TikTok Created An Alternate Universe Just For Russia

Outside content has been blocked on TikTok, effectively creating an alternate universe just for Russia free of non-Russian content.

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TikTok appeared to follow suit last month, blocking new video uploads and live streaming from Russia, as many tech companies sided with Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s incursion. The move was taken to safeguard Russian customers from the country’s new legislation criminalising criticism of its military, according to the company.

However, the hugely popular Chinese-owned social media app also blocked Russian users from reading any posts from outside the nation, including those from Ukraine, thereby establishing a restricted version of its site. The outside world has gone silent for the tens of millions of Russians who use TikTok.

Outside content has been blocked on TikTok, which looks to have effectively cleaned the app of non-Russian content. However, its content filtering on Russian information has shown to be leaky, allowing pro-government propaganda to pass through. According to new analysis shared with The Washington Post by the European nonprofit Tracking Exposed, videos with pro-war hashtags like “for us” and “Putin top” continued to flourish on TikTok in Russia for weeks after the block, while anti-war hashtags all but vanished.

“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” says Tracking Exposed researcher Giulia Giorgi who has been examining the platform’s rules and actions in Russia since the invasion began in February. “Our findings clearly illustrate how TikTok’s actions influenced that trend,” says the researcher.

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TikTok has chosen a different and less transparent approach in Russia than other global internet firms, according to the nonprofit’s research, which was released on Wednesday. The company has been allowed to continue operating in Russia by silencing its users, while Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been banned or restricted. However, it has left Russians with a “ghost town” version of its service, according to one user.

One of the unexpected discoveries is that TikTok appears to have finally fixed a vulnerability in late March that Russian propagandists and artists had been exploiting to get around the country’s ban on new video uploads.

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TikTok has revealed that it has prevented Russian users from seeing any information from outside Russia, including old content, since March 6, citing the need to protect its users and employees from Russia’s draconian “fake news” law, which was approved on March 4th.

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

Global social media companies have long faced a conundrum between obeying harsh local laws and defending values of free expression and human rights in countries with authoritarian leanings, according to Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, and there are no easy answers. TikTok looks to have picked the former in Russia.

The concern, according to Stamos, is that “the people who ultimately make the product and policy decisions are in Beijing,” where China’s government is becoming increasingly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The CEO of TikTok, Favazza, categorically disputed that TikTok’s content rules are controlled or influenced by its Chinese parent firm, ByteDance. TikTok’s CEO, who is headquartered in Singapore, has “full autonomy for all decisions about TikTok’s operations,” according to Favazza, while the company’s head of trust and safety is based in Dublin.

In 2020, President Donald Trump attempted to ban the app, citing concerns that China could gain access to users’ personal information or use TikTok’s algorithms to influence what users see. Last year, India made TikTok illegal.

TikTok has long avoided becoming involved in politics. The invasion by Russia has made this more difficult. TikTok began as a dancing and music video app for teens all around the world, but it has now expanded into a major source of information, news, and political dialogue. Academics have found it more difficult to examine its effects than those of its more established competitors, in part because it does not give researchers the the same tools on topics like disinformation.

Young people all throughout the world learned about Russia amassing tanks along the Ukrainian border on TikTok in February. It was filmed on TikTok when rockets lit up the night sky over Kyiv and razed a food store. Anti-war activists in Russia denounced the invasion and broadcast footage of street rallies in St. Petersburg. It was labelled “the first TikTok war” by commentators.

However, during the first week of March, only two weeks into the war, there were no voices of Russian criticism on the app.

Salvatore Romano, head of research for Tracking Exposed, saw that the number of videos opposing the invasion had decreased to zero from hundreds the day before when TikTok applied its block on new uploads and live streams from Russia.

However, it became evident in the days that the ban on new Russian content was not absolute. The researchers discovered what looked to be a network of accounts cooperating to publish pro-war material that was available to Russian users, implying that these accounts exploited a flaw in TikTok’s geographic blocking.

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Geographic blocking can be complicated and difficult to implement, particularly when done fast, as TikTok’s strategy in Russia required, according to Stamos. Blocking IP addresses from a specific country, which can be evaded with virtual private networks, or utilising a phone’s location or country codes on its SIM card, which may not function if the user is on a desktop device, are two common techniques.

The findings of Tracking Exposed aligned with those of Vice journalist David Gilbert, who reported on March 11 that Russian TikTok influencers were part of a secret Telegram channel where they were paid to publish pro-Kremlin propaganda to TikTok. One coordinated operation, for example, requested users to share films “calling for national unity, using an audio track featuring Putin calling for all ethnic groups in Russia to unite at this time of conflict.” The influencers were given “a step-by-step guide on how to circumvent TikTok’s ban on uploads from Russian accounts,” according to Gilbert.

According to Romano, the scientists found that a number of popular accounts that had taken antiwar stances prior to March 6 just stopped publishing after that date. After March 6, it wasn’t simply private accounts that took advantage of the flaws. The state-owned news outlet Sputnik News was one of the accounts that appeared during that time period. It released a video on March 17 mocking President Biden for misspeaking. It released a video on March 22 of a Canadian activist allegedly disrupting a formal gathering by chanting pro-Russian talking points before being hauled out. “A Canadian expressed an unpopular opinion and paid for it,” the caption in Russian loosely translates. Outside of Russia, the posts were still viewable on TikTok as of April 12.

The timeline proposed by the researchers corresponds to the experience of several typical TikTok users in Russia.

One informed The Washington Post that their For You page had been active for the majority of March, with new postings from well-known Russian producers and influencers, as well as some content regarding Ukraine, all from pro-Russian sources. On the Russian Internet, blog entries outlining how to circumvent TikTok’s restrictions were readily available. The only content that had vanished was that which originated outside of Russia.

According to the user, there appeared to be no new content on Russian TikTok after March 23, according to the user, who talked on the condition of anonymity to avoid government scrutiny. The source noted that the pages of people posting from Ukraine were empty.

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  1. Its good rather watching pathological liars western media…that Russians can watch their own content..we all know the ground reality in Ukraine..but also are observing very closely US and European media and all they have been doing to feeding lies after lies..fake videos of shooting down Russian aircrafts like that from video game Arma II and also lot of commentary coming half way around the world from US, CIA and Pentagon pedophiles.

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