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TikTok created an alternate universe just for Russia

The Chinese-owned social media giant weathered Putin’s information crackdown by muzzling its users there and cutting them off from the outside world, while allowing state propaganda

(Washington Post illustration/iStock; Markus Schreiber/AP; Alexie Nikolsky/Kremlin pool/Sputnik)
12 min

Last month, as many tech companies sided with Ukraine over Russia’s invasion, TikTok appeared to follow suit by suspending new video uploads and live streams from Russia. The company said it made the move to protect Russian users from the country’s new laws criminalizing criticism of its military.

But the wildly popular, Chinese-owned social media app also walled off Russian users from seeing any posts at all from outside the country, including from Ukraine — effectively creating a second, censored version of its platform. For the tens of millions of Russians on TikTok, the outside world has fallen silent.

TikTok’s block on outside content appears to have effectively purged the app of non-Russian content. But its block on Russian content has proved porous, letting pro-government propaganda slip through. New research from the European nonprofit Tracking Exposed, shared with The Washington Post, shows that videos bearing pro-war hashtags such as “for us” and “Putin top” continued to proliferate on TikTok in Russia for weeks after the block, while previously popular antiwar hashtags all but vanished from the platform.

“In just one month, TikTok went from being considered a serious threat to Putin’s national support for the war to becoming another possible conduit for state propaganda,” said Giulia Giorgi, a researcher at Tracking Exposed, which has been studying the platform’s policies and actions in Russia since the invasion began in February. “Our findings show clearly how TikTok’s actions influenced that trajectory.”

The nonprofit’s report, published Wednesday, underscores how TikTok has taken a different and less transparent approach in Russia than other global tech giants. By muzzling its users, the company has been able to keep operating in Russia, while Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been banned or blocked. But it has left Russians with a version of its service that one user in the country described as “a ghost town.”

Among the new findings is that TikTok appears to have belatedly closed a loophole in late March that Russian propagandists and creators alike had been exploiting to evade its ban on new video uploads from inside the country. Since March 26, according to Tracking Exposed and others, TikTok users who access the app from Russia cannot see any new content at all, with the app’s For You page limited to posts from inside Russia before that date. Yet thousands of pro-Putin posts that went up between March 6 and March 26, circumventing TikTok’s stated policies, remain available on the platform, uncontested by any outside or antiwar narratives.

TikTok acknowledged that it has blocked Russian users since March 6 from seeing any content from elsewhere in the world, even old content — a measure the company says it took to protect its users and employees from Russia’s draconian “fake news” law, passed March 4. Spokesperson Jamie Favazza also said the company has not “made any changes to our service in Russia since March 6,” though when pressed on the apparent March 26 stoppage of content, she added that “with respect to implementation, we continue working to enforce those changes.”

“Our findings unequivocally show that TikTok is not being transparent about its actions in Russia,” said Marc Faddoul, Tracking Exposed’s co-director.

TikTok suspends posting new video from Russia over the country’s recent ‘fake news’ law

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, said global social media platforms have long faced dilemmas between following repressive local laws and upholding principles of free speech and human rights in countries with authoritarian leanings, and there are no easy answers. In Russia, TikTok appears to have chosen the former. The question, he said, is whether it did so for business or political reasons — and if it’s the latter, what that tells us about its decision-making.

The concern, Stamos went on, is that “the people who ultimately make the product and policy decisions are in Beijing,” where the Chinese government has an increasingly close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

TikTok’s Favazza emphatically denied the notion that TikTok’s content policies are set or even influenced by its China-based parent company, ByteDance. Favazza said that TikTok’s Singapore-based CEO has “full autonomy for all decisions about TikTok’s operations,” and that TikTok’s head of trust and safety is based in Dublin.

Unproven suspicions that the Chinese Communist Party could influence TikTok products and policy overseas, including in the United States, have haunted the company in recent years. President Donald Trump sought to ban the app in 2020, citing fears that China could gain access to users’ private data or use TikTok’s algorithms to shape the content that users see. India permanently banned TikTok last year.

Natalia Krapiva, tech-legal counsel for the nonprofit Access Now, whose mission is to defend “digital civil rights” around the world, said it was concerning that TikTok hasn’t clearly communicated how it is implementing its policies in Russia. Krapiva, who was born in Russia and said she has friends in the country, said blocking posts without carefully closing loopholes enables motivated, savvy actors to continue posting while ordinary users can’t.

“It’s an unusual approach,” Krapiva said of TikTok’s ban on outside content. “It’s unclear, and it’s not justifiable. People have a right to access to information, and not just information that the government wants them to hear.”

TikTok does not operate in ByteDance’s home country of China. Instead, ByteDance offers a similar but censored app there, called Douyin. Now critics say it may be laying the groundwork for a second splinter app in Russia, though the company said that is not the case. Favazza said it has restricted its app in Russia solely to protect the safety of its users and employees. “We continue to evaluate the evolving circumstances in Russia to determine when we might fully resume our services with the safety of our community and employees as our top priority,” she added.

TikTok has long tried to stay out of politics. Russia’s invasion is making that harder.

TikTok rose to prominence among teens around the world as a dancing and music video app, but in recent years, it has evolved into a major source of information, news and political discourse. Its impacts have proved harder for academics to study than those of its more established rivals, in part because it doesn’t provide the same tools to researchers on topics such as disinformation.

In February, as Russia amassed tanks along the Ukrainian border, young people around the world learned about it on TikTok. When missiles lit up the night sky over Kyiv and reduced a food market to rubble, it was documented on TikTok. In Russia, antiwar activists decried the invasion and posted footage of street protests in St. Petersburg. Commentators dubbed it “the first TikTok war.”

But by the first week of March, only two weeks into the war, voices of Russian dissent were nowhere to be found on the app.

As TikTok implemented its ban on new uploads and live streams from Russia, Salvatore Romano, head of research for Tracking Exposed, noticed that the number of videos protesting the invasion had dropped to zero from hundreds the day before. The nonprofit, founded in 2016, focuses on how tech giants like YouTube and Amazon track people’s online behavior to power opaque recommendation algorithms.

From his home laptop in Padua, Italy, Romano conducted daily monitoring of TikTok’s For You algorithm, which creates a personalized feed of videos for each user based on their interests. He was studying the prevalence of popular pro-war and antiwar hashtags across multiple countries as part of a project called TikTok Observatory, funded through grants from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.

What Romano and his team soon realized was that TikTok had begun blocking not only new videos from within Russia, as the company announced in an update to a policy blog post on March 6, but all content from outside Russia. It wasn’t targeting antiwar or anti-Putin content specifically. It had simply cut off Russian users from the rest of TikTok’s 1 billion users.

Yet in the days that followed, it became clear that the block on new Russian content was not total. The researchers found what appeared to be a network of accounts working together to publish pro-war propaganda that was visible to Russian users, suggesting that these accounts had found a loophole in TikTok’s geographic blocking.

Geographic blocking can be tricky and difficult to pull off, especially when implemented quickly, as TikTok’s policy in Russia had to be, Stamos noted. Common methods include blocking IP, or Internet protocol, addresses from a given country, which can be circumvented by virtual private networks, or using a phone’s location or country codes on its SIM card, which may not work if the user is on a desktop device.

The findings by Tracking Exposed dovetailed with reporting by a journalist at Vice, David Gilbert, who reported on March 11 that Russian TikTok influencers were part of a secret channel on the messaging app Telegram in which they were being paid to post pro-Kremlin propaganda to TikTok. For instance, one coordinated campaign asked users to post videos “calling for national unity, using an audio track featuring Putin calling for all ethnic groups in Russia to unite at this time of conflict.” Gilbert reported that the channel’s administrators gave the influencers “a step-by-step guide on how to circumvent TikTok’s ban on uploads from Russian accounts.”

Analysis: In Putin’s Russia, ‘fake news’ now means real news

As the researchers kept up their daily monitoring, they noticed that the volume of pro-war and pro-Putin content seemed to be steadily growing. By March 23, they said, common pro-war hashtags had returned to nearly the popularity that they had enjoyed before the block was put in place. Yet antiwar hashtags, which had flourished until March 6, stayed relatively quiet.

That doesn’t necessarily imply TikTok was targeting antiwar hashtags for censorship. As the researchers acknowledged, it would make sense for TikTok users in Russia to avoid using such easily searchable hashtags, given the country’s laws criminalizing dissent.

Tracking Exposed also noted that its findings on the relative popularity of pro-war and antiwar hashtags are not comprehensive. It limited its analysis to six of the most popular hashtags from each category and did not analyze the prevalence of pro-war or antiwar content on the platform more broadly. Anecdotally, Romano said the researchers noticed that several prominent accounts that had taken antiwar stands before March 6 simply stopped posting altogether afterward.

It wasn’t just private accounts taking advantage of the loopholes after March 6. Among the accounts posting in that period was that of the state-owned news service Sputnik News. On March 17, it posted a video mocking President Biden for misspeaking. On March 22, it posted a video of what it said was a Canadian activist interrupting a formal event by shouting pro-Russian talking points before evidently being escorted out. The Russian-language caption translates roughly to, “A Canadian expressed an unpopular opinion and paid for it.” The posts remained visible on TikTok as of April 12, at least outside Russia.

Asked whether it has taken down any content that Russians managed to post in circumvention of its block in the country, TikTok said its takedowns are governed by its community standards.

Putin’s prewar moves against U.S. tech giants laid groundwork for crackdown on free expression

Then, on March 26, all the numbers went to zero. No new videos were being posted on TikTok for Russian users at all. It seems that TikTok had fully implemented its block at last. Yet all the pro-war propaganda from the preceding weeks remained available on the platform for Russian users, with their For You pages slowly growing stale with recycled content.

For all the concerns about the opacity of TikTok’s policies, Stamos and Krapyva both acknowledged that Russia’s actions had left social media platforms with few good options. Facebook and Twitter may have stood firm on censorship, but that didn’t do their users in Russia much good because the platforms are now blocked. While Google’s YouTube remains operational in Russia, there is a sense among observers that it could be banned any day.

And other tech companies in the past have bent to the demands of Putin on certain occasions, such as when they removed an app backed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their app stores in September. (Google and Apple have since restored it.) Russia had ratcheted up the pressure with a measure U.S. executives refer to as the “hostage law,” which puts tech companies’ employees in the country at risk if they didn’t comply.

The experience of some ordinary TikTok users inside Russia accords with the researchers’ timeline.

One told The Post that their For You page had remained lively through most of March, with new posts from popular Russian creators and influencers, as well as some content about Ukraine, all of it from pro-Russian sources. Blog posts explaining how to get around TikTok’s restrictions were easy to access on the Russian Internet. It was only content from outside Russia that had disappeared.

But after about March 23, there seemed to be no new content at all on Russian TikTok, according to the user, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attention from government authorities. Pages of people posting from Ukraine, the person added, were empty.

Chris Alcantara contributed to this report.