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TikTok in service of FSB. How a social network for funny videos turned into a Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece

In the first months of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, TikTok was flooded with hashtags such as #RussiaForward or all sorts of letter Z combinations. Young bloggers praised Vladimir Putin's wisdom, expressed their admiration for Kadyrov and tried to convince their subscribers that the sanctions were ineffective. The Insider suspected that much of this content was being distributed for money and ran “background checks” on TikTokers who seemed particularly patriotic. It turned out that a video on a particular topic cost approximately 100 euros. The TikTokers themselves had little understanding of what it was they were being hired for, and for the specified price they were prepared to promote any agenda, even the most absurd one, for which The Insider promised to pay, posing as a customer on behalf of the Kremlin.

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From the very beginning, Pro-Kremlin content on TikTok stood out not only because of its volume, but also because it sharply contrasted with the usual content for a generally apolitical social network - not to mention the fact that TikTok is the “youngest” social network (76 percent of the audience is under 25), and there are few sincere supporters of the authorities in this demographic. According to the NewsGuard agency, the algorithms showed fakes about Ukraine even to users who had just registered or had never been interested in the military conflict before. The service's statistics shows that in the first few months, TikToks with the hashtags #zanashih (for ours) and #mnestydno (I’m ashamed) have garnered more than 2 billion views. TikToks promoting the Wagner PMC collected another billion views.

The videos posted by blogger Yulia Pyatnikovskaya about how well Russia is doing without European food and resorts have been garnering millions of views. It is difficult to judge how many of the viewers are real people, but most of the commentators have the Russian flag on their avatars.

The blogger agreed to post a “patriotic” video for 7,000 rubles. According to Yulia, that's how much her other works with similar content cost. The only condition was that “the video should not be very harsh”.

As practice has shown, Yulia does not care what exactly she has to convey to her audience and whether there is any internal logic to it. A correspondent of The Insider suggested that Yulia post a video saying it was not the generals but pro-state bloggers like Anton Krasovsky who were to blame for the retreat of the Russian troops (the “test purchase operation” was conducted shortly after the event). The girl admitted that she didn’t really follow the events and asked for an explanation “from our government's point of view” of what exactly was happening at the front. And then she took initiative and read the articles “in one of the news feeds, which is now recognized as extremist,” and realized that the news about the withdrawal of troops “pointed people in the wrong direction.” Yulia tried to write a script but could not figure out how to blame bloggers for the army's retreat. Then she proposed a video in which she said that the Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv not because they surrendered, but to organize a humanitarian corridor.

Yulia refused to accept the full payment for the order until the restrictions on uploading content to TikTok were lifted, so the video was never published on her feed. In April, she stopped posting videos to the social network altogether.

Not everyone is willing to make politicized content. “We've already been asked. Our bloggers don't want to film such content, they are afraid of being blocked,” Yegor Charushin, producer of one of the TikTok groups, refused to post a patriotic video.

There were also those who asked for a fee several times higher than usual. For example, the manager of a blogger with one and a half million subscribers, Danil Zhandarmov, asked 40,000 rubles instead of the usual 5,000 for a politically innocuous video about the Ukrainian army being weaker than the Russian one. He blamed the content of the video for the difference in prices.

Yura Khomich, the 19-year-old owner of a small TikTok agency, turned out to be more cooperative. He was given the task of responding to a publication about Putin bathing in reindeer blood by explaining that it was normal and that other Soviet leaders had done so too. The main argument is the phrase “it is common knowledge that Stalin and Lenin bathed in blood”. The bloggers were not confused, and they agreed to put up the video for the price of several thousand rubles. Only one TtikToker refused, explaining that he “didn’t know how to present” the topic.

A few days later, the group's manager sent views statistics for the videos about Putin and blood baths
A few days later, the group's manager sent views statistics for the videos about Putin and blood baths

A few weeks later the bloggers removed the videos we had ordered from their accounts, as well as other content in support of the Russian authorities.

The Insider also experimented with even more ridiculous technical tasks. One of them was to post a video with the “sensational” idea that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “is actually Jewish” and that his real last name is Bayraktar. Several TikTokers agreed to produce such a video, such as Maryna Bespalova, who had published videos about Zelensky before. She questioned the content of the video only after completing the task.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, TikTok limited the app’s functionality for Russian users. Bloggers from Russia were banned from posting videos and live broadcasting. The Chinese company explained this by the existence of the law on fakes. Because of the bans, TikTok’s customary user feed changed. While previously the algorithms offered users videos based on their known interests (with new users being offered videos based on common interests such as kittens, makeovers and epic fails), now military and patriotic propaganda filled the screens. This was confirmed by social media researchers: if before the ban, there was approximately equal number of pro-war and antiwar videos, after the ban 93.5% of war-related content turned into propaganda. This is still the case: most Russian users' feeds are based on old videos, and they are shown content uploaded back in February or March or even earlier.

To get around the TikTok ban, bloggers started using VPNs. They used it to change the visible location by rerouting traffic through a server in another country. However, because of the social network's algorithms, these new videos could only be seen by users who were also using a VPN. “There is indeed a way to upload new videos to bypass restrictions, but it's worth remembering that you do it under a VPN, which means your videos are only seen by those users who also have it enabled,” explained Semyon Yefimov, the author of the Russian Marketing Telegram channel. Such new videos and content from other countries can sometimes be seen by users from Russia: Tracking Exposed researchers believe that the platform’s “shadow promotion” is responsible, because the social network has not officially changed its stance. According to the analysts, in order to see political content from other countries, a user usually only needs to subscribe to the relevant account. According to The Insider, TikTok algorithms rely on thematic and political trends and select relevant content even from old videos. For example, when bloggers Yulik and Dasha Kaplan, who had been popular on TikTok, announced their divorce in the summer of 2022, old videos of them were added to the feed, even though no new videos about the divorce itself could be found in the feed.

Prior to the restrictions, there was equal number of pro- and anti-war TikToks, but after the restrictions were put in place, 93.5% of the war-related content turned into propaganda

Not all bloggers have adapted to the new realities - there are 8 times fewer new videos. According to Brand Analytics, the number of authors increased in March, but then started falling rapidly down to 45,000 in September – that number had been 300,000 at the beginning of the year. However, since TikTok users mostly watch videos picked up by algorithms, the social network's audience has not declined. According to the Mediascope research, every day about a quarter of Russians over 12 spend time on TikTok. Only Facebook and Instagram, both declared extremist in Russia back in March, saw a dramatic decrease in their audience, as Russians apparently switched to Telegram and VKontakte. Some influencers from TikTok also moved to those social networks.

This is not the first time that TikTok has been flooded with political content. During the protests in Myanmar in early 2021, people in military and police uniforms posted videos that threatened protesters with death. Content from anti-vaxxers was also a problem for TikTok. Back then, the company banned the use of certain words in posts. For example, users were blocked for mentioning blood. Russian feminists talking about menstruation had to contrive new ways to spell the word, such as “krov”. TikTok had already been banning individual accounts for violating the restrictions. However, a complete ban on posting videos for all users in a certain territory was applied for the first time.

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