By EU vs Disinfo
Social media platforms are widely used to spread misinformation, also during conflicts. With over 1 billion users worldwide, TikTok is no exception. The platform has taken the world by storm, allowing people to follow parts of the war in real time. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, TikTok has exploded with videos shot on the ground: columns of military vehicles, instructions for driving an abandoned tank, dance choreographies on the battlefield, cooking lessons in bomb shelters. -bombs, etc. The flip side is more worrying: TikTok has also seen an outbreak of disinformation videos praising the “special operation”. From self-proclaimed war experts to Kremlin-backed channels, TikTok has become a hotbed of war propaganda.
From disinformation to war propaganda
TikTok videos expressing support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine frequently use the toxic pro-war Z and feature pro-“special operation” protests. Many videos justify the “special operation” by the need to save the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Donbass from an alleged “genocide”. The Russian military are presented as the “saviors” and “defenders” that local populations have been waiting for since 2014.
Well-known pro-Kremlin propagandists continue to falsely claim that the “special operation” only targets Ukrainian military infrastructure and that US-funded labs in Ukraine are developing biological weapons to attack Russia. Meanwhile, other videos blame Ukraine for not respecting the Minsk agreements and accuse NATO, the EU and the United States of arming Ukraine with atomic bombs, of expanding towards Russia and to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
In response to the near-unanimous international condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the #мненестыдно [#Iamnotashamed] The hashtag is trending on Twitter and TikTok, while many TikTok compilations refer to Russia’s greatness, often compared to the USSR and Imperial Russia. The main figure in the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem that pushed this narrative was Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT. She reacted to the hashtag and story #мненестыдно lamenting that the only thing she is ashamed of is that they [i.e. Russians] “did nothing” for Donbass for eight years.
The role of influencers
Recently, a blogger raised allegations that Russian influencers were coordinated and instructed to recite the exact same script. Besides the all-too-obvious overlap of posts, the fact that all of the videos in question have now been deleted and that six of the 13 channels that hosted these videos have since changed their TikTok IDs lends credence to this claim.
But these are far from the only coordinated videos that have made the rounds on TikTok. A number of other nearly identical videos are released by popular influencers, all using the same audio clips, hashtags and filters. These channels – numbering in the tens of thousands to millions of subscribers – all look like regular TikTok accounts that people use to share pranks, dance videos and comedy content. However, when Russia invaded Ukraine, these accounts started posting political videos.
In a series of videos, the scene begins with the protagonist on one knee, holding a sign reading “Russophobia”, “Donbass”, “hate speech”, “cancellation”, “Luhansk”, “sanctions”, “war of ‘information’ and ‘nationalism’ in English. The person then stands up and flips the sign over, revealing the other side, which says “Russian Lives Matter”. All of these videos use the same song – a remix of Katyusha – and the same filter, featuring The Motherland Calls statue in Volgograd. They are all accompanied by a caption “Russian Lives Matter”, as well as the hashtag #RLM. More than twenty identical videos have been created by various Russian influencers (see here, here, here and here, for example), some of them generating hundreds of thousands of views, likes and comments.
Could this trend be propelled by a real grassroots initiative? Barely. Another Russian influencer shared a story on her Instagram account (see below), showing a video request with clear instructions: ‘the blogger must play a resident of Donbass who survived 2014 […]. Now he is already safe, because Russian forces are helping DNR and LNR’. The post also indicates which hashtag and audio clip should be used to perform the “lip sync”.
A quick search on TikTok shows that at least two videos (one here, another now deleted) were created following these instructions. More so, one of the videos was posted by an influencer who was also noticed reciting an identical text from a script mentioned above.
Sponsored or paid content is commonplace on TikTok — and other social media platforms, for that matter. Dozens of Telegram channels offer money to TikTok and Instagram bloggers to create thematic videos. One channel in particular, MM-Media, announced (note: this link and other links to MM-Media posts are only visible to channel members, as the channel has recently been made private) at the end of February that there were going to be a lot of requests on political themes for a “big project”, with a “best budget” going “over 20,000 rubles” for a video. The owner of the Telegram channels asks TikTok bloggers “with more than 5 million subscribers” to contact her if they want to do “government ads”. Since then, the channel has shared several appeals with political themes to TikTok bloggers with at least 1.5 million, 5 million and 10 million followers. In some of these calls, an example was provided for reference. Dozens of videos following these guidelines have circulated on TikTok (here, here and here, for example). In another call, influencers were asked to form a Z with their fingers. Again, many videos following this request have been shared on TikTok (here, here and here, for example). Recently, MM-Media’s Telegram channel appealed to English-speaking bloggers to create videos on the subject of “dumb punishments”.
What awaits us
On March 4, TikTok announced that it would begin applying labels to content from certain state-controlled media accounts. Later, he announced that he was suspending the publication of all messages and live streams from Russia. The company also announced that it is blocking all non-Russian content in Russia, meaning a user with a Russian IP address can no longer access non-Russian TikTok content. These decisions effectively isolated many Russian users from foreign content.
Yet TikTok has become the home of thousands of videos chronicling the war in Ukraine. The quest for popularity on TikTok is generating millions of reactions and videos are being re-shared massively, with many ending up circulating on other social networks, traditional media and even television. Although there is no reason to doubt that most of the videos shared on TikTok are authentic and express personal opinions, it deserves greater attention that there are also influencers who are paid to share videos supporting the “special operation” and the Kremlin.
On TikTok, war is conveniently set in a virtual world where violence is trivialized. All this for a few rubles. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that TikTok’s importance in the news battlefield will only grow for the foreseeable future.
By EU vs Disinfo