Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it’s causing, and what we should do about it.
When TikTok announced last week that it was suspending the ability of Russian users to upload new videos, the decision was seen as part of the company’s efforts to protect itself against the draconian new “fake news” law enacted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to control the narrative about the war in Ukraine.
But minutes after the ban went into effect, Russian TikTok users noticed something unusual happening: Non-Russian content was also no longer viewable. That meant videos posted by TikTok superstars like Charli d’Amelio, as well as content posted by international media outlets like the BBC and VICE World News, and organizations like the UN, were blocked.
The block was so effective that even content posted by TikTok’s own account was no longer available to Russian users.
Now a new report from Tracking Exposed, a European non-profit that analyzes TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, highlights how international content has been blocked entirely while pro-Putin content can still be uploaded.
As a result, the report concluded, “TikTok runs the risk of effectively converting itself into a propaganda channel for the Kremlin.”
It also means Russian TikTok users have been left in the dark about what’s really happening in Ukraine and although Russian users are supposed to be banned from posting new content, pro-Kremlin content from Russian influencers continues to be posted on the platform, including what appears to be the continuation of a coordinated campaign first reported by VICE News last week.
“The effect of TikTok’s changes since the war began is that Russian people are deprived of a global perspective on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and can only see content heavily weighted towards Kremlin-approved information,” Salvatore Romano, head of research at Tracking Exposed, wrote in the report. “This makes it less likely that public opinion in Russia will become critical of the war.”
How TikTok filters the content that Russian users can see has become all the more important, given that it is the last non-Russian-owned global social media platform available in the country, after the Kremlin moved to restrict access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in recent weeks.
But TikTok’s decision to block global content was made not by the Kremlin, but by the platform itself, according to Tracking Exposed co-director Marc Faddoul.
“We estimate that 95% of TikTok’s content is now unavailable to Russian users. It’s the first time a global platform has made restrictions at a national level at such a scale. These restrictions were implemented on the application layer and thus required a direct intervention from TikTok,” Faddoul wrote in the report.
TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, and the report’s authors said that the platform’s decision to block non-Russian content raises the question of whether Beijing forced TikTok’s hand.
“In the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese social media platforms Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin restricted anti-war content, suggesting an alliance between Russia and China in the information warfare part of the conflict,” the authors wrote. “This may have led Chinese authorities to put pressure on ByteDance to restrict content in Russia.“
Despite TikTok’s ban on new content from Russian accounts, numerous Russian users have found ways to circumvent the ban, especially those posting pro-Kremlin content.
Following VICE News’ revelation of a coordinated campaign to push pro-Kremlin content on the app, Tracking Exposed found another coordinated network of accounts that continue to post pro-war propaganda.
Analyzing pro-war hashtags on TikTok, Tracking Exposed was able to identify a network of accounts that have uploaded pro-Kremlin content in recent days. One video featuring the ‘Z’ symbol used by the Russian military in Ukraine has racked up over 5.3 million views since it was posted last Sunday.
The Tracking Exposed team also looked at what content was available through the search function in the app inside Russia, and found that while the term “Zelenskyy” was not blocked, the content that was returned was mostly videos critical of the Ukrainian president, many of which contained homophobic attacks.
There are many pro-Putin accounts still available on the platform, including several channels related to Russian state-controlled media like RT. There are also a number of influential accounts promoting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. However, the group found no evidence of anti-war content posted after the TikTok restriction went into effect.
“TikTok should clarify its content policy in Russia and provide data access to researchers to allow for public scrutiny on how its decisions are impacting the Ukraine-Russia war,” Romano said.
TikTok confirmed to VICE News that it has blocked Russian users from seeing non-Russian content, and said it made that decision in response to the new “fake news” law, as it did not want to put its users or employees at risk.
A TikTok spokesperson told VICE News the app provides “a source of relief and human connection during a time of war when people are facing immense tragedy and isolation.”
TikTok’s initial decision to ban new uploads in Russia came after the Kremlin enacted a law that made it illegal to post anything negative about the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine. The new law had an immediate and chilling effect on independent and international media organizations in the country, with outlets like Novaya Gazeta removing material about the Ukraine war from its website, while outlets like the New York Times pulled their journalists out of Russia, and broadcasters like CNN and BBC suspended their services in the country.
The combined result of silencing independent media and Russia’s decision to block content on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, is that Russian citizens are now left with access to a very different version of the internet than the rest of the world.
“We are experiencing an unprecedented form of Splinternet,” Faddoul wrote. “The era of the free internet in Russia just came to a sudden end. Within a week, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were blocked. TikTok, the only global platform still available in Russia, is effectively turning into a propaganda channel for the Kremlin. Russia seems to be moving toward the Chinese model of internet censorship.”
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