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TikTok Is Just the Platform Russian Dissidents Need

TikTok Is Just the Platform Russian Dissidents Need

Thursday, 10 March, 2022 - 05:30

Kremlin propaganda isn’t just piped into Russia’s brains via television. On TikTok, which suspended all new video uploads from Russia this week, some “influencers” managed to stand out in the sea of dancing and cooking clips by supporting President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The reach of this soft propaganda is potentially wide: TikTok is the 10th most popular app in Russia with more than 121 million downloads across the country, according to SensorTower, which tracks the app market.


One example from late last month shows a girl fist-bumping a mirror image of herself with the words “Russia” and “Donbas” displayed to show support for the Ukrainian region Putin claims to be liberating. Another TikTok user with 1.3 million followers and this one with 3.5 million created their own versions of the Donbas fist bump, joining similar videos from hundreds of other users, all with the same electronic background music.


But something curious has happened with this particular video trend. In the past two weeks, many of its most popular clips — united by that electronic dance track — have mocked the original conceit, labeling those who joined in as being paid Kremlin stooges.


Over the years, as it has swelled to reach one billion active users and challenged Facebook as the new social media Mecca for young people, TikTok has also developed a reputation for hosting misinformation on Covid and spreading conspiracy theories. But in Russia, it may also be in a unique and promising position to become an outlet — and a popular one at that — for defiance against the Putin regime. With its quickly shifting trends, in-jokes and memes, TikTok is a firehose of video content that his government will struggle to monitor, let alone contain.


Even as Putin raised an Iron firewall around Russia this weekend, blocking Facebook, Twitter and nearly all independent news media outlets, TikTok’s service remained undisturbed. That remained the case even as the platform began labeling accounts linked to Russian state media, and some of the more popular videos about the Ukraine invasion — posted before TikTok started blocking uploads from Russia -- took aim at those promoting the war.


In one instance, a video with 250,000 views ridiculed the original video trend by showing the text “2,000 Rubles” and “TikTok users without opinions” above a young man who fist-bumped a mirror image of himself. Another showed: “15,000 rubles” and “Corrupt TikToker.” Yet another lamented those who “sold their butts for a couple hundred dollars.”


Meanwhile, some of the earlier pro-Kremlin fist bump videos have disappeared, according to Ciaran O’Connor, a disinformation analyst at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a think tank in London, who recently analyzed Russian disinformation across TikTok.


Who took them down? Probably not TikTok, says O’Connor, who was surprised to see the popularity of those dissenting videos. The company puts a banner on posts it takes down, which tend to be footage of military operations, not trendy dance videos with an edgy opinion. It’s more likely that the account holders themselves got blowback from commenters and balked at a modern-day peril for influencers: their original view becoming…unfashionable.


Inane as that may seem, it points to a troublesome trend for Putin. For years, his intelligence divisions including the infamous Internet Research Agency have sown disinformation across social-media platforms with the use of hired trolls and bots. Most recently, news.ru and donbasstragedy.info, which purported to be run by human-rights campaigners, spread false claims about genocide by the Ukrainian military.


But with clear evidence that the Russian military is bombing civilians in Ukraine, the Kremlin may hit a wall with younger, internet-savvy Russians on apps like TikTok and Instagram. Russians can still watch videos and post comments on TikTok, a spokesperson said, even though they are blocked from uploading new videos. Instagram, which is more popular in Russia than its corporate sibling Facebook, was functioning as normal in the country at the time of writing.


Influencers are a modern, sometimes-inexplicable phenomenon whose whims are difficult to track let alone take seriously. But with much of the internet outside of Russia rallying against his war, Russian influencers and TikTokers are joining a global chorus that Putin may find impossible to stop trickling through.


Disinformation, of course, has been rife on TikTok and the platform hasn’t been a champion for truth telling. A Bloomberg investigation last year found evidence that at least two political bloggers had been censored on the platform, and TikTok may have suppressed trending links about Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. The app also has been inconsistent in cracking down on anti-vaccine content during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to O’Connor. TikTok parent ByteDance Ltd. is based in China, whose government has refused to use the word “invasion” or “war” with Russia.


That means pro-Kremlin claims could still flourish. But criticism can go viral too, and there is evidence it’s already doing so. As long as TikTok and Instagram continue to operate in Russia and particularly if TikTok lifts its suspension on new videos in the country, they can provide a much-needed alternative view to the Kremlin line thanks to the gumption and creativity of angry young users — all the more powerful when that view comes from Russians themselves.


Bloomberg


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