How TikTok videos became a voice for pro-Kremlin war propaganda

TikTok platform, widely known for short funny videos, was bombarded with hashtags like #RussiaForward and name combinations with “Z” (a sign of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine) in the early months of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Young bloggers attempted to persuade their audiences that the sanctions against Moscow were useless while praising Vladimir Putin’s intelligence and expressing their affection for the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. 

The Insider investigated TikTokers, who seemed super nationalistic, which in the Russian worldview might often mean Russian fascist, imperialistic, and xenophobic views.

The media suspected that the bloggers published much Russian nationalistic content for profit. A video on a specific subject was around 100 euros. The TikTokers didn’t clearly know what they were being paid to do in exchange for the agreed-upon sum.

Pro-Kremlin content on TikTok has always stood out among other videos. After Russia launched a war against Ukraine, bloggers flooded the platform with propaganda videos. In addition, these materials contrasted sharply with the specific content of a generally apolitical social network. 

It’s important to know that TikTok is the “youngest” social network (76% of the audience is under 25). There are few sincere pro-Putin people in this age group. 

On the other hand, it’s crucial in this story that there are search and suggestion algorithms in the platform. As we know, the authorities in the US say that the Chinese government influences TikTok. We recall that China has not condemned Russia for its war of aggression against Ukraine.

And the platform algorithms influence much on which content will get the highest number of views. Add here the allegations that TikTok promoted pro-Russian-war content.

The NewsGuard agency claims that even people who had just signed up or had never been interested in the military conflict before were sent false information on Ukraine by the algorithms. 

According to data from the service, TikToks with the hashtags #мненестыдно (I’m not ashamed (for the war launched by Putin – ed.)), and #zanashih (for ours, which means support of Russian soldiers – ed.) has received more than 2 billion views in the first few months of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Another billion views were racked up by TikTok videos supporting the Wagner PMC, the Russian private military company, and the mercenaries sent to the front in Ukraine. This group can be recognized as a terrorist organization.

Millions of people have seen blogger Yulia Pyatnikovskaya’s clips about how well Russia is living without European cuisine and vacation destinations. Although it is difficult to tell how many viewers are actual individuals, most of the commentators’ avatars feature the Russian flag. The Russian propaganda machine is known for using armies of bots in social media networks.

For 7,000 rubles, the blogger agreed to post a “patriotic” video, TheInsider reported. In its investigation, the media presented itself to the bloggers as a requester from the government. So the bloggers knew that they were doing propaganda for the Kremlin. Yulia claimed that was how much her prior works with comparable content went for. The “video should not be overly severe” requirement was the only requirement.

TikTok restricted the app’s functionality for Russian users after Russia invaded Ukraine. Russian bloggers were forbidden from sharing videos and engaging in live broadcasting. The Chinese corporation used the existence of the law on fakes to explain this. 

The bans caused a modification in the standard user feed on TikTok. Before, users were shown movies based on their known interests (with new users being displayed clips based on shared interests like animals, cosmetics, and epic fails), but now the screens were loaded with nationalistic and military propaganda. 

Social media researchers have confirmed this: whereas there were about equal numbers of pro- and anti-war films before the ban, 93.5% of war-related content was propaganda after the ban. Most Russian users’ feeds are still based on outdated movies, and they continue to see stuff submitted in February, March, or even earlier.

Bloggers started to use VPNs to get past the TikTok ban. Using a server located in another nation, they used to alter the displayed location.

However, Russia’s war propaganda was not banned on the platform, and Russian nationalist and xenophobic materials remained available. 

As now TikTok’s popularity is growing in Europe, Russian agents are trying to spread their Russian nationalist and military, and pro-Putin videos. The goal is to influence the audiences in the EU countries and convince them that anti-Russian sanctions should be reviewed. In this context, it’s essential to stop Russian war propaganda on TikTok, as this will contribute to stopping the war in Ukraine that has shaken Europe and the entire world.

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