, but as soon as I asked for more information they deleted me from their contacts”, says Irina.
In short, Tinder continues to work as usual in this very modern conflict, but hidden behind words of solidarity can be numerous traps. It has yet to show much effectiveness as a tool of pro-Ukraine propaganda, but it has proven useful as a social instrument – easing unexpected connections and bypassing national bureaucracies – provided it is used carefully.