TikTok’s Pullback in Russia Leaves More Space for Pro-Kremlin Propaganda | #socialmedia


TikTok is censoring its content in Russia more heavily than it said it would, blocking access to most overseas accounts and leaving a content vacuum that is being partially filled by state media propaganda, researchers and users in the country say.

The popular short video app said March 6 it would suspend live streaming and new content uploads for Russian users after the imposition of draconian censorship rules, which threatened jail for those publishing what authorities consider to be false information about the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia has termed the fighting a special military operation.

TikTok’s service disruption in the country has been more sweeping, with users shut off from almost all non-Russian TikTok accounts, including historical posts, for more than a week, according to Tracking Exposed, a nonprofit organization in Europe that analyzes algorithms on social media. The group said TikTok’s removal of the accounts was indiscriminate, including nonpolitical and benign channels.

Beyond blocking international news media such as British Broadcasting Corp., TikTok has restricted access to accounts run by Hollywood celebrity Will Smith, 17-year-old American teen

Charli D’Amelio,

one of TikTok’s biggest creators with 137 million followers, as well as cat videos and the World Health Organization. Their historical posts are also off limits.

With no new content coming online, old videos from state media outlets Sputnik and RT (Russia Today) have been circulating, Tracking Exposed said. So, too, have posts from a TikTok account with 5.9 million followers called “simpleputin” that promotes fun and quirky videos of Russian President

Vladimir Putin.

Russian TikTok user Niki Proshin.



Photo:

Niki Proshin

“It’s such a weird information bubble, when we do not have access to videos abroad,” said Niki Proshin, a 27-year-old TikTok user and creator in St. Petersburg. Mr. Proshin’s For You page, the app’s personalized feed, only shows him videos from accounts within Russia that were posted before March 6. “The more you scroll, the older they get,” Mr. Proshin said, adding he now uses the app far less.

A TikTok spokeswoman referred to its March 6 statement, saying that safety of staff and users were paramount. “In light of Russia’s new ‘fake news’ law, we have no choice but to suspend live streaming and new content to our video service in Russia while we review the safety implications of this law,” the statement said.

Social-media platforms have become ground zero for information warfare in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine fighting. TikTok, which is less than five years old, initially struggled with the huge influx of war-related content on its platform as it lacked the experience of more established platforms.

TikTok has removed almost 95% of the content for its Russian users, according to Salvatore Romano, head of research at Tracking Exposed, whose team changed their internet protocol addresses to Russia to gather their findings. By restricting overseas accounts as well as new uploads, TikTok’s content was reinforcing Russian propaganda, Mr. Romano said.

“Russian people are deprived of a global perspective on Russia’s actions in Ukraine,” said the Padova, Italy-based Mr. Romano. “This makes it less likely that public opinion in Russia will become critical of the war.”

The findings are significant because TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd, remains one of the last major foreign social-media platforms available within Russia, after the country’s regulator restricted access to

Twitter Inc.

and

Meta Platforms Inc.’s

Facebook platform about two weeks ago. Unlike the other platforms, TikTok wasn’t shut out by Russian regulators and chose to proactively limit the content on its platform.

An independent panel appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed concern on Friday that the new “fake news” law is resulting in a total information blackout in Russia on the war in Ukraine. They said the adoption of the law was “an alarming move by the government to gag and blindfold an entire population.”

Media coverage of Russian troops invading Ukraine is unfolding differently in Russia than in the U.S. Using maps and disinformation, many television programs are shaping public opinion by justifying Moscow’s decision to attack its neighbor. Photo composite: Sharon Shi

On Friday, Moscow drew the iron curtain further around its online space by banning Instagram, one of Russia’s most popular foreign social-media platforms. Google’s YouTube still operates in Russia, but is blocking Russian state-affiliated media globally.

TikTok has been downloaded more than 121 million times in Russia, equivalent to about 80% of Russia’s population, according to Sensor Tower.

Russian TikTok users searching for pages hosted outside the country on the app’s search function will not see results. Instead, they have to know the specific website link for these accounts and click through to them on a browser, according to TikTok users in Russia and researchers at Tracking Exposed. Even after clicking through, users in Russia are presented with a blank page without any videos, they said.

Russian TikTok user Lisa Elkina said about 90% of the content on her For You feed was produced by foreign accounts before TikTok’s blockage this month. She used the app to discover musicians and artists overseas.

These days, the 25-year-old living in Moscow said she sees nothing from foreign accounts. In recent days, her feed has instead featured a mix of patriotic videos and lifestyle hacks. There were also some new videos from Russian users who have figured out how to bypass TikTok’s blocking, both pro- and antiwar.

TikTok was a great instrument for globalizing the world, Ms. Elkina said. Now, she says it is useless.

“I’m probably still on it out of habit and the hope that new videos will come through again,” she said.

TikTok users in Russia can still access the Russian account of state media RT (Russia Today), right, even as the same account was removed in the EU as part of the bloc’s ban to cut off access to Russian state-owned media. The account on the left was a screengrab from a user in France.

Tracking Exposed said they also found a group of Russian users who had devised a workaround to disguise their location and post pro-war content that has garnered millions of views.

Not all the old content was pro-Putin. Russian opposition leader

Alexei Navalny’s

official TikTok account was also still available, according to users and researchers. Ms. Elkina said she could see earlier Russian posts containing positive messages about French President

Emmanuel Macron

and Ukrainian President

Volodymyr Zelensky.

Russia’s actions to restrict its internet mirror China’s highly restricted blogosphere, creating another walled-off internet space confined by national borders in what is increasingly referred to by experts as the “splinternet.”

Such information blackouts could be effective in the short run, cutting off the ability of Russian citizens to mobilize a protest against the war, said Francesco Bailo, a social-media lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney. In the long term, he said, it may be harder to manipulate public opinion if the economy suffers from international sanctions.

Write to Liza Lin at Liza.Lin@wsj.com and Evan Gershkovich at evan.gershkovich@wsj.com

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