Fifteen seconds of propaganda: Russia’s TikTok troops
February 7, 2022
TikTok is blocked in Russia, though by using VPN, people can access what is banned by Russian law, which seeks to shield Russian youth from pernicious Western influence. Still, the “forbidden content” turns out to also be a tool of Russian propaganda.
Despite TikTok’s strict policy against violent content, it has not affected lots of similar videos praising the Russian army. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian propagandists have launched a campaign on TikTok to boost pro-war sentiment. Researchers from NewsGuard, which tracks online misinformation, found that videos with hashtags related to Russia’s Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) have hit more than a billion views.

According to their investigation, at least five TikTok accounts spread information about Wagner recruitment. One of them has a link to a VKontakte group with more than 240,000 subscribers. The pinned post in the VK group displays information about Wagner Group recruitment, including phone numbers people can call to join. The group’s description also contains a text promoting the PMC.

“They [Wagner Group] have already liberated Popasna, join us to liberate the entire Donbas! Embark on your first combat campaign with living industry legends,” the description says.

Because of the fake news law, TikTok suspended all new content posting and restricted videos that are visible to Russian users on March 6, 2022. Following the suspension, people with accounts registered in Russia could not see foreign videos, though the block did not stop the spread of pro-war content.

The Norwegian media NRK created two TikTok accounts with the same data, one from a Kharkiv IP address in Ukraine, and the other registered in Belgorod, Russia. They found that Ukrainian users mainly see videos about the war and Ukrainian patriotic songs. Users from Russia are more likely to see videos with animals, funny handmade costumes and jokes.

TikTok does not ban most videos promoting military aggression. The user @rusmonarhist, for example, posted a video where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, brought a sledgehammer engraved with “Happy New Year 2023” to the PMC’s base in Krasnodar Region. Recall that Wagner Group used a similar sledgehammer to execute Yevgeny Nuzhin, a former member of the group who defected to Ukraine. The video has garnered 730,000 views, 15,800 likes and over 500 comments, most in support of Prigozhin.

Hashtags help promote the videos and track how often content with them has been viewed. The hashtag #вагнер (#wagner) is used in millions of videos romanticizing the mercenaries. One video with more than 400,000 views shows Russian troops on the frontline overlayed with a pro-Kremlin anchor praising their defense of a “strategically important line” without suffering casualties.

Nonviolent, though undoubtedly pro-war hashtags are also popular on TikTok. The tag #россия (#Russia), which is often used in propaganda videos, has over 93 billion views, while #мненестыдно (#I am not ashamed) and #путинтоп (#Putin is number one) have 1.3 billion and 780 million views, respectively.

Besides hashtags, songs also help the videos spread. Users can click on them to view similar content. Videos with the war propaganda song “Бог с русскими” (“God is with the Russians”) by Ilya Sobolev were popular at the beginning of the war and remain such now. One such video was uploaded on March 3 and gained seven million views, with new comments in support of Russian troops appearing there a year later.

Shaman, a singer popular on Russian state TV, also has thousands of views in propaganda videos. TikTok is not his primary platform, though users still make many videos with his tracks. His song “Встанем” (“Rise up”) – which states“the heroes of Russia will remain in our hearts” – has been used over 6,000 times. Shaman’s song “Я русский” (“I’m Russian”) is also popular, with over 4,000 published videos featuring it (see Alexander Gorbachev's article in RP on how the Russian stage evolved since the collapse of the USSR to Shaman).

TikTok’s block also did not affect the Russian state media account RIA Novosti, which has more than a million followers on TikTok. Even though the news outlet duplicates its content, each of RIA Novosti's videos garners thousands of views and many comments in support of the Russian army.

This January, influencer @marina.vine, who has 1.8 million subscribers, posted a video about mobilization in Russia in which she refuted information about an upcoming second wave. She says that news about a supposed upcoming mobilization was fake and that the government only plans to update military records.

According to Novaya Gazeta Europe, @marina.vine has participated in pro-Kremlin propaganda campaigns on TikTok, receiving RUB 3,500 for a video about how the US sponsored the war.

At the end of February, multiple influencers posted videos with identical texts regarding the war. Ukrainian photographer Krystyna Magonova showed several of them on her Instagram page, where it then became apparent that these influencers were repeating boilerplate Russian propaganda like: “the internet and social networks have long become a tool of information warfare;” “in 2015, the Alley of Angels memorial was erected in Donetsk;” and “the Russian Federation liberation operation is a necessary measure.” Most of these videos have already been deleted.

TikTok is still blocked in Russia, though by using VPN, people can access what is banned by Russian law, which seeks to shield Russian youth from pernicious Western influence. Still, the “forbidden content” turns out to also be a tool of Russian propaganda. Even with VPN, accounts registered in Russia do not see new content with political tags such as #Zelensky #Ukraine, etc. – they can only see what was uploaded before the block. Content on other topics, when using a VPN, remains unrestricted.

Digest by Sofia Sorochinskaia for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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